Sunday 13 September 2015

Distillery Tour #6: Amrut Distilleries (Bangalore, India) (Tasted #217)

If you were to say our Distillery Tour posts had a theme, it would surely have to be "Not Scottish" (don't worry, those tours have happened, they were awesome, and the posts will be up soon). So far we've covered distillery visits in Melbourne, Sydney, Japan (twice), and Taiwan, and now it's India's  turn.

This tour was originally planned for 2013, but after having to cancel a work trip to Bangalore for personal reasons, it wasn't until 2015 that another chance came up. I needed to make a quick Mon-Fri trip to Bangalore for work, and took the opportunity to ask Amrut Distilleries if I'd be able to take a look around the distillery on the Saturday. Thankfully they were more than happy to have me, and so the plan was set.

Saturday rolls around, and we (myself and a colleague) make the journey out to South West Bangalore (25km, a little over an hour) in a hotel car. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but we did learn that our tour would be conducted by Master Distiller Surrinder Kumar, who had kindly come in on his day off to show us around!

Surrinder, with a whopping 29 years of experience under his belt, started by talking us through the fascinating story of how Amrut Single Malt came to be, and how even though it makes up an incredibly small percentage of their total output (details further on), it's put them on the global map.

To most whisky drinkers, Amrut was unheard-of until their single malt started gaining a global following in the late 2000's. The company however has been actually been making spirit since 1948 (initially "IMFL", or "Indian-made Foreign Liquor" distilled from molasses), and was producing Indian "whisky" a long time before the single malt came along. In fact, an excess of malt whisky (previously used for blending popular local Indian blended "whiskies"), which the distillery noted was of significantly higher quality than most other Indian whiskies, was one of the catalysts for the launch of Amrut Single Malt.

3rd generation owner and son of current Chairman, Rakshit Jagdale (studying his MBA at the time in England) was asked to investigate launching a single malt product outside India, starting with the UK. The product was already there - they just needed to get it into the public's conscious. Research showed that the public perceived it to be similar in style to a 15-18yr old Speysider, and so a plan was drawn up to launch it in the UK - initially in Indian restaurants, taking the same approach as Indian beers like Kingfisher and Cobra.

After some time, volumes weren't picking up and the company considered ending the project, but (taking a renewed spirit of perseverance from the Gahdhi statue in London), Rakshit forged on, seeking importers for each country and...well the rest is history, with Amrut currently available in 22 countries (although still very limited in India).

I mentioned Amrut Single Malt being an "incredibly small percentage" of Amrut's total production. How small? Well, there are approximately 14,000 x 4.5L cases of Amrut Single Malt produced each year (a total of 63,000L), compared to 200,000 x 9L cases produced of all other products.....per month! In other words - 21,600,000L, making the single malt about 0.2% of total production. A very successful 0.2%, you'd have to say!

Unsurprisingly, Amrut can't keep up with worldwide demand for that 63,000L, and are currently increasing warehousing from their current 6 warehouses. They're also experimenting with temperature-controlled warehouses, like some Bourbon distilleries in the US, but for now it remains an experimentation only.

Just before Surrinder took us out to tour the operations, he mentioned that a new product was on the horizon - "Greedy Angel's Chairman's Reserve", at an incredible 10 years old ("incredible" considering the distillery experiences 10-12% Angels' share each year). That product has since been released (and likely sold out) - and comes with a 50mL cask-strength sample of the whisky at 71% ABV.

By this stage we'd spent a good 90 minutes with the clearly passionate Surrinder, and our tour was no less comprehensive, taking another 90 minutes and showing us into all facets of the operation, which employs hundreds of staff from Bangalore.

Production of all products occurs via two 7.5hr shifts each day, with the single malt being distilled on a Monday. Temperature controlled fermentation takes 1 week (kept under 30degC), and whilst we didn't get to taste the wash (at 6.5-7% ABV), we did taste the new make (73% ABV off the still, 63% ABV into the cask), which was fruity, oily, rich, subtly peaty (on the palate, not the nose) and incredibly smooth.

We got to talking about distillery visits, and Surrinder mentioned a visit to a popular Lowland distillery (he didn't mention it by name, but we figured out it was Auchentoshan) where he noted some tips for triple distillation. Despite only having two stills (that's them above), Surrinder experimented with triple-distilled Amrut about 3 years ago, and mentioned that it was currently ageing away in the underground "cellar" - possibly a year or two away from release...

...which of course, was my queue to try my luck, and ask if I could taste it. Before I knew it, Surrinder was asking one of the production managers to fetch a sample from the "cellar", and a few minutes later, this vibrant orange sample appeared:

Triple Distilled Amrut (name not yet known) (64% ABV, ~3yo, Karnataka, India, not yet available)
Colour: Intensely vibrant orange.
Nose: Light, citrusy. Lemon oil. Some esthers and some caramel chews.
Palate: Light, zesty. Lemon cheese cake. Young and hot, but very drinkable. In another 12-18 months I imagine it will be incredible.
Finish: Very long, lots of caramel chews.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 91/100. Can't wait to see how this turns out.

Exciting stuff. After a look at the malt mill, the delivery setup (which receives 16-17 trucks per day) and the fermentation tanks, it was time to venture into one of the warehouses.

Maturation Warehouse 1 (just next to the still room) is home to casks racked 5 high, including a few weird and wonderful whiskies which have featured in recent and soon-to-be-released (we hope) whiskies. Chief amongst these was this cask of Amrut "Naarangi", which saw Amrut age sherry infused with orange peels in the cask for 3 years, before emptying it, then ageing an already 3 year old sherry-matured Amrut for another 3 years in said cask. The resulting whisky is said to have some subtle, but noticeable orange notes, without being considered a "flavoured" whisky.

Next, it was off to the bottling and packaging floors, where I saw whiskies the likes of which I'd never seen before. How so? Take a look for yourself...

That's right - Tetra-pak "whisky"! This is an example of the local blended "whisky" Amrut produces for the local market, and sells for mere cents. The packaging line for these products runs 24 hours a day - such is the popularity of these throughout India.

Having seen the production, ageing and packaging facilities, it was time to visit Surrinder's "lab", with a variety of International and local whiskies, and several single cask samples (Amrut do a great private cask program, which was taken up by Dram Full with the recent Dram Full Amrut bottling - now sold out).

Amrut aren't allowed to sell any bottles from the distillery, but we were kindly gifted a 50mL mini each - continuing my tradition of collecting miniatures from distilleries I've visited.

..and with that, it was time to draw the tour to a close, and head back to the city, then the airport, then back to HK. An extremely informative and enjoyable day, and a tour I'm very glad I (finally) got to take.

A huge thanks must go to Surrinder, Ashok and Pramod for making this tour happen - especially Surrinder for spending so much time with us on his day off. If you ever find yourself in Bangalore and have some spare time, I can highly recommend booking a tour of this fascinating distillery.


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