A Tour by a Passionate Teacher
Have you ever had a professor or a teacher that you really liked? One that made a subject, even the most boring one, all the more interesting and fun? There are two that I distinctly remember. One was my American History teacher in high school, Coach Bill Speer. He was also my JV basketball coach. He made history fun, exciting, and interactive. The other was my Professor of Medicine, Dr B V Muralimohan. He made me remember to always put the patient first and taught me a lot about integrity. He made the world of medicine all the more exciting. The same goes with Mr Surrinder Kumar Thathoo, Master Distiller at Amrut Distilleries. He’s just like that teacher that puts passion and excitement in a subject. And his subject is distilled spirits. It was amazing to see his eyes sparkle while he spoke about the complexities of Amrut’s line of spirits, especially their single malt whiskies.
Now the Amrut distillery, as most of you know, is situated just outside of Bengaluru in Karnataka, India. Mr Surrinder Kumar has been with the Amrut distillery for 30 years. His arrival at the distillery was nothing short of serendipitous.
Mr Surrinder Kumar came to Karnataka from his native Kashmir to pursue his post graduate degree in food technology. On graduation, he received 4 offers of work. He chose to take up his first job with a distillery in Delhi. He went to Bengaluru 2 years later for a surgery and a food consultant, Dr Jaha, connected him with Amrut. Mr Surrinder Kumar was then tasked to run the brandy and blended whisky side of the distillery.
An interesting and oft repeated quote from Mr Surrinder Kumar is, “We had no fear because we didn’t know any better.” He exclaims that it was because of this there was no fear of failure. He also gives a ton of credit to the managing director, Mr Jagdale, and his son for allowing him to try out new things.
They originally used malted spirit in the ‘80s to produce their Prestige and McIntosh brands. Scotch was imported to create these blends. As time progressed, they began to produce at a much larger scale. They shifted their production to the outskirts of Bengaluru.
Initially, they produced heavier malts due to lower maturation. As the markets opened up, international brands began coming to India. Amrut began changing its flavor profiles.
Just as single malts are relatively new in the whisky world, single malts were a new concept to Amrut. As Mr Surrinder Kumar said, “It was not a vision, but an aspiration.” The concept came from of an MBA dissertation from Mr Jagdale’s son, Rakshit. Mr Jagdale decided to roll out the single malt in 2004 in Scotland. What better place than Scotland to roll out a single malt? Don’t forget… “We didn’t know any better.” Here’s where the story gets interesting…
Mr Jagdale was working to get the single malt launched via different avenues. He didn’t see any real results for 3-4 years. He was walking in London ready to give up- wondering if he should abandon the single malt idea or not. He then came upon a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. He gained strength from that sight and decided to continue to move forward with Amrut Single Malt. Thank goodness that he did, because the world now has Amrut!
Mr Surrinder Kumar was very excited about the tour he provided me through the distillery. His eyes lit up at every corner of the place. Like a loving owner of an old car that doesn’t run, he showed me some of the older equipment at the distillery that was no longer in use.
With the “We have no fear” attitude, Amrut had tried multiple channels to distribute their whisky. The current model of local country importers seems to work best for them. Maybe too good in my opinion.
The demand for Amrut single malt whisky has soared. Currently, they can only provide about 50% of the demand. Even so, Mr Surrinder Kumar feels the size of distillery is just right. He feels he can keep the quality this way. “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. I never like to fail as a person.” You can tell that he holds himself accountable in every step of the distillery process. Though they may have failed in certain steps, they learn from it. “These are learning lessons such that we don’t repeat these failures.”
The tour culminated in the tasting lab… “And this is where I play!” It was truly a sight to behold.Unfortunately, this post has gone too long… You’ll have to wait until the next post read about what happened there!
Until then, enjoy your whisky responsibly!
A special thanks goes to Raj Sabharwal, Ganga Prasad, Sumath Karnad, Pramod Kashyap, and of course Master Distiller Surrinder Kumar Thathoo for making this trip possible. I also want to thank my lovely wife for supporting me in this crazy obsession of mine!