The Whisky Tasting Club

A passage to Newcastle

Newcastle Upon Tyne isn’t the most obvious place to find the United Kingdom base of Indian whisky company Amrut. And I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere featuring the words ‘coals to’…

 But the capital of Geordie-land is indeed where the company’s based, so that was where I headed this week.

 I know the city well. I was at university in Durham down the road, and as that town is not great on football and rock music and Newcastle is, I wasted a fair amount of studying time joining all the lads and lasses down the Scotswood Road with smiles upon our faces, why-aying with the best of them.

 More recently I travelled here with public relations whizz kid Tim Adams, a fellow Leicester City fan, as guests of John Sands, the former chairman of the massive pub group Pubmaster, who is a season ticket holder at St James Park.

 “Come as my guests but you mustn’t wear colours,” he said, so we didn’t, only to find all his other guests head to toe in Magpie kit, hat and scarves.

 “Ah yes but they’re not colours, they’re black and white,” Mr Sands told us. Oh how we laughed.

I think it’s fair to say that the UK headquarters of Amrut is as far removed from the beauty, colour and drama of Bangalore as you can possibly get. It consists of one medium sized office in a modern and drab office complex somewhere in the suburbs of Newcastle a couple of miles from the city centre. The concrete and glass carbuncle has 60s written over it large, and is the home to a lot of very nervous civil servants waiting for a very large axe. Some of the buildings have something to do with the National Health Service, but most are occupied by government pen pushers in departments such as works and pensions.

“Straight downstairs from me is customs and excise so I can get away with nothing,” smiles Ashok, who runs the Amrut business not just in Britain but across Europe, Canada and some parts of America too, his only assistance his wife.

So why is Amrut in the north of England?

“Amrut was born here,” says Ashok. “It’s where the whole idea was created. I must admit I never imagined I would end up here, but the office is close to the airport, I can fly pretty much anywhere I need to and I’m somewhere between Glasgow and London, so in many ways it made sense. It’s a place I knew already, so why not?”

Ashok studied in Newcastle and it was here that he met Rick Jagdale, whose father Neel was chairman of a spirits making business in India.

As part of his business course Rick had to do a feasibility study on whether it would be possible to launch a single malt whisky. When he concluded that it was, he spoke to his father about doing it, and Amrut was born. Ashok was recruited to head the sales operation in the UK.

The company was launched in 2004, targeting Indian restaurants, but it was heavy going.

“I can’t tell you how terrible those days were,” says Ashok now. “It was hell. There was so much negativity about the concept of Indian whisky, and we found that people who go to Indian restaurants are not big whisky drinkers.”

Early on the product wasn’t all it could have been, either. The packaging looked cheap and had to be smartened up, the whisky, unchill filtered and at 40%, went cloudy and looked bad, and had no finish. So the strength was changed to 46%. Ashok started to target independent whisky and wine merchants and launched a fierce and intense programme of blind tasting, putting Amrut up against two Scottish malts. It performed exceptionally.

But the real breakthrough came when Jim Murray raved about one of the bottlings and Malt Maniacs handed Amrut a major award at about the same time. Suddenly others started to take notice and the company’s fortunes were turned on their head. Now with five expressions, including two peated and two cask strength whiskies, Amrut is in demand.

I’ll be honest, good as I thought the cask strength bottlings in particular were, I wasn’t convinced that there was enough clear water between Amrut and a large array of Scottish malts. That all changed though with two amazing and original releases last year and this – Two Continents and Fusion. Two Continents is malt matured first in India then in Europe. Fusion is whisky made with a mix of Scottish and Indian barley. They’re both refreshingly different.

So Amrut has raised the bar – the question I’m here to answer, though, is can the company sustain the pace? And the answer is, emphatically, yes.

The company plans a special release for September, October and November. I’ve tasted the first two and have been sworn to secrecy about them until closer to their release date but at the risk of offending Ashok I’ll just say that they are both unique, based on original and innovative ideas, taste great and are poles apart from each other in taste.

 And they add to an increasingly impressive portfolio – with more to come. Some tasting notes are below:

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Comments

  • Fascinating and faintly incredible! Newcastle is my nearest city and many a time I have spotted the Amrut miniature in the display case of Fenwick Food Hall, unaware that HQ was only a few miles away. It is always a pleasure to learn something new about world whiskies, and to realise that operations are directed more closely-to-home than first thought. Well done, Dominic.

  • funnily enough the day Dom was in newcastle Pat and I were in a wholesalers who had shed loads of the first Amrut he wanted to offload for £10 a bottle. We bought a few and its quite nice. Packaging very cheesy its true

  • Vijay Shinde

    Feb 9th, 2011

    I ma from Newcastle and It’s my great pleasure to see Indian Whisky in North – East market.

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