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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  AmrutKadhambam

www.amrutdistilleries.com

The Book:  Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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India consumes more whisky than any other country in the world (an astonishing 1.5 billion litres annually), most of it distilled in the country. The finest of its distillers, like the finest of its writers, have delightfully upended what people have come to expect of the country.

THE WHISKY

Light mahogany behind the glass. Firm and spicy on the nose, with lighter fruit and floral notes. Rises to the head of the class on the palate– an intriguing blend of warm peat, oak and honey. Fine creamy texture. Delicious. Yes, and it lingers. (50% abv)

India doesn’t flow easily off the tongue when speaking about single malts. Most jaws would drop at being told that Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India, bottle some of the most highly awarded whiskies in the world. And would probably be further agape on learning that when the first Amrut single malt was introduced in 2004, the owners had the audacity to launch it first in Scotland, whisky’s sacred homeland.

Scots take their dram very seriously. They sipped and were a bit stunned. India? It took several more years, and a Jim Murray score of 97 in the 2010, for the wider world to join the party. To date, Amrut single malt has produced 14 different bottlings and is now sold in 32 countries. Exemplary reviews continue to accumulate, including for Kadhambam.

Kadhambam is a Tamil word meaning ‘mixture.’ Amrut took a single batch of peated spirit with the aim of coming up with “a completely different whisky with multi-personality characteristics.” It was matured first in ex-Oloroso sherry butts, then Amrut’s own ex-Bangalore Blue brandy casks, then finally Amrut ex-rum casks. The result could have been an incoherent mash-up. But, perhaps not surprisingly for the Amrut’s master blender Surinder Kumar, it emerged complex and refreshingly distinct. (Jim Murray promptly chimed in with a 96.5.)

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Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948 by J.N. Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, and is now run by his son, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, from premises located just outside Bangalore. Grandson Rakshit has also become an important element in the running of the company. Amrut produces a wide variety of spirits for the vast Indian market. In fact its single malt whisky accounts for only about 5% of business.

Single malt production in India comes with its own set of challenges. Equipment was not immediately available, leading to the manufacture of their own distinctive pot stills. The barley is transported all the way from the Punjab and Rajasthan, and, in the case of the peated barley, from Scotland. The annual evaporative loss of spirit (in a climate where temperatures range between 20˚- 40˚C throughout the year) can be upwards of 12% (vs 2% in Scotland). The whisky matures at three times the rate in northern climates. Monkeys have been known to be a nuisance in the still rooms!

Production at Amrut is labour intensive, a conscious decision by the owners in a country with a huge labour force. There are 450 employees, many of them women. Much of the bottling and packaging is done by hand, no mean work load considering 4 million cases of liquor go out the door each year.

THE BOOK

It has now been 25 years since the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie‘s masterful second novel. It is unlike any novel of India to be published before or since. It was as if a post-colonial train packed with every character Rushdie could imagine came hurtling into Bombay station, where everyone dispersed onto several platforms, about to inhabit an immensely ambitious novel, one that  would tell not only their own individual stories, but the coming-of-age story of their newly independent country.

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It is midnight, August 15, 1947. In the first hour of this first day of independence from Britain, 1001 children are born. They come to be known as Midnight’s Children. One of them is the novel’s narrator, Saleem. Born in the same nursing home, and also at the stroke of midnight is Shiva, the kid who will grow into his arch rival. The “cucumber-nosed” Saleem is born to great attention, Shiva to disinterest. The first to prestige and wealth, the other to the back alleys of Bombay.

A devious nursemaid, however, has switched the infants, setting much of the book’s complex, whirlwind plots in motion, taking the reader on a wild, earthy ride through the first thirty years of India’s independence. It is a novel bent by magic realism that has been very favourably compared to Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”

The novel took shape following Rushdie’s extensive ramble through India in 1975, undertaken on a shoestring  budget (the £700 advance on his first novel). He had grown up in Bombay, but purposely set out to immerse himself in the country as a whole. Not only was he soaking in the sensual overload which is everyday life in India, but he was grappling with the tumultuous path down which the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was taking the country. Back in London, there grew in Rushdie’s mind the notion of a central character whose life runs in parallel to India’s own. Not only that, but someone who sees himself as the very one responsible for the twists and turns of the country’s fortunes. It would be a bizarre, frightfully energetic novel.

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What saves it of course is Rushdie’s resourcefulness as a writer, especially his choice of narrative voice, one he calls, “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator’s increasingly tragic over-claiming. . .’ A voice that constantly embraces risk, it pulls the reader along with a nonchalance infused with biting satire.

Saleem is by turns crude, insightful, poetic, infuriating, provocative. Always engaging. That voice of his might well change within a single sentence. It is often in the first person, but could just as easily be in the third.

“. . .He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences, which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word: ‘No!’ or, ‘But!’ or even more arcane exclamations, such as ‘Bang!’ or ‘Whaam!’ Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips.”

The novel, like the whisky, never fears surprising those who share in it.

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