In conversation with Rakshit N Jagdale, Executive Director, Amrut Distilleries Pvt. Ltd.
Selling Indian Single Malts to the Scots is like selling ice to an Eskimo, but the Jagdales wanted Scotland to turn their attention to a country that was really never on anyone’s shopping list of malt. Firm, focused, relentless and resilient, Jagdales went all out to prove their ‘malted’ mettle. The first cheers came from 145-year-old pub in Glasgow called Pot Still. With a second and resounding ‘Liquid Gold’ cheer from none other than whisky guru Jim Murray, their brand, Amrut, then found a deserving spot in Ian Buxton’s famous book, ‘101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’. The proud owners and distillers of the largest portfolio of single malts – 19 and counting – its third generation distiller and Executive Director, the bright and sporty Rakshit N Jagdale, spins a fascinating tale around the birth of Amrut, how Seagrams has a hand in it, the ever increasing variants, coming soon India’s first 12 year old Single malt and why India is the single most complex market
Q. Can you take us through the initial business before Amrut was born…
This is the very place (Bangalore) where it all started in 1948 by my grandfather, JN Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale. This is the site of our old distillery (Bangalore, RMR Road) when we were producing blended brandy and blended rums. With the turn of Sixties, we bagged a big order for Contract Rum for the Armed Forces from Canteen Stores Department (CSD). Unfortunately, with the passing of my grandfather in 1976, my father, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale who is current chairman and MD, joined the business in the mid Seventies and started distilling a local variety of grape called the Bangalore Blue, which was followed by distilling malt whisky in Eighties. We had been using malt whiskys for blended malt and were maturing them in imported Oakwood casks. Back then and even today, we still enjoy the position of having one of the largest blended whiskies portfolio.
Q. So, how did the idea of Amrut emerge?
I guess when Seagrams entered the market with full force in 1994-95. They were aggressive with Royal Stag, which is still a hit today. By introducing a new product of grain alcohol, and not the heavy weight molasses, Seagrams hit us where it hurt the most – in volumes. Their method made the whisky lighter and enhanced consumption. People like us, Macintosh, Peter Scot began to feel the heat. Our sales started plummeting; consumers started shifting loyalties. So, what eventually happened was that by making our whisky lighter too, by 2000, we had collected a lot of matured malt whiskies in our kitty. Now, one is aware of the mercurial Indian climate, which doesn’t allow a malt to mature beyond seven years else it becomes too woody. So what to do with all the malt? Experimentation and exploration was the next step that took place during my MBA at Newcastle in 2001. I was told to make the most of my education by testing our whiskies as part of my project and dissertation in all Indian restaurants in Great Britain. The company has invested in you, so make your trip worthwhile, said my father. In Indian eateries, when you are deep into Indian curries beer trumps whisky, and Kingfisher and Cobra were the drinks doing the rounds. But I continued sampling, across Edinburgh, Glasgow, midlands like Manchester, Derby, Birmingham, and London’s famous Brick Lane where about 150 restaurants operate. The breakthrough finally came in Glasgow in a pub called Pot Still, when our erstwhile distributor, Alastair Sinclair gave it to the consumers as an ‘anonymous’ malt. “It has excellent depth, very nice colour,” came the feedback, along with guesses of the malt being from Speyside, Irish country, maybe 10-12 years old. When Sinclair said it was from India, there was jaw-dropping awe, literally. We were confident in the product we had made but we wanted to elicit response from Scotland itself. Thus the first step towards Amrut, India’s first indigenously made single malt was taken.
Q. What were the initial challenges that you felt prior to launch?
Indian climate is always a challenge. But another was of packaging. Single malt whisky packaging is different for it has to conform to the European standard and it took us good one and a half years to get that right. The entire packaging except the canister (manufactured in Pondicherry by Nikita Containers), is still being done in the UK for Amrut. There are so many things to weigh in …screw caps, tee corks, labels, even bottles, capsules, everything. We tried getting bottles made here, but that didn’t work either.
Q. What is the current India footprint and expansion plans?
We are a boutique distillery, so right now, present in Karnataka, Kerala, Pondicherry and Maharashtra in a small way, in -star hotels only in Gujarat, in Goa and up north only in Chandigarh and country wide in CSD. We are aiming at Andhra Pradesh for it is a very big whisky market and Telangana by the end of this year. We have requested CSD to supply only to southern depots of Secunderabad, Cochin, Vizag, and Bangalore to meet the demand. We are doubling our production from 3,60,000 litres annually to 800,000 litres.
Q. What do the volumes for the current year look like?
Well, we did 25,000 cases in the year gone by and are distilling 300 days in a year. We are looking at 30,000 to 32,000 cases this year. But domestic and internationally, it is split even at 50:50. It is also heartening this year to see the demand outshine the supply. We did not forecast the demand to go that high and found it difficult to meet it in 2011, but we are now catching up, expanding and distilling round the clock.
Q. Which is the highest volume generating market?
Internationally, in the European Union, it is France and ironically, India, in spite of the fact that we were not looking at it as a market to enter aggressively.
Q. Now that two more SMs have come up: Paul John and Rampur, what do you make of the Indian single malt industry?
New players charge the environment. It’s a sign of good things for we are poised for growth and this is a category with promising potential provided the players are serious and hold on to quality over quantity. Also, I feel today consumers like to try new world whiskies, are becoming more aware and willing to experiment. While they are happy drinking American Bourbon and Scotch, they don’t mind testing and tasting new world whiskies coming from Australia, Sweden, Taiwan, India. There is a positive acceptance and affirmation of the Indian SM. People are beginning to recognize Indian distillers capable of producing exceptionally good SM whisky.
Q. What has been your marketing strategy on the brand Amrut?
I should say it must’ve been a bestseller strategy for whatever we did, other players followed in our footsteps! We launched globally, we stuck to quality over quantity and focused on making Amrut Fusion a globally known product. In India, we did tastings, and it was in 2010 that out of force from colleagues, industry etc, we made few bottles available in Bangalore. That worked too for it was a deliberate strategy to keep it premium. I guess now others should try something out of the box (laughs).
Q. Is India one of the most complex markets to navigate and capture?
Yes, and I speak on behalf of the entire alcohol industry – India is the single most complex alcohol market anywhere in the world and the issue stems from our Constitution which empowers the states to implement prohibition, like in Bihar. I hope Tamil Nadu is not next. The states are vested with so much power, that they can do anything with us, to us. What we fear is that a ban should not give rise to another social evil that is drugs. Alcohol is tangible, it can be controlled and regulated, but once drugs begin to replace alcohol it’s a different ball game.
Even the Government of India needs to take note of the alcohol industry – we contribute close to Rs 2 lakh crores in the form of revenues to different states, thereby relieving pressure from Centre. For instance – Karnataka’s 16000 crores meets the entire health and education budget. Responsible drinking should be encouraged, else Pan India prohibition will be devastating and our economy won’t be able to afford it.
Q. Any product launches for the near future?
Certainly – we have a wide portfolio, in all 18 variants, and we are introducing the 19th in August/September this year. It will be India’s first 12-year-old Amrut Greedy Angels. This comes after Greedy Angels 8 and 10 year olds introduced in last two years. It’s a Chairman’s reserve and limited edition. We’ve just made 120 bottles for the world over and our expected retail price for London is close to 1000 pounds (Rs 100,000 for a bottle). This one we have allocated mostly for EU, although we have kept 30 bottles for the US. I would love to have it in India too, but we are selling at a much higher alcohol cask strength of 57 per cent.
Q. Which of these 19 would you say is your preferred variant?
My personal favourite is Amrut KADHAMBAM, another limited edition, it gets its name from a mixed vegetable dish in Tamil. As the name suggests, it is matured in four casks – bourbon, sherry, brandy and then rum. It’s currently not available in India.
Personally for us we were very fascinated with the Amrut RAJ IGALA which Rakshit introduced us to, at his office. It is bottled at 40 percent, Limited Edition, reserved for exports; holds an ISWC silver medal and has quite a history to it. RAJ IGALA means king of the eagles and the bottle has a monogram of the two headed Hindu mythological bird Gandaberunda. It’s also on the official emblem of the state of Karnataka, and formerly on the Maharaja of Mysore’s emblem.
Full bodied and balanced with notes of honey, fruit and hints of citrus tang. Slightly oily at spaces with black pepper like spice peeping in at spaces, finally layered with caramel & cream