Last week, the Indian Amrut distillery announced a very special whisky release: The Amrut Herald.
Four bourbon casks of five year old Amrut single malt whisky had been stored dor further 18 months on the tiny German North Sea island of Helgoland which had been under British control for the longest part of the 19th century and a few years after the Second World War.
One of the casks yielded 222 bottles which are sold exclusively in the shop of Niels Pförtner on the Island for about €80. The other casks are supposededly allocated to selected other markets, but so far no specific announcement was made by Amrut.
Two things need to be set straight. In the original press release the distance of Helgoland to the German mainland is given as 70 kilometres or 45 miles. Obviously they confused miles and kilometres here because the true distance is 45 km or 28 miles, making the island appear somewhat less remote. Errors like this can happen, of course. But it becomes rather embarrassing when the German Press release (PDF download) distributed by the importer Prineus uses the same wong numbers. They are located in Kiel which is the capital of Schleswig-Holstein, the German state that also Helgoland belongs too. Shouldn’t they know it better?
And then the blurb on the box calls Helgoland an archipelago. Well, Helgoland consists of two parts – the rocky main island and a sand dune that had been connected to it until a severe storm surge destroyed the connection in 1721. But to call this an archipelago is stretching the concept quite a bit, especially if you take into account that the closest island to Helgoland is almost as far away as the mainland. But of course an archipelago is a much more exciting place than a simple island.
Fact or Fiction?
But apart from that little squabble, there is a much more interesting question to ask. Why Helgoland?
The press release emphasizes the gentle Gulf Stream climate (the announcement of the Herald in the magazine Der Helgoländer calls it a ‘rough high seas climate’, by the way) of the island and the contrast to the tropical climate of Bangalore where Amrut is distilled, resulting in a unique whisky expression.
But how much of an influence can maturation on Helgland actually have? The whisky was already five years old when it was transferred to the island. In respect to the significantly faster maturation in India this whisky can be regarded as almost fully matured. Maturation will be much slower in Europe, so it is very doubtful if the 18 additional months can have a real impact on the character of the whisky.
And keep in mind that to take full benefit of the local climate, the whisky has to mature in a location where it can actually interact with the atmosphere unaffected by other influences. There are no whisky warehouses on Helgoland not very surprisingly. And neither are there farms where you could store the casks in a barn. Unless the casks were put in one of the little sheds in the small gardening colony on Helgoland, the casks must have been stored inside a house. And here it should be obvious that the influence of local climate will not be as big as in a proper warehouse.
Now Helgoland also happens to be a duty free haven. Tourism and duty free shops are the two main income sources for the islanders. So it is not quite unlikely that the casks were stored in the shop that is selling the bottles now. And it does not take much imagination to suspect the real reason why Amrut selected Helgoland for the Herald.
After the Amrut Two Continents, the Herald is the second Amrut bottling matured partly in Europe. But that expression was matured a little shorter in India and then for three years in Europe, so you may think of it as an attempt to slow down maturation. But as much as I am in favour of whisky experiments in general, I have to admit that I don’t see the point in the Herald. Isn’t taking a mature (to Indian standards) whisky abroad for just a little longer anything more than a gimmick? It is the geographic equivalent of a cask finish, with the difference that re-casking has a true impact on the whisky.
Judging from the press releases, Amrut seems to be keen on bridging the gap between the Indian and the European style of whisky, perhaps because they feel restricted in their maturation options due to the hot Indian climate. But isn’t Amrut whisky loved by many for the very reason that it has its own distinctive ‘Indian’ style? Why should they now try to dilute this, especially when the influence of such an “island finish” may be more psychological than real?
What remains is a lot of buzz about a whisky with an undisputable noveltly value. But being talked about is never a bad thing. And I am eager to try the Herald anyway.