We came, we sniffed, we spat and were decidedly NOT conquered!
Over 150 folks showed up at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel Crystal Ballroom for a whisky tasting with whisky guru Jim Murray on 10 March 2015.
The invitation card said to arrive at 7:15pm as the tasting would begin sharp at 7:30. The doors were tightly shut until the appointed hour as the staff poured out 6 samples of whiskies in tulip glasses for each attendee.
And then we experienced classic IST (Indian stretchable time) as those who reached on time, waited and waited and then la la di la la waited some more until 8:45pm when one of the ‘special guests’ meandered in…
Then the ‘show’ started. And it was a show… carefully curated to show off Amrut whiskies.
Beginning with a tribute to Jamshedji Tata on his 175th Birth Anniversary, the Amrut founder took us through Amrut highlights over the last decade before introducing Jim Murray.
After some crowd warming chit-chat, Jim began with lessons in how to nose through pointing out what NOT to do (push full snout into the glass), regaling us with tales and anecdotes while we warmed our glasses nestled next to our bodies.
Tasting steps according to Jim Murray:
- Lift cover off glass and take the first fresh whiff – dabbing against an imaginary moustache both right then left nostril
- Cup glass with both hands to seal the whisky in and warm it against your body for approx. 5 – 10 mins
- Hold covered glass away from body, lift hand to let alcohol evaporate while drawing close to then nose again
- Take a tiny sip to rinse mouth – the ‘mouth wash’ step – and spit
- Then a few seconds later take another whiff right and left nostril followed immediately by a large sip – the 1st taste – roll it around in your mouth, chin up, opening and closing your mouth like a fish, then spit it out
- ‘Listen’ to the whisky to ‘hear’ what it tells you about its character
- After a few minutes, take a 2nd taste… again whiff, sip, tilt head back, open and close fish style, then spit out or… perhaps… if so inclined… swallow
- Again ‘listen’ to what the whisky ‘says’
- Repeat steps 2, 3, 7 and 8 as required…
We were discouraged from discussing our impressions at the table, to reduce influencing each other, as part of the ‘lesson’ was to discover how the whisky ‘speaks individually.’ What this means is the notes that follow are the impressions of the two members of our whisky tasting club who jotted down our thoughts.
I’ve kept the labels as per the place mat however notes in the tasting order.
And here come a BIG caveat – in fairness to all the whiskies – they were poured from 6:30pm so by the time we sampled, two to three hours had elapsed…
Whisky 1 – Glenmorangie 10 year
- Nose – Initially very mild perfume (fruit) then nothing! Very light, slightly floral, perhaps hidden peat and apricot, dry. Post warming slightly sweeter, still very soft, remained exceedingly light
- Taste – Dry ash, bitter, mildly briny, like weak (not very good) coffee, slightly rancid undertone
- Finish – Dry oak, short
- Impression – Insipid
Whisky 2 – Amrut Single Malt
- Nose – More character than the 1st, overripe fruit, dirty socks, sweet, very little peat
- Taste – Oily, fruit gone slightly bad, with the 2ndtasting coaxed out a little chocolate after extra ‘warming’
- Finish – Medium short, nothing to write home about
- Impression – Weak and not terribly interesting
Experience – The first two were ‘revealed’ after we sampled both. We were challenged to identify which was Scottish vs Indian which lead to positively contrast the entry-level Amrut Single Malt against the mass produced entry-level Glenmorangie. While I’m not trying to defend Glenmorangie, I should note the sample was so small it could easily be misleading – the Amrut pour size was far more generous. While Jim extolled the virtues of Amrut vs Glenmorangie, neither were terribly noteworthy.
Whisky 3 – Jim Beam White Label 4 Year
- Nose – Varnish, ash, an agave / almost tequila quality
- Taste – Paan betel leaf sweet, a bit minty, dry, not quite leather, slight spice, after oxidizing even sweeter
- Finish – Not exceptional
- Impression – No body, no character
Experience – Universally this was noted as ‘different’ than the others tried but not particularly good. Two lone souls identified it as a bourbon. Jim asked one if he was a bourbon fan – the retort was ‘No!’ (and turned out to be a distributor so at least he knows his business!).
Whisky 6 – Amrut Peated
- Nose – Peaty, smoky sweet, little citrus after warming
- Taste – Spice, chewy, leather, not peaty on the palate. After further warming and again tasting, bit of coffee, still quite sweet, smooth, no longer spicy
- Finish – Medium long, tinge of bitter cacao
- Impression – Most interesting of the evening (which wasn’t saying much), also the most generous pour
Experience – Jim was clearly trying to get us to guess this was an Islay and shared insight into the art (and follies) of adding peat to whiskies – so why not to an Indian whisky? Certainly no objection from this corner!
Whisky 4 – Talisker 10 year (tried after Whisky 6)
- Nose – Slight smoke, hint of blue cheese, light sweet… in short quite bland
- Taste – Dry, spice, off-balance, toothpaste? ‘weird whisky’
- Finish – Jim shared how the ‘weird taste’ lingers
- Impression – Jim was definitely steering the audience to discover something ‘off’ with this whisky
Experience – Here is where Jim really got after the Scots for their laziness and neglect of their craft – justifying adding caramel vs what Jim would like to see – a ban on caramel! Also castigated Scottish distilleries in general for their methods of cleaning and re-using casks. Shared how Talisker may have been the 1st distillery he visited, however Indian distilleries are now taking much more care with the craft of making single malt.
Whisky 5 – Amrut Fusion
- Nose – Sweet, varnish, smoke, tannin from oak, clean, mild peat
- Taste – Oily, mocha, smoke, sugar, oaky
- Finish – Medium long
- Impression – Jim shared how ‘well balanced’ the whisky is with its different elements
Experience – Jim extolled the use of quality wood however (not sure if others caught this) did later admit an ‘inconsistency’ with this whisky. Which remains my ‘beef’ with Fusion – either quality control issues at the distillery or massive incompetence and neglect in storage before it makes it to our table. Even after our blind sampling a couple of years ago when we went ‘Yuck!’, I’ve had very mixed experiences with Amrut Fusion ranging from ‘passable’ to ‘no way’ to ‘tolerable’ to ‘ok’ and back to ‘average at best.’
When Jim took a poll at the end of the evening, Amrut was preferred over non-Amrut whiskies, with more preferring the Peated than Fusion (though Fusion also had its fans). He also observed more women preferred the Peated than Fusion.
Jim finished his part of the evening by sharing how he believes India has two outstanding distilleries – Amrut and Paul John – that are way ahead of anything else.
While I certainly applaud his recognition of the efforts of both Indian distilleries and appreciate Mr Murray is an expert genuinely devoted to the world of whisky, not sure the evening truly achieved either the stated objective of ‘education’ or unstated but understood aim of promoting Amrut.
Jim Murray is certainly entertaining and his enthusiasm and love of whisky undisputed, however his slightly bombastic claim of rampant independence was belied by obviously steering the evening in one direction.
And while he repeatedly said how he will keep Amrut ‘on their toes’ if he sees quality slip, the question really is – where does Amrut aspire to be?
If it is truly wants to out-class Scottish whiskies yet with a distinctly Indian character, then why fear including at least one ‘aspirational’ whisky in the sampling to show what true quality single malt craftsmanship is about? Better question, if Amrut is producing cask strength whiskies, why not showcase at least one of those which may have proven more interesting?
The only answer seems to be that clearly this event was targeted primarily at novices to whisky.
For those more familiar with single malts, one could hear various versions of the following remark:
“Have you ever had so many bad/mediocre/below average whiskies in a single eve?”
For me, even the ‘best’ of the lot – Amrut Peated – didn’t stand the test when revisited later in the evening without being juxtaposed next to Jim Beam!
If anything, the evening did a disservice to Amrut, dumbing down what could have been a more interesting debate with a renowned authority on the world of whiskies and, more specifically, where one Indian distillery is forging ground.
Not a complete waste of an evening but I for one was highly grateful to make copious use of the spittoon!
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