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Father of India’s first single malt whisky passes away at 66: Neelkanta Rao Jagdale shook the market with a home-grown liquor brand

The entire alcoholic beverages industry of India is stunned by the loss of legendary industrialist, Neelkanta Rao Jagdale, Chairman of Bengaluru-based Amrut Distilleries Ltd, on Thursday (9 May). He has left us but his absence will be felt across the world. However, he leaves behind a legacy with his flagship creation—India’s first single malt called Amrut Fusion.

Jagdale will be known as a visionary who never shied from taking risks. Under his stewardship Amrut Distilleries has grown from a single bottling unit to a trans-national player. His penchant for innovation and technology has been the ideal foil for the time-tested traditions enshrined in the company he founded. That’s why Amrut Single Malt whisky is appreciated across the globe and has won several international awards.

True Indian

Jagdale was a true Indian who had an abiding passion for making India a globally recognised alcohol producer. The words he spoke to a gathering in New Delhi during Spiritz Conclave 2018 still resonates where he had called upon fellow industrialists ‘to produce products made and named in India, in every field.’ His mantra was, we should not forget our‘Indian-ness.’

“We as industrialists have a great responsibility, to educate the consumer and be honest. Amrut has always been honest about its products and has always given Indian-oriented names to its products,” he had said.

He was undoubtedly the pioneer in starting the trend of Indian-made single malt. What he did at that point of time was certainly not thought of by any Indian liquor maker. It was a gamble he took with much panache.

Till 2004, India was making only molasses-based whisky. It could not be classified as a whisky in Europe. Like many other Indian liquor companies, Jagdale’s company—which he inherited from his father, was making regular and premium whiskies, rums and brandy, for decades. However, Jagdale was not content with the traditional approach and wanted to do something different.

His vision

It took him many years to bring his idea to fruition and thus was created Amrut single malt which shook the world in 2004. He took it to the  home of single malt—Scotland, and persuaded people to taste it in bars, invited distributors to have a feel of it and slogged so as to get recognition for the brand in the UK.

 Father of India’s first single malt whisky passes away at 66: Neelkanta Rao Jagdale shook the market with a home-grown liquor brand

Neelakanta Rao Jagdale. Pic courtesy: Bhisham Kumar

During a course of an interview last year Jagdale recalled his journey of making malt with this writer in detail. “Amrut single malt’s future was looking bleak. Even after three years of hard work and immense struggle, things were not looking good for the brand. The response from distributors was not favorable and the single malt whisky was costing the company heavily. The high rentals for the Glasgow office, and the marketing expenses were making it difficult for me to carry on with my baby which is the Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky of today,” he had said.

While he was contemplating whether to be financially prudent and put a lid on his most ambitious venture, his son Rakshit wanted to give it another shot. Even though Neelkanta was impressed by his son’s confidence, it was a decision that would involve gambling with a large amount of funds.

The Bapu factor

Neelkanta recalled that after much contemplation, when he could not decide, he just left his hotel for a walk to Tavistock Square, accompanied by Rakshit. Deep in thought, the father-son reached the Mahatma Gandhi statue at Tavistock Gardens and sat down to think of the next course of action, gazing unmindfully at Bapu’s statue.

“Looking at Gandhiji, it came to me: Our entire history would have been different if Gandhi, too, had gone back on what he had resolved to do. There I was thinking small, worried about losing a few crores, while there was this big opportunity to establish an Indian whisky brand abroad and make the country proud,” remembered the senior Jagdale.

The fight for Amrut Fusion and its maker was long and tiring. But once Neelkanta had made up of his mind, he wanted to keep going. Things changed drastically when in 2009, Malt Maniacs, a famous but independent group of whiskey connoisseurs awarded Amrut Fusion the Best Natural Cask whiskey in Daily Drams (under 50 pounds) category. The next year in 2010, one of the highest-rated journalist and an acknowledged guru of whiskies, Jim Murray, named Amrut Fusion Single Malt whisky as the third best in the world. All malt whisky lovers took notice and since then there was no looking back.

Ecstatic moment

What made Jagdale ecstatic was that an Indian single malt, made from select barley grown in the foothills of Himalayas and aged and distilled in Karnataka was being loved the world over. His resolve to create a great Indian product and preserve the ‘Indian-ness’ was rewarded with love showered on the product.

The pundits of single malts, especially in Scotland, were jolted and so was their oft-held belief that only they can create great single malts. For a few years, the world of single malt refused to believe and accept an Indian single malt but when other gurus of malts started singing paeans of praise for Amrut Fusion, they too were forced to acknowledge its presence.

Neelkanta always remembered his father J N R Jagdale very fondly from whom he had learnt the basics of blending liquor. Jagdale senior was a chemist and had set up Amrut Distilleries in 1948, in Bangalore. His father’s untimely death compelled Neelkanta to take charge. The distillery was until then run in a conventional and low-key mode—making rum and brandy—both only for domestic consumption, and was sold in Defence canteens as well. Amrut Distilleries started producing malt whisky in the '80s and gradually built a large stock of malt at the distillery.

Rakshit gives full credit to his father for bringing international repute to the company. “My father was responsible for building the base for producing an excellent quality malt whisky from 1970. If he had not stocked malt whisky many decades back, we would not have been able to create Amrut Fusion,” he says.

Jagdale’s most ambitious creation is now sold in 22 countries around the world. The demand keeps growing from all over which is too hard to meet. Jagdale is no more but he shall be remembered with every sip of the great dram he had fondly created.

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Updated Date: May 09, 2019 17:05:48 IST