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Whisky writer Jim Murray's tasting notes

The whisky expert on how the market has changed over 30 years and why India is an increasingly important player

Indian whiskies have a slightly more tannin notes, says Jim Murray.
Indian whiskies have a slightly more tannin notes, says Jim Murray. (Istockphoto)

Jim Murray, regarded as one of the world’s foremost independent whisky experts, helms Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Each edition of the Whisky Bible has over 4,600 meticulously crafted tasting notes, providing both aficionados and novices with professionally analysed insights into the world’s illustrious and lesser-known whiskies. Annually, Jim evaluates over 1,000 new whiskies, singling out those that he deems worthy of special recognition and is committed to identifying the best without bias. This internationally influential guide is a comprehensive compendium, meticulously researched and regarded as the gospel of the whisky world.

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Murray was recently in India to lead whisky tasting sessions in Kolkata and Gurugram organised by Amrut. On the side-lines of these sessions, we had a chance to speak with Murray and ask him about Indian whiskies and how they fare internationally. Edited excerpts:

What do you see in the evolution of Indian whiskies over the years?

The way I see this evolution going is that there will be more distilleries, and each one will keep getting better. I can see there being an Indian whisky association which will be useful. It will help make sure that standards are maintained and no one is taking shortcuts. And I think that this is important because people around the world will know that they can trust an Indian whisky. The better every distillery gets, the better it works for everybody. It’s when you get one or two distilleries that are good while rest aren’t, that you have a problem. The good ones will be tarnished by the others. The overall quality of Indian whiskies seems good and it’s going to get better and will grow, because people too are far more accepting than they were before.

Are there specific characteristics or flavours in Indian whiskies that distinguish them from their Scottish or other counterparts?

Yes, because I taste a lot of whiskies, I can definitely pick up a slightly more tannin trace on Indian whiskies. This happens because of the speed at which oak (from the maturation barrel) and the malt combines. Scotland is a colder country and this combination happens in gentler way. Because of the heat in India, the coming together of tannin from the barrel and malt was rougher and that was once a problem. But, with time, this combining has been well controlled. There is still a distinctive difference that I can discern between Indian and Scottish styles, though, with tannins in the Indian whiskies coming in faster.

Jim Murray at the whisky tasting session in Gurugram.
Jim Murray at the whisky tasting session in Gurugram.

How have Indian distilleries adapted or innovated over the years in whisky production?

If I could take you back 30 years and show you how whisky was made, you would see the same thing as now, it’s just that it is much more sophisticated and professional at present. What has happened is that there is greater investment and better equipment and with that an enhanced understanding. Distillers are more comfortable today with what they have been doing for decades, because now they have the capabilities to carry it out.

And because there is this confidence, they are doing things they didn’t earlier. India didn’t have peated whisky 30 years ago, but it does now. India did not age whisky over seven years, it does now.

For example, Amrut Distilleries did something that the Scots should have done. When they wanted to transport empty sherry casks, they didn’t use sulphur candles (these candles are burned inside empty sherry casks to sterilise them before transport). Instead, they filled it with sherry and so when the casks arrived, they were fresh. It is was expensive undertaking, but it has made a huge difference and has paid off by way of strong reputation.

How has the world’s perceptions changed about quality whisky coming from countries other than Scotland?

Thirty years ago there weren’t any whisky festivals or many distilleries that allowed visitors. In 1992, when I became the world’s first whisky writer, I had to create the base for an audience that I knew was out there. I knew the whisky boom would happen and today, there is a market which has become more sophisticated and accepting. When I give the whiskey of the year award to a Japanese brand, people realise that they can actually look at countries beyond Scotland. There is a lovely ripple effect. People today, are much more accepting of the possibility that they may get good whisky from somewhere other than Scotland.

Which are your top three recommended Indian whiskies for the global market?

That’s an almost impossible ask and it’s not because I sit on the fence. All whiskies change slightly—not so much in quality but in their scope. Every whisky should be within a certain framework or spectrum. Some markets prefer it to the left of the spectrum and others to the right. But if the whisky goes beyond it, the personality of the brand is lost.

When I have included whiskies from Amrut Distilleries or Paul John in a blind tasting internationally, there has never been a negative reaction. People are shocked at how good they are. So, currently, I would say that the three brands that would win the most international acclaim would be between these two distilleries.

Whether this will be the case in the next five years, I can’t say, because there are several distilleries coming up and they are learning and improving by the day. You see, there would be no point in the Whisky Bible if every whisky was the same each time it was bottled. The beauty of the Bible is that it keeps you abreast of how a brand is changing in format and style.

Do you see Indian whiskies growing to have legacies like Irish and Scottish whiskies?

One could consider Indian whiskies (or Japanese) niche, in that Scotland and Ireland have had a 200 year head start. But, they are not niche because what you are essentially looking for is good quality and availability. I don’t see whiskies as niche, but rather I see the evolution of a whisky. Once upon a time scotch and single malts were head and shoulders above everything, but not so today. I think what we have to do is move away from the mind-set that something is just for certain people. Japanese, Indian or any whisky is for everybody. Now, it’s just a question of discovering it.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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