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'Indri Whisky has carved a place for itself as one of the best whiskies in not just India but the world': Surrinder Kumar, master blender, Piccadily Distilleries

Known for putting Indian single malts on the global map, Kumar talks about what sets Indri apart, and why comparing single malts from India and Scotland is all about aging

Samidha Jain
Published: Oct 10, 2023 12:11:26 PM IST
Updated: Oct 10, 2023 12:36:40 PM IST

'Indri Whisky has carved a place for itself as one of the best whiskies in not just India but the world': Surrinder Kumar, master blender, Piccadily DistilleriesSurrinder Kumar, master blender and distiller at Piccadily Distilleries, Image: Courtesy Piccadily Distilleries

From a hazy whisper to a symphony of flavours, this is a masterpiece” is how Indri whisky is described by its makers Piccadily Distilleries. Blended in Haryana, Indri Whisky did India proud at the recent Whiskies of the World Awards 2023, winning the award for the ‘Best in Show, Double Gold’ after rigorous blind tastings over several rounds. At one of the world’s largest whisky-tasting competitions, which evaluates over 100 varieties of whiskies each year, Indri has beaten hundreds of international brands including scotch, bourbon, Canadian, Australian, and British single malts.

Surrinder Kumar, master blender and distiller at Piccadily Distilleries, worked at Amrut Distilleries Ltd till 2019, where he bagged several awards, including Distiller of the Year in 2011. In conversation with Forbes India, Kumar, who is known for putting Indian single malts on the global map, talks about his journey in the alco-bev industry, the art of blending, his favourite whisky, role models and a lot more. Edited excerpts:

Q. How did you start your journey in the alco-bev industry?
In 1986, I had the privilege of being selected by Central Distilleries & Breweries, now a unit of United Spirits, during campus selection interviews. It was a significant turning point in my career, as joining such a prestigious distillery provided me with the remarkable opportunity of accumulating invaluable experience and making substantial contributions to the production and development of spirits and alcoholic beverages. It has played a crucial role in shaping my career trajectory. It has been over 35 years in this profession and the experience has been surreal.

Q. How did you learn the art of blending?
I hold a master’s degree in food technology from CFTRI [Central Food Technological Research Institute] in Mysore, which is widely recognised as a premier institution for food technology in Southeast Asia. It provided me with an extensive knowledge base and a range of skills, enabling me to explore various opportunities. It was here that I acquired a robust understanding of the scientific principles and methodologies integral to beverage production, which is invaluable in the intricate world of whisky blending, as it marries scientific rigour and artistic finesse.

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Q. What sets Indri Whisky apart?
Indri-Trini is India's first triple-cask single malt bottled at 42.8 percent abv. The single malt is matured in three coveted casks—ex-bourbon, ex-French wine and PX Sherry—giving the spirit a unique taste. Trini, the three woods, were curated based on the individual contribution of each barrel without overshadowing the original whisky profile, which is light fruity with sweet vanilla and spice, a subtle nuttiness to chew on with medium to reasonably long finish. It is very smooth, carries a deep amber colour and has notes of caramelised pineapple, vanilla, black tea, raisins, honey and a long aftertaste of sweet fruity flavours.

'Indri Whisky has carved a place for itself as one of the best whiskies in not just India but the world': Surrinder Kumar, master blender, Piccadily DistilleriesSurrinder Kumar at work at Piccadily Distilleries. Image: Courtesy Piccadily Distilleries

Q. What is your work process and inspiration?
I work closely with the brand to ensure a seamless production process from start to finish, which includes overseeing operations at the malt plant and checking the sensory evaluation of the new make, which is crucial for maintaining the desired quality and character of the spirits. Along with this, barrel sampling for whisky blends and single malts on the day of blending is an exciting task. It allows me to assess the maturation progress, flavour profiles and overall quality of the spirits. It's a crucial step in creating well-balanced single malts. Also, developing new products requires a deep understanding of market trends, consumer preferences and the ability to experiment with different ingredients, processes, and ageing techniques. As an Aadvisor in the malt division, my involvement in new product development showcases my core area of expertise as I am able to contribute to the creation of innovative and unique spirits. I thoroughly enjoy the process even after all these years in the industry.

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My older brother, who we unfortunately lost to cancer, has been my biggest inspiration. He held a significant place in my life, especially during my formative years. As the eldest sibling, he possessed a keen eye for detail, approaching his work with meticulousness, passion, and dedication. From him, I learned the values of discipline, passion and diligent execution. He took pride in even the smallest accomplishments in my life, which instilled confidence in me from an early age. I often wish he could witness my growth and achievements as a professional. I am certain that I would have made him proud, and wherever he may be, I believe he watches over me from the best place imaginable.

Q. Do you have a favourite whisky?
Selecting a favourite whisky can pose quite a dilemma, but if compelled to choose, the GlenAllachie 2006 Single Cask 14-Year-Old would undoubtedly top my list. Its unique characteristics and maturation process make it particularly memorable and enjoyable. In the Indian segment, my current preference naturally leans towards Indri. We’ve put in our best work to make sure it impresses with its rich flavour profile and promises a strong future for the category of Indian single malts. Our peated variant, Indri Diwali Collector’s Edition 2023, is a unique expression that entices you with a whiff of smoke and awakens your senses to a myriad of flavours such as candied dried fruits, toasted nuts, subtle spices, oak, bittersweet chocolate and more.

Q. Do you have role models in your industry?
I have always been inspired by the different techniques and processes that distilleries around the world adopt to produce top-notch quality products. Their dedication to craftsmanship, attention to detail and commitment to using the finest ingredients have set a benchmark in the industry. These distilleries have not only mastered the art of distillation but have also evolved with their approach towards innovative techniques and flavours, pushing the boundaries of what whisky can be. My experiences over the years have broadened my perspective and fuelled my passion for crafting distinctive and exceptional whiskies.

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Q. How do you view the competition for Indri in India, with the likes of Amrut, GianChand, Rampur, and Paul John?
I believe competition is one of the key driving forces behind innovation and quality improvement in any industry, and the whisky market is no exception. Each of these brands bring something unique to the table. I believe these brands together are bolstering the growth of Indian whiskies and positioning India among top players in the category around the world. They are benefiting whisky connoisseurs and young enthusiasts alike. Having carved a place for itself as one of the best whiskies in not just India but the world, Indri is already ahead of the curve. It has won over 14 prestigious global recognitions and most recently, the Indri Diwali Collector's Edition 2023 has been awarded with a Best in Show, Double Gold at Whiskies of the World Awards 2023, which is a strong indicator that our journey ahead holds great promise.

Q. How are the whiskies of North and South India different?
Both regions contribute to the rich tapestry of Indian whisky, offering something for a wide range of enthusiasts. Northern India's climate can lead to more rapid ageing and, conversely, the cooler and more humid climate of South India may lead to slower maturation. Some may prefer the bold and robust characteristics of single malts from the North, while others may appreciate the mellow, nuanced flavours of the South. It all comes down to personal preferences.

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Q. How do Indian single malts compare with those from countries like Scotland?
When it comes to whisky, age is often associated with quality and complexity. Whiskies that have been aged for longer are generally perceived as being of higher quality and having more intricate flavours. However, one has to remember that till not very long ago whisky was synonymous with Scotland and the Scottish weather is typically quite cold and wet, therefore the maturing whisky in the cask has very limited interaction with the wood as the temperature remains mostly evenly cool.

On the other hand, the whisky maturing in hot or tropical climates are met with extreme temperatures. A case in point being the northern plains of India where Indri is matured, the temperature oscillates between 0 degrees Celsius in winter and 50 degrees Celsius in summer, with just two months of rain and 10 months of dry weather. This extreme temperature makes the pores of the wood open up and contract exponentially, making the interaction between wood and the whisky much more pronounced, thereby imparting far more flavour to the liquid in a short period of time. Therefore, it would be unfair to Scottish whiskies if you compare a five-year-old Scotch single malt with a five-year-old Indian single malt, as they would not be able to develop the flavours and complexity of an Indian malt in just five years, owing to its climate. In maturation, you have to apply the rule of three, that is one year in India is equal to three years in Scotland.

Q. What is the future of Indian single malts?
The Indian whisky sector is experiencing strong expansion thanks to its innovative offerings, garnering the attention of whisky enthusiasts and drawing them towards this category. In 2022, the performance of Indian single malts was impressive, with sales reaching just over 2 million cases of 9 litres. This marked a remarkable annual growth rate of 18 percent. I anticipate this growth rate will soar even higher, approaching nearly 30 percent annually in the years to come.

Indian single malts experienced a growth rate of 37 percent, while imported single malts saw a more modest growth rate of 13 percent over a span of six years. With the projected annual growth rate set at 30 percent, both Indian and imported single malt sales are expected to continue their upward trajectory. Considering this promising outlook, I hold an optimistic view regarding the future growth of single malts in India.

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