Blending booze and brews isn’t new – we love an espresso martini – but this collaboration takes place at a much earlier stage of the coffee production chain.
To begin with, arabica coffee trees are planted at the Kelagur Heights Estate by the Mathias family, a fourth-generation coffee producer. Shade-grown and meticulously nurtured, the trees will not start to produce fruit for three or four years. At the same time, whisky which has been fermenting in the stills of the Amrut distillery is being poured into charred American white oak barrels for aging. In the heat of India, the whisky matures at a rate of three times that of chilly Scotland, though the price of this quicker maturation is a dramatic rise in what’s called “the angels share” – up to 12% a year, compared with the 2% loss experienced in Scottish distilleries.
Fast-forward four years and the whisky is being bottled, while the perfectly ripe cherries of the Kelagur Heights trees are being picked for the first harvest. The cherries are then fermented themselves in still-like tanks until the fruit surrounding the coffee beans has dissolved. The clean coffee beans are dried in the sun for weeks, until the beans have hardened and the moisture levels drop enough to make them ready for roasting.
At this stage the coffee would usually be sent off to roasters like Merlo for sale, because unlike the alcohol industry, when it comes to coffee, fresh is best. Aging green beans has not been common practice for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the preservation of coffee flavours and the quick turnaround of harvest to profit. In this case, the team at Kelagur Heights decided to do something quite different.
In every tradition, there are always those willing to experiment, to push the boundaries of what is known or believed to be possible – or advisable. The owners and distillers of Amrut have made their own path and elevated Indian whisky to new levels of world renown. Where once Indian whisky had never featured in any best-of lists, the company has twice been scored 82/100 by whisky connoisseur Jim Murray, who ranked one of their single malts as the third-best in the world.
Whisky barrel coffee aging has been a small scale production, on the periphery of the larger coffee industry, but as the techniques are refined, it is gathering more momentum. It made perfect sense that when the Kelagur Heights team decided to try their hand at this new experimental form of coffee processing that they decided to use the barrels from the trailblazers at Amrut.
The green beans are stored in the used whisky barrels for months and are rolled to ensure the green beans all come into contact with the wood. This results in the beans absorbing the heady aromas and flavours of the spirit itself and the smoothness of charred oak and vanilla from the barrels. Once roasted, these flavours caramelise and develop depth, with currant-like-sweetness cutting through the distinctively alcoholic body. Sweet, smooth and warm like a great single malt, you may feel like you’re sipping on scotch, but any alcohol absorbed during the aging process is well and truly burnt off in the roasting process.
We suggest having this one black or with milk, but if you really want to take it to the next level, set it up as cold brew which makes a startlingly accurate whisky substitute and serve it over ice.