Perusing the shelves at the LCBO my eye was caught by a new bottle tucked in among the wall of blended Scotch whiskies bearing the name "Royal Challenge." My curiosity piqued, I read the label, "Royal Challenge Finest Premium Whisky. A blend of rare Scotch, select grain and matured Indian malts." Turning the bottle over confirmed that it was actually made in India and that the 42.8% ABV spirit contained "permitted natural colour." Intrigued, I purchased the bottle to share with the club. After all, "what's life without a Royal Challenge!"
Visiting the website on the label of the importer, AA Impex Ltd, affixed to the side of the bottle; I would later learn that Royal Challenge is a very popular blended whisky enjoyed primarily in India and in a few ex-pat communities around the globe. In fact, as soon as I opened the bottle and saw the speed pour cap, I got the picture: this is India's go-to bar rail whisky.
Produced by United Spirits Ltd. RC (as it's colloquially known) lead the Indian "premium whisky" segment, by volume of sales, throughout India, during the 1980s and 90s; it's domestic popularity rivaled by a Seagram's / Pernod Ricard whisky, "Blender's Pride." There's no question that RC continues to maintain a large market share in India and part of it's fame is due in no small part to the brand's relationship as a title sponsor of the Royal Challengers cricket team.
Indian whisky, while loved by the domestic populace, has drawn criticism from the global whisky connoisseur community as the blended product is commonly based on neutral spirits that are distilled from fermented molasses with only a small portion (around 12% of this blend is estimated to be malt) consisting of traditional malt whiskey. The criticism being, that anywhere outside of India, their "whisky" would be considered rum with malt flavouring.
Already feeling a little suspicious about the quality of the blend from the speed pour cap I decided to investigate what does "permitted natural colour" mean? A few minutes of searching led me to a product description of RC for the domestic market asserting that "varying proportions of selected Indian Malt Spirit, Clean Extra Neutral Alcohol, Plain Caramel, FDA and State Exercise approved flavours and essences are blended under close supervision and strict quality control so as to get overall roundness and typical organoleptic characteristics to the blend." I had no luck finding out what those "approved flavours and essences" might include but I figured it must be safe to drink, right?
Nose: Straight-forward, there's not much here aside from grain alcohol sweetness akin to burnt sugar and caramel.
Palate: Smoother than expected on entry with a thick and somewhat creamy mouthfeel. All that texture doesn't add much in the way of complexity to the flavour. Muddled flavours of brown sugar and with ashy smoke.
Finish: Long and mouth-coating with a sort of sweet, stale, smoke.
Overall: On the whole, this is an inoffensive and somewhat bland blend that, as some of the guys suggested at our nosing, might have made it past the first round or two of the "Battle of the Blends" had it been in stock and tasted blind. The $26.95 price tag is about right for the product and yet it doesn't compel me to want to drink it again, mix it or serve it to guests. All in all, I'd say it was a novelty experience that I wouldn't rush out to purchase again. With distribution only in LCBO Vintages locations, AA Impex Ltd. is looking to bring Indian and Caribbean ex-pat communities here in Ontario a taste of home and time will tell if their target market will demand Royal Challenge on the LCBO shelves.