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Meet the men behind Indian wines and whiskies that are the envy of the world

India is making wines and whiskies that are the envy of the world; and behind them are stories of creativity, fraternity and good old-fashioned ingenuity.

brunch Updated: Feb 28, 2015 15:48 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Even those of us who are extremely proud of India’s tradition of food and drink will pause a little before daring to sing the praises of our domestic whiskies. And as for Indian wine, the general rule has been that the greater the hype, the festivals, the concerts, etc, the more likely it is to taste like the effluent excreted by a cat.

When it comes to whisky, it is not hard to see what the problem is.

As you probably know, the term IMFL (for Indian Made Foreign Liquor: how is that for an oxymoron?) applies to alcohol (whisky, gin, vodka, etc) that is usually made from a neutral spirit, which is then flavoured to make it taste of whisky or gin or whatever. Most times, the spirit itself comes from molasses or sugar.

Because so much of our whisky is bogus, we have consistently run into problems with the European Union and other international bodies, which object when we label our spirits ‘vodka’ or ‘whisky’ or whatever. (We have retaliated with a non-tariff barrier that makes it hard for anyone to import liquor into India unless they list every ingredient in the bottle on the label – but that’s another story for another time.)

At some intuitive level, Indians have always been suspicious of our own whisky, which is why Scotch is so popular in India. So you will imagine my surprise when I began hearing the praises of an Indian whisky called Amrut in the international press. The Amrut guys eventually wrote to me asking if I would like to visit their distillery, and egged on by my whisky-loving friends, I accepted their invitation.

But even I, who had heard good things about Amrut, was startled to learn of the awards the whisky had received when I read about it before leaving for Bangalore.

In the 2010 edition of Jim Murray’s authoritative Whisky Bible, Amrut was rated the third-best whisky in the world (all the famous malt whisky brands you and I have heard of were listed much lower down in the list). Murray himself told the press that Amrut was "as good or even better than 95 per cent of the Scotch single malts you will find". In Ian Baxton’s 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, Amrut was the only Indian brand to feature. And so on.

Let’s Toast To That! In Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible (2010), Amrut was rated the third-best whisky in the world (the famous brands were rated lower in the list).

What intrigued me about Amrut when I got to the Bangalore distillery was how much of a family-run small business it still is. The whisky is the brainchild of NR Jagdale who inherited a distillery from his father and set out to go beyond low-priced liquor, which is still the bread-and-butter product for most Indian companies (including Amrut).

Amrut had been making malt whisky (from grain) for years and blending it with other whisky to create blends. But from the 1990s onwards, when Seagram’s, United Distillers and other big liquor names of that era entered the market and started importing blended Scotch, Indian preferences changed to lighter, lower-malt whiskies. So Amrut changed the formulas for its own whiskies, as nobody seemed to want too much malt.

The malts kept collecting in Amrut’s distillery until Jagdale had the idea of bottling them as a single malt. He sent his son, who was studying in Britain, to pubs in Scotland to ask what they thought of the whisky. The response was nearly always the same. People loved the whisky till they discovered it came from India. At that stage, they lost interest.

The Jagdales, along with Ashok Chokalingam who was at university with the younger Jagdale and joined the company once the malt was launched, had no success in selling their whisky for three years. Then, in a scene straight out of an Indian film, they gathered by the Mahatma Gandhi statue in central London to decide what to do next. Inspired perhaps by the Mahatma’s spirit (though, given the great man’s opposition to all spirits, there are several shades of irony involved!), they decided to make one last stab.

Fortunately, whisky experts started appreciating their product and bit by bit, the Scots came around. One Amrut brand was even launched in Scotland. The senior Jagdale had always been proud of his basic whisky but he had also begun to import peat to create a smoky, peaty whisky. Then, one day, sitting at his vacation home in Ooty, he had an idea: why not combine the two? He did and the new blend, Amrut Fusion, with its balance of regular single malt and peated malt has become Amrut’s signature whisky.

So far Amrut has focused on the West (the whisky is not available in Delhi) but the Jagdales have finally decided to go national. They say that Amrut will be sold all over India by the end of the year. Unusually for a man in such a competitive business, Jagdale says that other distilleries are also sitting on stocks of very good malt whisky. Amrut may have been the pioneer. But should the Indian whisky industry choose to, it can go beyond the disgusting IMFL image, he insists.

Perhaps. But till then, at least we have Amrut.

Long-time readers of this column will have noticed a gradual change in my attitude to Indian wine. I had a soft spot for Grover in the early days but since then, I’ve treated most Indian wine as undrinkable. It got to the stage where I even described a best-selling brand as ‘crap’ and then apologised because one should never fall into the trap of wine snobbery.

I may think that a particular brand survives only on hype and makes truly disgusting wine. But who am I to judge? Even if everyone I know who loves wine won’t go anywhere near the stuff, that doesn’t mean that other people are wrong to enjoy it.

But, over the last year, ever since I discovered the Fratelli Sette, I’ve moderated my views. It is the wine I drink at home. I enjoy the Fratelli zero-dosage sparkling Chenin and their Sangiovese goes very well with Italian food.

Last week I finally went to Akluj in Sholapur district of Maharashtra (a three-hour drive from Poona) to visit the Fratelli vineyards. There are many ways of looking at wine but I cling to the old-fashioned view that it is an agricultural product.

All in the family: Last week I finally went to Akluj in Sholapur, Maharashtra to visit Fratelli. The winery (above and below) is a joint enterprise between two Maratha brothers, two Italian brothers, and the Sekhri brothers of Delhi.The best wines come from houses that grow their own grapes at their own vineyards because they understand the soil. You can, of course, buy grapes from the market and make wine but I stick to the French view that only a farmer who has seen the grapes grow can make extraordinary wine.

I think that it is this devotion to the soil (rather than to bulk-purchased grapes or to Chilean wine you rebottle here under your own label) that makes Fratelli my favourite Indian wine. The winery is a joint enterprise between two Maratha brothers, two Italian brothers, and the Sekhri brothers of Delhi. (Fratelli means brothers in Italian.)

But the key here is probably the wine-maker Piero Masi, a silent Tuscan who sometimes seems to prefer his grapes to other human beings.

It is Piero’s understanding of the soil and his sense of what grapes grow best at which particular spot in the estate, that makes the wines so perfect. I went through the vineyards (they have about 200 acres or so) with him and he explained (in his laconic way) why one spot was suited to the Chenin Blanc that went into the sparkling wine and why another vineyard grew better Chenin for the still white wine.

As anyone in the wine business will tell you, Fratelli has been the big success story at the quality end of the wine business. Piero makes an individual blend for ITC Hotels (to go with spicier food), had created another one for Konkan Café (spicy but different), an Italian-style wine for Maritime (at the Taj Land’s End) and has now created the house wine for all of Taj Group. He is the go-to guy for anybody who cares about fine wine (or understands it) in India.

The teaming with the Sekhris has worked because Kapil, the brother who looks after the wine business, is so passionate about wine that he has given Piero a free hand. The Sekhris are a well-known rich Delhi family and one hotelier told me that after years of seeing the Sekhris blow up lakhs at his hotel, he was startled to see Kapil come in through the staff entrance to pitch his wines.

I asked Kapil about it.

Yes, he said, when I go as a customer, I behave like a customer. But when I go to sell wine, I’m just another vendor and behave like one.

Two classy guys – NK Jagdale and Kapil Sekhri – and two products that make India proud.

From HT Brunch, March 1
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First Published: Feb 28, 2015 15:27 IST