Matters of the spirit: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…Godawan

Diageo India’s latest single malt, Godawan, is unabashedly Rajasthani, and also puts the spotlight on the endangered Great Indian Bustard.

Terroir, as the French term it, is the complete environment that shapes the wine they make, from the soil and topography to the climate, a factor that can lead to wine being produced from the same varietal, but just grown say in adjacent plots, tasting quite different. Whether whisky has terroir or not is a debated subject. Perhaps not particularly into where the barley is grown, given the intense processing that it’s subjected to, aptly described in the song title “John Barleycorn must die” sung by Traffic, the 60’s rock group. There is a reasonable consensus, however, that the maturation conditions the whisky is subject to definitely play a role in its flavour profile, both in terms of temperatures as well as location.

Godawan, the new single malt launched by Diageo, is a child of these very harsh climatic conditions in Rajasthan. Godawan is the Indian name for the Great Indian Bustard. A close contender to be the national bird of India, it was pipped to the post by the more flamboyant peacock. Once widely found, it’s now largely confined to Rajasthan’s Desert National Park and is “critically endangered”, as described by WWF India, with a population of just 200.

Fortunate, therefore, that Diageo has chosen it as the emblem for a critical part of their craft spirits journey in India. Godawan follows the two whiskies launched under the Epitome badge, the first a single grain and the second a single malt. Having set a marker with these two earlier whiskies, Diageo now wants to broad base it’s Indian single malt portfolio with this launch.

Diageo india's latest single malt, godawan, has been produced in rajasthan.
Diageo India’s latest single malt, Godawan, has been produced in Rajasthan.

Befitting the criticality of Godawan to Diageo’s craft spirit ambitions, the launch is at Jaipur’s Rajmahal Palace Hotel, owned by the Jaipur royal family and managed by Raas hotels. In fact, Maharaj Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur is present at the launch and is very expressive about what this initiative means to him.  

“The state of Rajasthan, all that it stands for and all that it represents is very close to my heart. We have harsh conditions and climate and not the friendliest of ecosystems with very limited flora and fauna. Co-dependencies of supporting each other, via preservation and conservation, are critical with one example being the Great Indian Bustard. Once omnipresent across the country, it is now close to extinction,” he says.

He’s grateful that Diageo’s efforts will go some way towards the conservation and preservation of the Bustard. He also goes on to talk about the rich culture of art and craft in Rajasthan, citing the famous 36 karkhanas of Jaipur, ateliers in a sense, each practising individual crafts for generations.

Rajasthan is, therefore, an apt choice as a home state for Godawan, marrying together a rich culture of art and craft as well as it being home to the barley used in Godawan and where the whisky itself is distilled in Alwar as also matured there.

And though where the barley is grown may not play a defining role, the kind of barley definitely does. Most Indian single malts, including Godawan, use the six-row barley, as opposed to the two-row barley in Scotland with the high protein content of the former giving a unique flavour profile to the whisky. Godawan also goes through a long fermentation cycle of 55-65 hours helping ensure they get the maximum malt character out of the barley. The high temperatures in Rajasthan also lead to a faster maturation and a “depth of flavour” according to Diageo. I can only imagine what the angel’s share must be though!

As a finishing touch for the whisky, Diageo has used two local botanicals called Rasna and Jatamansi. Casks previously steeped in these two botanicals have been used to finish Godawan, giving it a “unique spice note”. Both botanicals are widely used in Ayurveda, Rasna to treat fever and muscle spasms and Jatamansi as a bitter tonic and stimulant.

Moving on to the whisky itself. Godawan has been launched in two variants, 01 and 02, or, as they’re described on the label, ‘Rich and Rounded’ and ‘Fruity and Spicy’, respectively. Truly new-world malts, giving consumers a clear idea of what to expect from each. I share some of the samples of Godawan that I receive with Anand Chintamani, a friend and whisky enthusiast and evangelist, for his considered opinion.

Anand interestingly draws a comparison between Japanese whiskies and the Godawan, specifically with respect to their nose and their palate. As he says, when you nose a Hibiki, “you can feel the chrysanthemum and as you pull a sip it continues to give you that floral taste”. A standard Speyside 12, however, will give you “apples/pears/honeydew melon on the nose and wood and ginger on the palate”. Japanese whiskies tend to take their nose to the palate, and Godawan is quite similar in that respect.

Godawan comes in two variants, 'rich and rounded' and 'fruity and spicy'.
Godawan comes in two variants, ‘Rich and Rounded’ and ‘Fruity and Spicy’.

Of the two variants, Anand prefers the Fruity and Spicy one, although he feels that the “spread of bouquet” of the Rich and Rounded is a good entry point to the malt world for a consumer. Overall, he also feels they could benefit from some more ageing, a factor no doubt Diageo has considered; and I’m sure the harsh temperatures of Rajasthan make ageing a very much touch and go affair.

To help it in its craft journey, Diageo has assembled a Craft Council and present on the evening are some of its members including Aparna Kakrania of Design Dimensions and Chef Manu Chandra. Shweta Jain, who leads Diageo’s craft endeavours and Vikram Damodaran, the Chief Innovation Officer are also present, and speak on the occasion, with both visibly delighted (and relieved, I’m sure) at the launch of Godawan with Shweta indicating that “this has been one of the biggest high points of her life and life in general” and Vikram paying rich tribute to the entire team that has helped give birth to Godawan.

The venue at the Rajmahal Palace has been divided into multiple zones, with a cocktail bar serving us as we enter, moving on from there to the central section, where Godawan is unveiled for tasting and then finally a lavish spread for dinner. The chef has closely worked with the Diageo team to curate the menu, and a highlight for me was the Junglee Maans flambeed with Godawan.

What’s heartening for me personally apart from one more excellent whisky joining the pantheon, is that a company like Diageo has embraced Indian craft spirits, thereby giving the entire craft spirits ecosystem in India a welcome vote of confidence. It also marks that innovation is not solely confined to small and mid-sized companies, but that big boys can dance too. Godawan’s success in the marketplace, however, is yet to be determined, but definitely a critical first step has been taken. I, for one, am also waiting for when no doubt the next set of malts in the series is launched!

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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