TD Conversations: Mahesh Patil, Master Blender, Diageo India

The launch of the Epitome Reserve series, India-made craft whiskies, points to an interesting, new direction for Diageo India.
Epitome reserve from diageo is india's first rice whisky.
Epitome Reserve from Diageo is India’s first rice whisky.

Finally, the artisanal craft spirits space is being taken seriously by the biggies. While the pandemic raged, Diageo India was quietly working on its first small-batch craft whisky, Epitome Reserve. Only 2,000 bottles of the limited-edition spirit were launched in 2021, indicating the exclusivity of the artisanal whisky. Epitome Reserve is also India’s first-ever rice whisky, made with grain sourced from Punjab and matured for over three years in bourbon casks and finished in PX sherry and cherrywood casks in Goa. Piqued by the positive response, Diageo followed this up with a second edition, the Epitome Reserve Peated Single Malt; numbering just 3,600 bottles, each signed by Master Blender Mahesh Patil. Or to give his full designation: Master Blender & Liquid Curator and Founding Member – Craft Spirits at Diageo India.

In his position as the Master Blender, Mahesh focuses on identifying untapped consumer opportunities, developing tantalising liquids that deliver a spectacular sensory experience and designing processes that help commercialise these offerings at scale. As a Liquid Curator, he spends time understanding the physico-chemical behaviours of different liquid styles and uses his expertise to bring multiple styles of liquids together in a perfect amalgam.

In this conversation with Traveldine, Mahesh talks about the two Epitome Reserve launches and how they came about.

Mahesh patil, diageo india's master blender.
Mahesh Patil, Diageo India’s master blender.

What took Diageo so long to enter the craft whisky segment in India? Why launch the whisky now?

We feel now is the perfect time to enter the craft whisky world when consumers have already started experiencing it. Consumers now understand its meaning and we felt now was the perfect time to hit the nail on the head. Speaking on why we launched whisky now is because it showed us very good progress. Whisky anyway on its own has a much larger segment being catered in India, and hence it is the right segment to explore in craft.

How did the idea of launching a craft whisky come about? Is the Indian market ready for this segment?

India as a country is very experimental and consumers here always try to explore and experience unique things. They are always ready to try new products and categories. The idea to launch a craft whisky came about as it was an unexplored territory. This mere reason motivated us to work on Epitome and launch it. 

Why did you decide to make a whisky with rice rather than more conventional grains?

The blended or single-malt whiskies are heavy in sensory profiles because of the grain (malted barley) and the pot distillation process. However, consumers also prefer lighter yet complex profiles of the liquids, easy to drink and vibrant, appealing in sensory profile.

Rice is very much an integral part of the food system, due to its lighter texture yet nutritive richness. Globally there are very few 100 percent rice-based whiskies. But in India there are none. United’s Epitome Reserve Whisky is true to its rare nature, first of its kind and technically a Single-Grain Whisky.

Is this a whisky for the Indian market only or do you plan to export it as well?

It’s for the Indian market surely but we also plan to export it to foreign shores.

Epitome reserve

Will we see more craft whiskies going forward? And will they always be small-batch limited edition? And will they be Epitome or some other line?

Yes, the craft whisky journey has been started — you will see more for sure. And they all fall under the Craft umbrella. They will be Epitome and many other lines too.

Tell us something about the maturation and distillation process of this whisky.

The grain spirit is produced from continuous column distillation process by maintaining the right draw/distillation cuts at specific strength, as we wanted to achieve certain lighter profiles like creamy, fruitier notes in the new make spirit after long fermentation.

This new make with its distillery characters, is matured and finished in our own warehouse at Goa. The cask maturation warehouse is more than 50 years old where this whisky is matured for more than three years and then finished in unique casks like PX Sherry butts and cherrywood.

United Epitome Reserve Whisky is non-chilled filtered as we wanted to retain the original distillation, maturation and unique cask finishing sensory profile of the liquid.

What makes Epitome Reserve stand apart? Tell us a bit about the flavour and tasting notes.

The whisky with all its unique properties and the entire rich craft bundle makes it stand apart. It is a world-class craft design, rare single-grain Indian whisky, not to forget its high-quality packaging.

It is a whisky with a vibrant combination of vanilla, creamy toffee, rich fruits, and butterscotch characters, accompanying a smooth, delicate texture and balanced wood finish that slowly disappears into a tempest of rich spice.

What were some of the challenges faced in creating this whisky? Was it an interesting and creative process?

We did face challenges. However, the team overcame them with not only the best solutions but creative ones since we were working in a pandemic-hit situation and managing tasks and meetings whilst adhering to the timeline of the project. Making this first-of-a-kind ‘grain spirit’ for India was a refreshingly creative experience and every step gave us a new learning.

How has the reception to the whisky been?

It has been very well received by the consumers. It surpassed our expectations, and we are thrilled about it.

What has the Epitome Reserve been priced at?

It’s currently on ‘Price on Request’.

Epitome Reserve Peated Single Malt

Epitome reserve peated single malt

What is the thought process behind the new Epitome Reserve?

It’s about Peat Single Malt, made from 100 percent Indian 6-Row Barley, matured in ex-bourbon refill casks and then meticulously finished in Indian ex-Cabernet Sauvignon (French oak) casks.

Were there any learnings from creating the first Epitome Reserve that you implemented here? 

Yes, the process of selecting the unique and sensory profile such as cask selection is one of the key learnings in maturation. Hence, we used, Indian ex-Cabernet Sauvignon casks for finishing.

How important was the role of the terroir in the creation of this whisky? After all, the barley used is from a select region and you’ve mentioned the waters of the Mandovi. 

Every element of making a Grain to Glass plays an important role. Selection of raw material is paramount and hence its terroir in flavour creation which you keep front or centre.

Barley plays the role for flavour, same as the water which is one of the key ingredients for making any spirit/whisky.

Why did you decide to create a peaty whisky?

Peated whiskies are very selective in the market. We wanted to offer consumers a different experience through this creation. We used the Indian 6-Row Barley which was uniquely finished after a very long maturation. All peated single malts are not same. They are different because of the source of peat, type of barley used for the peat process during malting, level of peat, cask architecture for maturation, etc.

Are you satisfied with what you’ve achieved with this whisky?

Yes, absolutely. I am sure it will delight consumers with its overall sensory profile.

What are some of the defining qualities of the new Epitome Reserve? 

It’s a 6-Row Indian peated barley, 100 percent copper pot distilled, first time peated single malt finished with Indian ex-Cabernet Sauvignon casks. It is non-chill filtered, for very authentic taste and we do not take anything out as original characters.

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