From the foothills of the Himalayas, to Rajasthan’s baked deserts, all the way down to the rocky Deccan Plateau, India’s unique terroir is proving to be an ideal canvas for the surge of single malt whiskys. There is a growing appreciation of single malts in the country, especially those ideated and blended here. Since the early 2000s, a small group of Indian master blenders have been making memorable malts, winning awards at spirit competitions across the globe and enviable mentions in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, the last word for the whisky connoisseur.
Man of the moment
Surrinder Kumar, independent consultant in the alcohol and beverage industry is credited with putting Indian single malts on the world map. Master blender at Amrut Distilleries for almost three decades, till 2019, he was responsible for creating Amrut Fusion, the Third Best Whisky of the Year in the 2010 edition of Jim Murray’s The Whisky Bible, and the first Indian brand to be named World Whisky of the Year at the Malt Advocate Whisky Awards in February 2011. Now, Kumar is immersed in creating new age Indian single malts.
The first in 2021, named Kamet, is a joint venture between Peak Spirits and Piccadily Distillery and co-created with Nancy Fraley, director of education of the American Distilling Institute. He also created the recently-launched Indri, from Picaddily Distillery. The whisky gets its name from its provenance, having been distilled at Indri, Haryana, near the Yamuna basin, at the foothills of the Himalayas. Indri has already won five awards this year, including being the only Indian single malt to win a gold in The International Spirits Challenge 2022, the best Indian single malt and category winner at the World Whisky Awards 2022, as well as winner of the Asian Whiskey of the Year, and a gold at Dom Roskrow’s New Wizards 2022.
World Whisky Day
Thanking the terroir
“The terroir, water and grain are very important, as is the maturation. It’s very important how you handle it,” says Kumar. With a conscious distilling process, the team at Piccadily Distilleries uses no fossil fuels during the making of the spirit, relying on chaff from the barley and rice for energy, and no chemical fertilizers are used during the farming process.
In the sunny state of Goa, Michael D’Souza has been creating award-winning spirits at Paul John Distilleries, which has a portfolio including three flagship expressions — Brilliance, Edited and Bold; two select cask expressions — Classic and Peated. (When a whisky is an “expression”, that means the distiller made the choice to pick any barrel that suited him in order to work towards a flavour.)
Michael’s time at the distillery has brought in over 280 awards across varied malt expressions in eight years. The most recent malt to take home a double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2021 is Mithuna (The Indian variant of Gemini). The Zodiac Series was launched in 2018, with Kanya, followed by Mithuna, which has staked its claim to the title of the world’s third finest whisky in the 2021 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
“Awards are a testament of the craftsmanship and passion in producing world-class whisky. For us, whisky is a true expression of a connoisseur’s dram. They are crafted with skill, passion and depth of character,” says Michael, adding “Around the world, people have shown a renewed interest in Indian single malts.”
Love affair with oak
Much of this enthusiasm comes from the fact that blenders have plenty of factors to play with. For instance, Kumar says, “I brought in over three decades worth of experience to create Indri, as I experimented with ex-bourbon, ex-wine, and PX (Pedro Ximénez) sherry casks. It’s important that the wood doesn’t overpower the spirit.”
“The terroir, water and grain are very important, as is the maturation. It’s very important how you handle it”Surrinder KumarThe blender behind many of India’s award-winning whiskys
Such experiments have also been an ongoing pursuit at Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries, founded in 1948. After the launch of their coastal imbued Neidhal series, the distillery achieved yet another first at the tail of 2021, with Amrut Spectrum 004: the first Indian single malt aged in a one-of-a-kind barrel.
This custom-built barrel was made with four types of oak staves (a stave is a narrow length of wood with a slightly bevelled edge). The Spectrum cask was crafted from new American oak with char level 3, lightly toasted new French limousin oak, ex-Oloroso sherry staves, and ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry staves. For this design four different casks were made, each with a different type of wood. The corresponding staves were removed to be stitched together in one cask, with some old, some new, yet equal proportions of all four kinds of staves arranged one-after-the-other, adding layers of complexity to the malt.
Head distiller at Amrut Distilleries, Ashok Chokalingam, offers the tasting notes from this unique exercise: strong scents of dried fruit and Christmas pudding, with notes of coconut cream dosed with vanilla. Then an element of sticky toffee pudding with an aroma reminiscent of a shade of sandalwood. Chokalingam, is jubilant at the reception to this latest malt, with a majority of its cases sent into Europe, the US and Asia Pacific for export. “400 years of whisky making and a novel idea of maturation on a custom-built barrel has never been done before. The fact that it is made in India is the icing on the cake,” he says.
Casks have certainly taken on a life of their own. Michael explains, “Cask finishing is essentially moving the whisky from one cask to another, to allow it to finish maturing. It is the technique wherein a fully mature whisky is aged a second time, in a used oak cask that once held another alcoholic beverage. We have whisky matured or finished in these casks and these are already available in the market. The Paul John PX (Pedro Ximénez Sherry) and Paul John Oloroso are some of our expressions that are available and were finished in sherry casks.”
“My work with the Dewar’s Double Double series is a quest for the ultimate in smoothness. Among them, the 21 undergoes a four-stage ageing process finished in an Oloroso sherry cask to add dry spice, toffee and caramel.”Stephanie MacleodThe only woman blender at Dewar’s Distillery
As a trend, cask finishing is all the rage across Scotland as well. Stephanie Macleod, the first and only female master blender at Dewar’s Distillery, Aberfeldy, Scotland, was on a flying visit to Mumbai and Delhi in May to launch the Double Double Series, in three iterations — aged 21, 27 and 32 years. Macleod has an impressive resume: being Master Blender and Malt Master with John Dewar & Sons Ltd since 2006, she is responsible for the creation of six blended Scotch whiskeys, 21 single malt expressions, two spirit drinks and numerous single casks, finished casks and small-batch bottlings. She says her work with the Double Double Series is, “a quest for the ultimate in smoothness”. Each expression is matured in a different cask, after a double blending and ageing combination.
The 21, undergoes a four-stage ageing process finished in an Oloroso sherry cask to add dry spice, toffee and caramel notes to the spirit, while the 27 is finished in Palo Cortado sherry casks, hitting floral notes with honeyed fruits, subtle spice and the characteristic silky smooth finish. Finally, the 32 is finished in Pedro Ximenez casks, imbibing treacle notes with a hint of smokiness. Each expression represents a different facet of Dewar’s,” she says.
Macleod hints at the imminent launch of the latest in the 8 Year Cask Series for India — a marriage of Scottish and Japanese sensibilities — an eight-year-old blended scotch whisky finished in Japanese (Mizunara) oak casks adding notes of delicate sandalwood. It is the fourth in an innovative cask series line-up.
The others include the first of its kind blended scotch in Mezcal casks (notes of sliced green pepper and wisps of smoke), Portuguese Smooth finished in port casks (full-bodied and rich), Caribbean Smooth finished in ex-Carib bean rum casks, lending notes of brown sugar and a bouquet of tropical fruit.
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Is there a case to be made for a standard Indian single malt? “The state excise and FSSAI need to work together to bring a uniform code for single malts. I am not very optimistic about this but I hope I will be wrong,” says Chokalingam.
Others in the industry, especially Surrinder Kumar, think the time is ripe to set certain parameters for Indian single malts. “Everyone wants to get into them and we have to come together to set up a regulatory mechanism to clearly define the process,” says Kumar. At Paul John Distilleries, Michael D’Souza concurs, “Yes! Indian distilleries should definitely take the initiative and push for our own standards, especially on quality. With the increase in the sales, we find unknown brands in the market with fake labels filled with cheap whisky and resealed as single malt or malt whisky.”
As distilleries seek a uniform standard for the industry, what really sets Indian single malts apart is the grain. “Indian single malt is defined by the six row Indian barley, which is not by choice but rather by the availability,” says Chokalingam, adding that this is further dictated by the terroir.
He adds, “From the perspective of terroir, the barley is pretty much locked to Punjab and Rajasthan.
Where the spirit is made also leaves an impact, which is why each of the single malt distilleries in India have a signature style. “Amrut, for example, from the Deccan Plateau and 3,000 ft above sea level, is quite different from Paul John although we pretty much use the same varieties of barley.”