Indian distilleries have to get their barrels right: Jim Murray

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Published: May 26, 2019 6:42:30 AM

In your personal capacity, which whisky do you prefer the most – a drink that you like to sit with at the end of the day.

Australian whiskeys need some more investment with bigger distilleries for better
output. Since India is already there, it’s time for Australia, Taiwan, England to take off.

Celebrated whisky critic and writer Jim Murray, who pens down his observations on the distilled alcoholic beverage driven by tastings conducted across the globe annually in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, says Indian distilleries need to work on their wood management skills to find a place on the global map. According to him, Indians tend to suffer from an inferiority complex in terms of their whiskeys, much like the Canadians do, even as their domestically grown whiskeys are far more promising than most counterparts. Sixty two-year-old Murray was in the capital recently at the Pullman, New Delhi, Aerocity, to work on the next edition of his book. He quit journalism in 1994 to take up writing about whisky full-time, driven by his knowledge and passion to understand the alcoholic beverage better. “I started writing about whisky because I thought the public deserves better. Over 25 years later, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never sold out, and I never will. I’ve remained 100% original. I’ve kept my integrity and honesty intact,” says Murray in an interview with Isha Arora. Edited excerpts:

Having tasted over 50,000 whiskeys so far, what are the qualities that appeal to you the most?

Purity. Not adding caramel to it, or anything into it. If they’ve added some kind of flavour, it’s out. It definitely does not go into the Bible. A lot of Indian whiskeys aren’t whiskeys, they’re just full of flavours. So none of that finds a place in the Bible. The moment you start adding things, you’re creating a liquor, and I’m not really into liquor. What I’m looking for is a whisky which is true to that distillery, the type of cask, its age, and doesn’t have any off-notes. I always look for the faults first before I begin finding what’s right with it. When you think there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, then that’s what works for me.

Indian whisky is clearly far from being recognised globally. How can Indian whisky brands do better in your opinion?

Single malt whisky has been present in India for a long time. The oldest one is probably from Kasauli in the Himalayas. Kasauli malt was coming into a lot of blends, so the quality went down, and since it’s a tiny distillery, they never really pushed it as a single malt. Even enhancing the quantity made the quality fade out. The whole point of distilleries such as Amrut, Paul John, etc, is to make high quality single malt whisky. They’re not producing it for blends, and various other things. They’re producing it as a single malt whisky. Therefore, there’s a lot of emphasis on the high quality of distillation, and the type of barrel put into it. To be honest, there are other distilleries in India that can catch up but they must get their barrels right. It’s alright to say that we make a great spirit, but if you put a good spirit into a poor cask, guess what you end up with? Poor whisky. It’s really important that they start putting their money in wood management, and understand it better. Use different types of casks and marry different styles to get structure. I can’t say it’s always been happening in India. But Amrut and Paul John are trying to blend. I taught them how to do it (laughs).

Single and double malts are usually considered more premium and refined as compared to blended whisky. However, some cite that blended whiskeys being deemed inferior quality-wise is a wrong notion. What do you have to say about that? How do we compare the two?

If the blender knows what he’s doing and is selecting the right whiskeys, then it should be better than just one good whisky. But every single malt is a blend, or it should be. As you should select different types of casks from very slightly different ages to get structure. A single malt is a blend of whiskeys from the same distillery, whereas a blend involves whiskeys from more than one distillery. If a blender does his job properly, he should be able to make something more interesting from a blend than he does from a single malt.

Scotch whiskeys haven’t been winning the top award in your Bible for a while. Any reason for this?

They aren’t good enough anymore. Unfortunately, the general average quality of whisky in Scotland is not as good as it was 25 years ago. They were putting whisky into a sub-standard casks which resulted in a sub-standard whisky. Therefore, if you are going to charge a huge sum of money for setting up something which is not very good, you will eventually lose ground to other people. Unfortunately, there are far too many that aren’t good.

You have mentioned about Canadian whiskeys in the Bible, while it is still far from being renowned and recognised globally. Why is that so?

In Canada if you want to buy high quality whisky, you will walk straight past the Canadian ones without even looking at the ones sold for 20 pounds. Customers walk straight to Scotch whiskeys, giving away some truly world class (Canadian) whisky for dirt cheap prices. Canada is similar to India where one thinks that their whisky is inferior, but in reality it’s not.

Which segment or geography in the whisky industry sees ample opportunity for growth and why?

I’ve managed to help get bourbon, rye and Japanese in the mainstream. I’ve worked hard to get people to discover Indian whisky. England is making some great whisky, and it’s only a matter of time before people start realising how good it is. Australian whiskeys need some more investment with bigger distilleries for better
output. Since India is already there, it’s time for Australia, Taiwan, England to take off.

In your personal capacity, which whisky do you prefer the most – a drink that you like to sit with at the end of the day.

It’s a mood thing, it’s what you fancy. I don’t have a television set but I like watching old films. So if I’m watching a black and white film, I would pair it with some rye. I never ever pair whisky with food, that’s garbage. But I pair whisky with films. If I’m back from a trip and I’m relaxing in my cottage, I would have a bourbon.

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