It is 6.30pm India time, and a group of whisky lovers around the world—Hong Kong, the UK, Canada and the US (where it is 4 in the morning)—have logged on to a Zoom call, tasting glasses and bottles at the ready to take the first sips of a new, limited-edition single malt from Amrut Distilleries. The presentation that kicks off the discussion starts with a video of a dapper man in a suit getting into his car and zooming off to the Amrut distillery on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “The name is Chokalingam, Ashok Chokalingam, Amrut’s master distiller,” a voice-over says. His entry has clearly been styled on “007” James Bond—a play on Amrut Spectrum 004, the name of the single malt launched in December. The group bursts into applause.
You could say that this video encapsulates the story of Amrut Distilleries in the 21st century—of how a company founded in 1948, which started life by supplying rum to a newly independent India’s canteen stores department for the Armed Forces, found its coolth, and now produces award-winning single malts that are valued by connoisseurs around the globe. Testimony to this fan club are the numerous Instagram accounts, dedicated to its many offerings, created by Amrut fans and whisky aficionados, with handles like @amrutfever and @amrut4life. Many are run by professional whisky tasters abroad who obsessively collect each Amrut variant.
For while the world of single malts may be dominated by Scottish distilleries that are hundreds of years old, Amrut, which started bottling single malts only in the early 2000s, is recognised by connoisseurs as the real thing.
“Except tequila, we make everything,” says Rakshit N. Jagdale, 43, the managing director of Amrut Distilleries, laughing. Besides blended whiskies and the storied single malts, Amrut also produces the much sought after Two Indies Rum, and, since 2020, the Amrut Nilgiris Gin.
We are sitting in his office within the sprawling Amrut campus, which houses the distillery, the bottling unit, storage and maturation warehouses, and several other ancillary units.
“The experimentation never stops,” says Jagdale—and it’s true that Amrut is pushing the boundaries of single malts every year. The Spectrum 004, their latest offering, is unique, matured in a special cask made of four different kinds of oak wood—most whisky is aged in barrels composed of staves (the strips of wood that form the barrel) from a single type of oak. “It is a two-part maturation technique, the first in ex-bourbon casks, followed by transferring the aged spirit into the custom barrels made by us with four different kinds of staves—new American Oak with Char level 3, new French Oak with light toasting, ex-Olorosso staves and ex-PX Sherry staves,” Jagdale rattles off, clearly in his element. The staves, he explains, lend their own characteristics and complexities to the matured drink. The time taken—anywhere from four-six years. No wonder only 1,000 bottles of this were released worldwide.
A couple of months ago, Jagdale also announced that Amrut would be launching an umbrella brand, “Single Malts of India”—a project that would allow Amrut to age the base spirit it sources from distilleries in different parts of India with different characteristics and market them under this brand. The first “chapter” of this project produced the Amrut Neidhal Peated Indian Whisky, made with base spirits from India’s coastal regions. Only 12,000 bottles of this were made available; 1,200, priced at ₹5,996, were sold in India.
It all started with a business school project, says Rakshit Jagdale, who represents the third generation of his family managing the business founded by his grandfather, Radhakrishna N. Jagdale, in 1948. His father Neelakanta Rao Jagdale helmed the company for many decades, till his death in May 2019.
Till the early 2000s, Amrut was essentially making blended whiskies under the brand names Maqintosh and Prestige for the Indian market. It all changed when Jagdale, a Bengaluru boy who had studied at the city’s Bishop Cotton Boys’ School and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management from Shri Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain College, went to the UK for an MBA degree from the University of Newcastle. For the completion of his degree, he had to submit a thesis, and he chose to look into whether there would be a market for an Indian single malt in the UK, doing his market research around England’s Midlands region and Scotland’s Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It was more than academic work—he was encouraged to take it seriously by his father, for the company happened to be sitting on a huge stock of mature malts that could potentially be aged under the strict conditions that guide the making of single malts. Jagdale explains what happened. “Around 1990-92, Seagram entered the Indian market, and its brand, Royal Stag, really changed the name of the game. Brands like Royal Challenge, Peter Scot and our own Maqintosh—we would use a higher percentage of mature malts in the blend, but Seagram started making lighter blends and went on an advertising spree, pushing whisky as a lifestyle drink, promising people that they would wake up with no hangover etc. By default, we had to follow suit and started using less mature malts in our blends and started to accumulate huge quantities of it. So my father said let’s try and mature this and market this as single malt,” recalls Jagdale.
The distillery packed around 150 miniature bottles of the first batch of Amrut Single Malt and Jagdale began approaching Indian restaurants in the UK. The story of an informal blind tasting at a Glasgow pub, The Pot Still, has passed into company legend. “The then manager of The Pot Still, Ken Storrie, was very impressed with it and put this blind tasting together. As his customers came up to the bar, he poured a wee dram of this new whisky and gave it to them and asked them to guess what it was. They guessed things like ‘it’s a 12-year-old Irish whiskey’, ‘it’s a Speyside’ (a single malt from the Scottish region of Strathspey), etc. When they were told it’s a single malt from India, their jaws dropped,” says Jagdale.
Although their initial bet on Indian restaurants didn’t quite pay off—most people wanted beer with Indian food, they discovered—by 2004, Amrut Single Malt was being bottled and sold not only in the UK but across Europe. Jagdale had come back to India and joined his father in the business. Soon, they discovered that single malts take less time to mature in cool and dry Bengaluru than they do in freezing but humid Scotland—and it all has to do with the quaint term “angel’s share”. “Angel’s share is what we call the evaporation loss from the barrel as the whisky matures,” explains Jagdale. “During this process, the barrel literally breathes and there is oxidation and evaporation. So, the angel’s share in Scotland is 2% for the first year, and then goes down to 1.5- 1.75% year-on-year. We found that here in Bangalore, the evaporation loss is as much as 10% in the first year and then it’s at 9-9.5% year-on-year, and we lose more water than alcohol, and so it’s getting more concentrated.”
As we walk around the distillery, Jagdale points to a cask: “This is an American oak barrel which was previously used to age bourbon—that’s the standard cask used to mature single malts—and it is about 200 litres. We fill it with roughly 195-197 litres of the ‘new make’ (raw malt liquor). In about three-and-a-half to four years, when we syphon the whisky out, we are left with 125-130 litres. That’s 80 litres just evaporated! So yes, we have very nice, very happy angels roaming about,” he says, laughing.
Over the past few years, the company has stepped up production. From a distilling capacity of 300,000 litres in 2018, its capacity today is close to 900,000 litres, with 25,000 cases per month of liquors belonging to the Amrut luxury brands—there are over 20, with Amrut Indian, Amrut Fusion and Amrut Amalgam the top sellers. In 2016, they made India’s most expensive whisky—Amrut Greedy Angels Chairman’s Reserve: 12 Years Old, a limited edition priced at $1,000 that was picked up by collectors within weeks. According to company data, Amrut is growing at a healthy 8% year-on-year and its revenue in FY2021 was ₹300 crore, with ₹300 crore in assets. It suffers from a “for the export market only” image, thanks to demand outstripping supply, but is keen to become a bigger player in the Indian market as it builds capacity.
Its luxury malts division has seen growth of around 20% for three years, despite the pandemic. “Over the past few years, surprisingly, the Indian market has picked up big-time in the premium alcohol segment and that is very heartening to see. Now India is the single largest market for us, followed by EU (European Union) and then the US. Within India, Karnataka and Goa are our largest markets, and we recently re-entered Delhi after some substantial changes in Delhi’s liquor laws,” says Jagdale.
Why aren’t there more Indian single malts? It’s an extremely capital and time-intensive process, explains Jagdale. “To set up a simple plant, you need an investment of ₹5-6 crore. There are so many guidelines that govern the making a single malt, plus you need to wait for at least three-four years to let it mature before you can sell it. So it becomes a cash flow problem. Gin and vodka are quick money. You get to see cash flows quickly, especially if you see a massive hype as you do with gin today—that hype will carry you along. In single malt, it needs take time to build a brand. Having said that, I think there are a slew of single malts from north India that are likely to hit the shelves in the next two-three years,” Jagdale predicts.
We have finished touring large parts of the campus, including the massive maturing units where barrels upon barrels of whisky lie in the dark in tiered pallets that reach up to the roof. There’s no artificial light here, he explains, as the air is laden with alcohol fumes and a single spark could cause a fire.
Surely not, with those happy, greedy angels watching over them.