Master Distiller Ashok Chokalingam - man behind Amrut Whisky
Did you know India guzzles more whisky than any other country in the world? Statistics show 1.5 billion liters were consumed in 2014, dwarfing America’s 462 million liters, the number two in the market. The sobering fact is at odds with the common belief that Indians tend to be teetotalers and with politicians ever so often trying to toady to that myth with calls for “dry days” and “dry states.”
A moment of pause brings up yet another truth: Indians are so familiar with whisky that Johnnie Walker, the name of a Scotch label, was bestowed on a Bollywood actor with a penchant for playing a drunkard!
There are said to be more distilleries in India than in Scotland. But what was being brewed (it should be distilled) for the longest time was met with disdain by outsiders: the molasses used made the drink closer in taste to rum than whisky. Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, who ran Amrut Distilleries, figured there was a way to change this. With barley grown in India and a wee bit of peated barley imported from Scotland, he experimented with the making of a single malt. He hit upon a product that was less sweet and had the smooth and grassy flavors that come with scotch.
In 2002, Jagdale’s son Rakshit, who was then doing his MBA in the UK, test marketed it in Europe. Two years later Amrut finally debuted in the whisky bastion of Scotland. In 2009, it entered markets on two other continents – Australia and Africa – and the following year, in America.
The company is now among India’s premier distilleries, with its single malts on the shelves of 47 countries and accounting for 10% of the turnover of the Rs.330 crore company. It has also gained respect with whisky experts. Amrut Fusion Single Malt was voted as the third most popular brand by whisky guru Jim Murray, in his annual Whisky Bible. The Whisky Advocate awarded two of the company’s brands, Amrut Fusion and Amrut Two Continents. Early this year, Amrut won the gold medal at the Bartender’s Whisky Awards in San Francisco. In 2012 and 2016, the company’s master distiller and international sales head, Ashok Chokalingam, was named one of the ‘Icons of Whisky’ and also named ‘Whisky Ambassador of the Year’ by Whisky Magazine.
A widely respected individual in the industry, Chokalingam was forging a career in IT when he was lured by Rakshit, the heir to the company, his friend and MBA classmate in the UK, to join him. After diligently working to make Amrut a recognized brand, he moved back to India to focus more on distilling. On the personal front, too, the care of an aging parent and the charm of raising his two UK-born daughters Asitha, 13, and Jeeva, 10, in the mother country drew him back. He makes his home with them and his wife Vijayalakshmi in Bangalore. Chokalingam spoke to India-West with a clarity that comes with deep knowledge of the business and the company. Excerpts:
Q: You were an engineer, what made you an expert in distilling?
A: Nothing at all! It was in UK that I had my first drink – a Glenfiddich. Only in 2001 I even discovered what single malt was! It was just the challenge of selling whisky to the Scots… it was like selling Bourbon in Kentucky, except made in India! I trained under Surinder Kumar, the master distiller then, and later got a diploma in distillation in London.
Q: You learned enough to not only create Amrut Spectrum, the limited edition single malt, but in 2016 it was named the World Whisky of the Year by Whisky Advocate. Tell us more.
A: Scotland is full of small, focused, conservative distilleries each with its own subtle but unique flavor. I really wanted to see how we could achieve this. I attended thousands of whisky shows and met folks across the industry. It came to me that we should experiment with custom made barrels. Three ingredients go into whisky – water, yeast and malt. You can make a fabulous spirit but what comes out is dictated by the barrel. There is no oak in India, so I went to a cooperage in Spain and had them custom makea barrelwith five different kinds of oakwood. It was the first of its kind, ever. We brought them back to Bangalore. The whisky shone with amazing character!
Q: Is there creative freedom in the company? How much capital is sunk in these experiments?
A: The head of the company, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, gave plenty of liberty and never curtailed innovative ideas. After his passing, Ricky (Rakshit) has the same willingness. As far as capital is concerned, well, when you are family owned you can do what you want. The con is, it’s your own money. In this case, the funding wasn’t huge.
Q: Which major Scottish single malt would you compare to Amrut?
A: Flavors are created by local conditions and to recreate it in another site is not possible. Then there are multiple factors like reflux ratio, etc. So, we can’t match Amrut head to head with a scotch. What we can say is that it is maybe a hybrid of highland and Speyside characters.
Q: Is there any effort to match Irish whisky?
A: (laughing) Do you have some spy in our company?! I will say this: a new expression is coming sometime next year.
Q: How is the American market different?
A: The size makes it No.1 in our export market, followed by France. Americans still say “single malt scotch.” It is not scotch but it is embedded in their minds! Indian Americans are more open than Indians in Europe. You tend to be proud that the product is coming from India. It was not the same when we started in Europe, our guys were terrible. We were losing money and in 2007, it was do or die. When I shifted attention to mainland Europe from just the UK, our sales grew from 700 to 3,000 cases but there was still prejudice about the origin of the product. It was only after blind tasting across cities and the Whiskey Bible noticing us in 2009 that perceptions changed.
Q: Tell us about your relationship with Paul John and Rampur. Are you all in agreement on how Indian single malts are promoted in the U.S.?
A: In Scotland there are many, many distilleries. They compete but they also work with each other. We learned from them there is room for all. So, we too meet and speak to each other at shows, etc. We are willing to help each other.
Q: How much of a competition is Japan?
A: They are way ahead. They broke the ice in the market and their single malts were an inspiration to us. They have innovative packaging and have created their own category.
Q: Is there a difference between the Indian American palate for whisky and the American one?
A: Well. We have spicy food and it is with bland food that you can be more sensitive to flavors. Indian Americans have come a long way in appreciating flavor; there are even whisky connoisseurs now and they give us feedback.
Q: Whisky doesn’t really pair well with Indian cuisine, does it?
A: It’s not impossible but difficult. In wine, alcohol content is around 12% to 14%. In whisky it’s over 40%. If the flavor of food and whisky travel in the same direction, then it will be fine. People have figured it out and that’s why in India, whisky is an aperitif.
Q: Why did Amrut have a late take off in India?
A: The company was clear that a reputation had to be created first. And it was the right thing, as Indians would have picked a bottle of Black Label before Amrut. When we began getting awards, we started getting calls from people in India. Now there is four times more demand than we can supply. A bottle of Amrut Fusion will not stay on a shelf for more than a week in Bangalore.
Q: Has there been a cultural shift among Indians in how drinking is perceived?
A: Oh yeah. There was no question earlier on drinking before elders, it was a social taboo. Now, me and my dad drink together. Everybody is traveling now and it has opened minds. Attitudes in the huge middle class has changed.
Q: Has India now moved from the low-end whisky market to the upper levels?
A: From ordinary to premium!
Company’s most popular whisky brand in the US: Amrut Single Malt and Amrut Fusion.
Most expensive one: 12-year-old Greedy Angels, $1500.
Most affordable: Amrut Single Malt, $50-$60.
Number of states distributed in the U.S.: 40.