Indian whisky can be a curious and confusing category for those don’t live there. A few distilleries have broken through in the U.S. and Europe with Scotch-styled single malts. But for every Amrut or Paul John there’s a Royal Stag or Blender’s Pride, most of them cheap blends consisting mostly of neutral grain spirit. Many of them arguably couldn’t even be called whisky, going by the more stringent rules in place in the States.
Amrut is probably the best known Indian whisky brand outside India, and certainly among the most highly regarded. The brand has been around since 1948 but it’s only in the last 20 years or so that they’ve been making “serious” single malt expressions, and it wasn’t until 2009 that they made their way Stateside. Since then, Amrut has gained a reputation as arguably the essential introduction to Indian whisky.
But Amrut is just the tip of the Indian iceberg. Raj Sabharwal, founding partner of Glass Revolution Imports, which brings Amrut and other brands into the U.S., told me, “There are currently 24 distilleries in India producing single malt whisky.” However, he adds, “most of the distilleries’ production is used as a ‘flavor enhancer’ for their own neutral spirit [based] whiskies.” Which means even whisky fans in India generally aren’t able to taste much of the country’s single malt output.
That’s where Ashok Chokalingam comes in. The head of distilling and international sales at Amrut, he wanted to get more unadulterated Indian single malts to a wider audience. The result was Amrut’s “Single Malts Of India” series, each release of which highlights a different distillery. The second release spotlights Kurinji, located in a mountainous region of the same name. Chokalingam sourced the new make from Kurinji and aged it at Amrut for five years in ex-bourbon casks. Five years is barely a blink of the eye in cold and chilly Scotland, but in the much warmer climes of India, where the angels’ share, according to Sabharwal, can hit 10-12% annually, it’s plenty of time to create a fully matured whisky.
Apart from the aging time, another big difference between Indian and Western single malts is the barley itself. Scotch whiskies generally use two-row barley, while Kurinji and other Indian malts use six-row. The difference — apart from a lower yield — is that six-row barley has more protein and less starch. In Amrut Kurinji Single Malts Of India (46% ABV), that difference manifests itself as a more grain-forward flavor. Where many whiskies taste like cereal drizzled with honey or sugar, Kurinji has more of the cereal, less of the honey, although the sweetness is still definitely present. On the nose it’s also heavier on the barley, along with interesting, lightly floral aromas. The finish has fair amounts of oak and spice to go along with the malt and grain notes, and lingers lengthily post-sip.
While credit needs to be given to Amrut for both aging the whisky and shining a spotlight on the distillery, its Kurinji that distilled it, and it’s absolutely terrific. At $115, it’s not the cheapest whisky out there, but it’s well worth the price, not least for the bragging rights that come with having discovered this hidden gem first.