Amrut Special Reserve

amrutspecialreserveAmrut is an Indian distillery that became very prominent a few years ago when Jim Murray awarded a very high score to their Fusion bottling. Their whisky is quite different from the vast majority of Indian whisky in that it is actually malt whisky–made from malted barley, and not a blend of spirit made from molasses and grain/malt whisky. There is, of course, all kinds of controversy over the labeling of that vast majority of Indian whisky as whisky and it’s not all academic either. European regulations will not allow for this spirit to be sold in that market as whisky on account of its molasses based/dominant origins. And at the same time the Indian government will not relax its high import tariffs on liquor, which more or less closes the lucrative Indian market (the largest market for whisky, or “whisky” in the world) to the conglomerates that own most Scottish distilleries. Both sides insist these things are unrelated, but who knows (see here for a sense of how charged all this was a while ago).

At any rate, even though I am not a fan of the non-malt/grain Indian whisky–and believe me, I consumed a fair amount of it in my late teens and early twenties–it doesn’t really bother me so very much if Indians want to have a more expansive definition of whisky. God knows, we’ve put up with all kinds of culinary abominations being called “curry” in the West. And frankly, most of these whiskies are not so very much worse than the bog standard blends that are the cornerstone of the scotch whisky industry.

Amrut, however, is untouched by these controversies as it is a malt distillery, and like the Japanese malt distilleries, makes whisky in the Scottish style. The whisky is not identical to scotch whisky, however, and is further away from it than most Japanese whisky. This has largely to do with the climate of Bangalore (where the Amrut distillery is located). While Bangalore is in a temperate region by Indian standards, it is far more humid and much hotter than Scotland (or Kentucky, for that matter), and this means whisky can’t be matured in casks as long as it is in Scotland or Ireland or Japan (or Kentucky, for that matter): too much of the spirit evaporates from the cask (and on account of the heat/humidity the abv of the spirit leaving the cask tends to be very high as well).

Amrut’s spin on this, mostly embraced by the whisky establishment in the West, is that this equates to faster aging (Amrut doesn’t put age statements on their whiskies as most are likely no more than a few years old–they are, I believe, poised to soon release their oldest ever whisky–a whopping 8 years old, an age that no Scottish distillery will even put on a bottle anymore). The idea is that an Amrut that has matured for just a few years is equivalent in maturity to Scottish whisky that has matured for 15 years or more. There is a word for this in Sanskrit and it is “bullshit”. No Amrut I’ve tried has displayed the qualities of older scotch whiskies, i.e the qualities associated with age to any significant degree–and most taste young in the same way that many NAS (no age statement, meaning young) scotch whiskies do.

The excitement around Amrut in the last few years stemmed I think partly from novelty, specifically the novelty of an Indian distillery making high quality malt whisky– and no, I don’t dispute that it is indeed high quality whisky that they make. This excitement is fading a little bit and the Taiwanese distillery, Kavalan seems poised to be the next big thing for jaded whisky geeks to get worked up about. To the degree to which this might result in Amrut’s whiskies being evaluated soberly (so to speak) this is a good thing–the Amrut Fusion is a very nice whisky, but if it was ever the third best whisky in the world, as Murray pronounced it and a number of even his greatest detractors confirmed, then I am Johnny Depp (and I hope that’s not true as eyeliner makes my eyes water). On the other hand, there is the reality that if the whisky geeks move on to newer sensations an Indian whisky priced at a premium (Amrut is not shy with the pricing) is going to be a hard sell to the regular whisky market.

Partly for this reason, I suspect, and partly on account of the whole aging problem, Amrut releases a steady stream of gimmicky one-offs, made in complicated ways which make for nice stories that the malts in the bottles, in my view, don’t quite live up to (not because they are not good, but because I suspect they’d not be very different if they were made in more traditional ways). There was the Intermediate Sherry, for example, which had sherry cask maturation sandwiched between bourbon and virgin oak cask maturation–it was quite nice but not so terribly different from conventionally sherried Scottish malts available for a much lower price. All that said, the two regular Amrut releases, one unpeated and the other peated are very good (especially the cask strength version) as is the Fusion, and all three are excellent values.

The Amrut I am reviewing tonight was not a regular release, but it does seem to have been made more conventionally (or at least I have not read any “story” associated with it; it wouldn’t surprise me though if there were virgin oak casks in the mix here). It was bottled for the The Whisky Exchange, a prominent UK retailer, specifically to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their online store. I believe it is now long gone. It was bottled at an eye-watering 63%. Let’s get to it:

Amrut Special Reserve (63%, special bottling for TWE; from a sample reserved from my own bottle)

Nose: A little spirity; powdered ginger and sharp wood. The woodiness is mixed in with a spicy note that is somewhere between rye and aniseed. With time, some sweet notes begin to emerge and something a little perfumed: rosewood maybe? or is it some kind of a floral note? With more time, a malty, biscuity sweetness starts to come to the fore, and also some salt. The spirity note is completely gone. A very pleasant musky fruitiness arrives next and there’s also a touch of dry smoke. A touch of water (and yet more time) brings the salt to the fore, subdues the wood and marries it to the fruit.

Palate: Lemon first, then a wave of sweet wood followed by that musky fruitiness and then another whack of wood. Rich and viscous. Shockingly drinkable at 63%. Water gives it a more acidic bite and the fruit is now mostly citrus. Still woody but now spicy wood, and that ginger that was first on the nose is now present on the palate as well.

Finish: Long; a little astringent with the emphasis on the wood and salt. Well after swallowing I seem to get vague hints of sherry on the sides of my tongue. Water makes the finish lemony as well–the salt’s still there. There’s something vaguely medicinal about it all, but not in the phenolic/iodine hospital disinfectant/bandages sense of peaty Islays–more like the sour taste of an uncoated tablet that remains on your tongue after you swallow it with water.

Comments: This pour is from the last four ounces of this bottle, poured off into a 4 ounce sample bottle when the bottle itself reached the halfway mark (about 8 months ago)–that is to say, these are not the last four, highly “oxidized” ounces of a bottle that was opened long ago (in November 2010, to be exact). Still, I got some notes off it, especially on the palate, that I do not believe I got, at least not at the same level of intensity, when the bottle was on the go–I refer here to the musky fruitiness. Maybe some quirk of my palate tonight? Will have to check this again soon and see if it persists. At any rate, I liked this a lot when it was first opened, and I liked it even more tonight. And even though I seem to have recorded more notes on the nose than on the palate, it is the palate I like the most. The finish I’m not crazy about–it’s where the wood is at its most naked. I’m not sure how this is so drinkable at such a high strength or why the aromas are not as locked as they often are, in my experience, with Scottish malts in the >60% range–perhaps the two years it took me to get the bottle to the halfway mark has something to do with that.

Rating: 88 points.

One thought on “Amrut Special Reserve

  1. Nice information here about the distillery MAO. Im intrigued with amrut. Ive had the intermediate sherry before and enjoyed it. Im enjoying the standard expression right now. I dont think ill find any of the other bottlings. But, this has to be an anchor for the NAS whisky niche. Its quality, it has a lot going on, and its somewhat exotic. i like this profile. Granted the intermediate sherry is overpriced but the standard is great and in the $50 range. I dont have a lot of repeat purchases (so far just Uigeadail, Springbank, PC, Laphroaig 10 CS, Lagavulin 12 CS), but i think this one could get on that list easily. Maybe im just late to the party (as usual) but the more transfers to kavalan the better if theres less competition for amruts.


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