Amrut Competes with the World’s Finest Whiskies

Jordan Wright
October 2018 

Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Single malt whisky connoisseurs can rejoice at the news that some of the finest whiskies in the known world have reached our shores from Amrut Distilleries in India.  Amrut “Fusion” has been rated “third best” whisky in the world by British whisky writer, Jim Murray, with 97 points from the Whisky Bible who at that time ranked it third in the world.  They could also boast of the “Thumbs Up” award from Malt Maniacs and dozens more awards worldwide.  A recipient of 92 points out of 4,800 entries by Whisky Advocate, they have consistently beat out the best-known Scottish whiskies in countless blind tastings.  Its “Single Malt Peated Cask” has scored a coveted 92 points from the Whisky Bible.  In 1987, and despite outsider prejudice, Amrut bravely put its product into these highly competitive Scottish tastings to prove it can compete with the best in its field.  They are now the number one whisky in India, despite the country’s longtime preference for Johnny Walker Black, a holdover since the early days of British colonialism.

Last month I had the opportunity to taste all of Amrut’s products from their single malt through their entire gamut of whiskies and rums.  I didn’t do a blind tasting, because frankly I would have planted my face in the floor, especially as it was a noon tasting and I hadn’t had breakfast.  Managing to keep upright throughout, I settled in for a concentrated, thought-provoking experience that would both confound and alter my appreciation of whiskies outside the realm of the best-known brands.

Photo credit ~ Amrut

Made from select Indian malted barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan, these spirits are distilled in the hot climes of India.  They react to those conditions by coming to fruition far earlier than others of their ilk.  Their flavors are modified by temperature, added ingredients (spices, citrus peel and the like), the wood used in the casks, Himalayan water from the Sutlej river, and the casks’ former use.  These choices are made under the direction of Master Distiller Surrimar Kumar, a 33-year veteran of Amrut and award-winning whisky innovator, and veritable genius in drawing out the complexly crafted, unique personalities he is after.  One of Kumar’s creations is Amrut “naraangi” that won “World’s Best Whisky 2018”.  Aged three years in an ex-oloroso sherry cask, the single malt is then seasoned with wine and orange peel and aged for another three years.

Did you know that 60-70% of flavoring comes from the barrel?  That’s how important the choice of wood is for determining the final profile.  So, imagine for a moment using wood from five different species of trees to produce one whisky barrel.  These specially designed barrels are used exclusively for their “Spectrum Single Malt Whisky” to be available in 2020.  I’ve tasted whisky made in port barrels and sherry barrels (Amrut Single Malt Whisky Intermediate Sherry” earned 96 points from the Whisky Bible), but this is an exciting new concept.  A Special Limited Edition, Amrut Madeira” aged in Madeira barrels, will be on the U. S. market in time for the holidays.

Neel Jagdale - Chairman of Amrut ~ Photo credit: Amrut

Next year, Ashok Chokalingam, who has been with the company for many years, will take the reins as Master Distiller and Whisky Innovator bringing his own imagination to the company’s growing range of whiskies and rums.  At our first meeting he offered up this self-effacing quote. “We are a minnow coming from India,” he told me.  Well, this minnow of a company has become a full-grown shark with a high demand for its products that’s currently five times what they can supply.  But, no worries.  The company’s newest plant will now be able to accommodate its rising popularity.  Amrut is now in 45 countries and boasts $3M in annual sales.  Surprisingly, the U. S. is the second largest market outside of Europe for “Amrut Single Malt Indian Whisky”.

AMRUT - Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Now I’m no expert in describing the varied flavor profiles of whisky, I rely on my palate and my years of experience tasting spirits from around the world.  I leave it to the whisky mavens to create descriptors for these products.  They’re the ones that can extrapolate the taste of honey, chocolate, ginger, licorice, chocolate-chip cookie dough, driftwood (?!!!), orange, smoked fish, pepper, barbecued meats, pears, coconut, cherries, plums, raisins, lemons, and on and on.  It’s a probably good thing they don’t describe food.

[Color Wheel Credit] ~ Courtesy of Whisky magazine

Because India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar in the world, Amrut made the decision to produce rum, and it is sensational.  Ashok explained that rum existed since 320 BC – long before rum was produced in the Caribbean in the 17th century.  Amrut offers two types of rum – “Two Indies Rum”, made with leftover sugar cane from Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana.  It is made with five rums that have been aged together.  The “Old Port Deluxe Matured” has a lovely hint of coconut from the jaggery sugar used in the process.  Jaggery is a by-product of sugar cane grown in India.

Two Indics Rum ~ Photo credit: Amrut

If you're looking to impress a whisky connoisseur with the whiskies that everyone is talking about, you can do no better than some of these winning spirits.

Imported by Glass Revolution Imports you can find many of these whiskies and rums in our area at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Pappe, Bombay Club, Rasika, Karma, Chaplin’s and Chloe by Haidar Karoum.

For more information visit Amrut Distilleries and Amrut Whisky UK Office.

Kelli Schollard-Sincock Creates Prison Arts Program for City of Alexandria and Fairfax County

Jordan Wright
July 16, 2018
for the Alexandria Times 

When Forensic Sketch Artist Kelli Schollard-Sincock, who holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Art from the University of Washington and completed the BFA program in Printmaking from George Mason, was thinking about how she could make an impact in her community, she recalled a casual comment a friend made during a lecture at Lorton the two women attended.  The talk featured prisoners’ art the guards had collected either through barter or outright payment and she was duly impressed by the caliber of the work.  Her friend said, “You should do that,” meaning teach art within the prisons.  The offhand remark didn’t really register with her until she read a report that the new administration planned to cut funding for the arts.  She felt it was a call to action.

Taking the bull by the horns, she approached Lt. Marybeth Plaskus at the Alexandria Detention Center and asked if they had a need for a prison arts program.  Plaskus gave her the nod, and the first class was held in February 2017.  “We started from scratch with one classroom that was immediately filled with about 25 male students.  That was such positive reinforcement for me.  They were always thankful I was there,” she says.  Since its inception the program has not only been hugely popular, but it has grown rapidly and now includes classes for women at the Fairfax facility.

Piggybacking on her success at the Alexandria prison, she then reached out to the Fairfax County Detention Center and began her arts program there in August 2017.  She now teaches there twice a week plus one day a week in Alexandria.  Yet there is still more demand.  Schollard-Sincock’s goal is to hire more teachers to fill the many requests for additional classes.

Kelli Schollard-Sincock teaching at the Fairfax County Detention Center

Initially the challenge was to find art supplies which are not funded by state or local counties.  She had to get creative.  Well, that’s what artists do.  Right?  In a stroke of good fortune, she discovered the ‘Buy Nothing Project’, an online sharing organization for free items that operates locally through Facebook.  There she put out a call for art supplies and had such a positive response that for four weeks she drove all over the county gathering an immense amount of materials.

Photo from Alexandria County Detention Center Prison Art Program courtesy of Kelli Schollard-Sincock

Del Ray Artisans heard about her classes and thought they could help.  The gallery’s Fundraising Director Joe T. Franklin, Jr. and Acting President Drew Cariaso wanted to learn about the program and have her give a talk to their members.  Member artists were so impressed with her outreach program that they held a fundraiser including an in-house drive for materials.  “People have really taken ownership of the program,” she adds.  Subsequently the gallery has been instrumental in helping her set up a non-profit to be called ‘Inspiration Matterz’ which will allow her to expand the program with the help of additional art teachers.  She credits Program Directors Lenora Murphy and Latanya Ervin at the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center with keeping her program ongoing and her husband Austin and son Gregory for their support and encouragement.

Photo from Fairfax County Detention Center Prison Art Program courtesy of Kelli Schollard-Sincock

Schollard-Sincock chooses the subjects that are executed in a variety of mediums.  “Men and women respond totally differently to the programs.  My intention is to teach tangible skills not just doing crafts.  My very first student was an older gentleman.  He told me, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.  The best you’re going to get out of me are stick figures.” She says he really clicked when he started painting and is now painting photorealistic drawings.  “He is like the case study of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Over the past year she has seen a huge change in their attitude.  “It’s empowering to learn that you have developed a skill.  The biggest thing in these classes is getting them to trust me and not give up.”

Director of the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Leslie Mounaime, reached out to her and offered their site for a show.  On Friday, July 20th, Del Ray Artisans will host the opening night reception for “Off The Grid” in the Torpedo Factory’s Site 2 Community Gallery showcasing 49 framed drawings from Schollard-Sincock’s prison art program.  The opening reception is from 7-9pm. The show runs through August 31st.

Kelli Schollard-Sincock’s own work can be found on her website www.KelliSincock.com.

Melanie Bikowski ~ An Interview with the Artist

Jordan Wright
December 16, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Melanie Bikowski

Alexandria artist Melanie Bikowski is a mom first – at least that’s how she’d prefer you to think of her.  Mother to two-year old Cayce, she is relatively new to the art world, yet in a few short years she has developed quite a following for her colorful acrylics.  Originally from Hampton Roads in Southeastern Virginia, Bikowski grew up in Norfolk, moving to Alexandria five years ago.  After getting dual bachelors’ degrees in Psychology and Creative Writing, she continues to seek her major in psychology at Old Dominion University.  Her thesis is on ‘Mom’s Art’, a term that’s been used to describe the work of Canadian artist Ruth Oosterman, who also found inspiration collaborating with her toddler.  Bikowski explains, “A lot of my work is bright, amorphous, abstract modern art and I wanted to incorporate my mom life into my work.”  In the spirit of honoring a child’s drawings that most parents merely tack onto the refrigerator, Bikowski says, “I feel like that’s the reality of our home décor.  Other people live in your home and they leave their work there too.”

Abstract works with daughter Cayce

While pregnant with Cayce, Bikowski had begun to have dreams of painting canvasses with her daughter.  “We’ve been doing pure creation together while building our relationship.  She has now become my muse.”  Defining her paintings as spur-of-the-moment, intuitive, emotional art, she believes if an artist “flows the best of their emotions are at their highest.”  She feels her daughter’s limitless sense of wonderment, childlike experimentation and freedom of expression inspire her, leading her to incorporate Cayce’s coloring pieces, drawings and stickers into her paintings.  The toddler’s current fantasy playworld is heavily influenced by the Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony.

“When I moved here my biggest dream was to be an artist.  People were telling me that doesn’t exist,” Bikowski says.  One day, while at her first job in Alexandria at the Robinson Terminal, fate drew her to the nearby Torpedo Factory where she found a gallery filled with dozens of artists.  “I was stoked to see what was going on there and went every weekday after that.  Watching the artists and hearing how excited they were – that just really saved me,” she says.

Green Painting- "Home" Mel Bikowski 2016- Promotional Painting for Sensorium at Del Ray Artisans

"Home" Melanie Bikowski 2016

In January of 2014 her mother convinced her to take a course in abstract art at Alexandria’s famed The Art League with instructor, Beverly Ryan.  Through Ryan, whom she considers her mentor, she took on an art challenge to complete one painting a day for a year.  That massive effort turned into 466 paintings, of which she sold over 100.  Over 80 of her paintings have Cayce’s work in them.  During the same period, she discovered the Del Ray Artisans Gallery on Mount Vernon Avenue.  Now celebrating its 25th year promoting art and artists in Alexandria, the gallery hosts monthly members’ shows open to the public.  There she found a welcoming art scene with members helping each other find alternative submission opportunities.

That led her to collaborate on a show earlier this year with local artist, Lotus Heartsong, at the The Village Gallery in Old Town Fairfax.  Featured in the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide, the women were thrilled to welcome over 300 people to their opening.  As a result of the show’s huge success, she received a residency at Olly Olly, an alternative art space and gallery in Fairfax where she shares working space with four other artists and is able to show at their exhibitions.

"A Call for Courage" Melanie Bikowski 2017

This January Bikowski will co-curate Sensorium with fellow DRA member Betsy Mead.  The exhibit is described as the using the part of the brain that, “evokes emotional feelings of sympathy, appreciation or gratitude, or something that is moving, heartbreaking or tender”, and honors “how artists interpret the impact of our human journey through evoking the five senses.”  The show’s cover art is Bikowski’s evocative painting, “Home”.

Sensorium runs from January 5th - 28th 2018 at the Colasanto Center, 2704 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22301.  Gallery hours are Thursdays 12-6pm, Fridays 12-9pm, Saturdays 12-9pm, and Sundays 12-6pm. The gallery is free and handicap accessible.  For more information on the show visit The Del Ray Artisans Gallery.  To learn more about Melanie Bikowski visit her website.

Art News – Focus on Renowned Local Photographer Nina Tisara

Jordan Wright
Special to The Alexandria Times
June 6, 2017 

Nature-inspired mosaic by Nina Tisara - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Nature-inspired mosaic by Nina Tisara - Photo credit Jordan Wright

When interviewed for her 2015 Living Legends of Alexandria profile, Artist-Photographer Nina Tisara quipped, "I had a life before Living Legends and I expect to have a life after."  As founder of the organization that selects and celebrates annually the inspiring accomplishments and contributions of our finest citizens, Tisara will retire from her ten-year commitment leading the organization to pursue her art.

Her photography journey began in the 70's at Air Force official photo library job when she took first photography class writing picture captions. While attending NOVA night classes in photography to reward herself for earning George Mason BA degree in economics in the mid-80’s and working full-time for a national association, she got hooked, and started part-time freelance photojournalist journey.  More study followed and her work began to get noticed.  Eventually the single mother of four went pro with portrait and wedding commissions, moving her business from Fairlington in 1990 to the townhouse on King Street where Tisara Photography continues to thrive under her son, Steven Halperson.

Currently Tisara has two very different shows in our area. Both are worthy of study. Her powerful black and white photographs of worshippers of all faiths allow us a window to the faithful in intimate and revealing moments of worship. In her nature-related mosaics show she interprets her own photographs in a more classic form – revealing the intricate details of nature through tiny pieces of tile.

Gospel Song, Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church - Photo credit - Nina Tisara

Gospel Song, Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church - Photo credit - Nina Tisara

The show at Convergence, Witnessing Worship – Connecting Through the Lens of Faith, brings together for the first time two of Tisara’s photo documentary studies of worship in Alexandria – Converging Paths (1984-85) and United in the Spirit (1995).  The exhibition invites Alexandrians to share photographs of current worship online.

Convergence believes Tisara’s work fits their universal philosophy. “The ambitious spiritual/cultural objective of this undertaking was the creation of a space where viewers were comfortable in considering the idea that agreement is not a requirement for relationship but an invitation to each of us to expand our capacity for generous listening and observation,” said Reverend Lisa Smith of Covergence.

The closing reception for Witnessing Worship is Friday, June 16, 7-9pm at Convergence, 1801 N. Quaker Lane. For details about the online project contact DabABH@ourconvergence.org.  The reception is free and open to the public.

Nina Tisara talks with fellow artist Marian Van Landingham at the opening reception at Huntley Meadows Visitors Center - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Nina Tisara talks with fellow artist Marian Van Landingham at the opening reception at Huntley Meadows Visitors Center - Photo credit Jordan Wright

In 2005 when photography went predominantly digital, Tisara laid her camera aside and started creating mosaic designs studying under Gene Sterud, a retired archeologist. "The medium provides the opportunity to combine my early training in painting and sculpture and my later work in photography. I often use the double-reverse process taught by Gene which, like sculpting in clay, allows the image the freedom to evolve," she explains.   Each piece is signed with a tiny silver gecko.  “Geckos represent transition and transformation, death and rebirth, and letting go of old things for new,” she adds.

Alexandria residents Judy and Carl Lohmann admire details of Tisara's mosaics - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Alexandria residents Judy and Carl Lohmann admire details of Tisara's mosaics - Photo credit Jordan Wright

Currently on exhibit at Huntley Meadow Park Visitors Center through August 31st, we see her work inspired by her photographs of a particular stand of trees at the park where she had envisioned “dancers” in the twisted grapevines that gird these trees.  Some of the mosaics are hung alongside the photographs that inspired them.  Tisara has been visiting the park and observing and photographing nature there since 2000 and first exhibit in 2003.

Huntley Meadows is located at 3701 Lockheed Boulevard, in nearby Fairfax County. For Visitor Center hours, see http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/huntley-meadows-park/

Interview with Culinary Icon Jeremiah Tower Upon the Release of the Brilliant Biopic “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2017 

With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America.  It’s an appellation he richly deserves.  As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine.  After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.

His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America.  In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars.  Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.

In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.  His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.

After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.

Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society.  It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.

One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic.  Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart, give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.

I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor.  A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.

Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?

Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes!  It was very strange for me to watch it.  Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.

Are you pleased with the result? 

It was very odd.  Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film.  I was surprised I did it.  I’ve never really done anything like that before.  Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.

Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?

No.  I did that for 35 years.  I’m now getting my physical and mental health together.  I went to the beach.  Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.

I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse.  Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine? 

I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film.  He had the same reaction as you.  It pushed his justice button.  He wanted to tell the story.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He’s an outrageous guy.  Did you know my book has been revised and reissued?  It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.

Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country.  Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?

It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then.  So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills.  They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that.  The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse.  Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.

What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?

Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge.  But, you know, she couldn’t cook.  Neither could Craig Claiborne.  Pierre Franey did all the cooking.  I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara.  The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food.   As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.”  So we prepared the meal.

The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community.  Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?

As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.”  The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.

I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”.  I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge.  A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.”  When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.

I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef.  Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?

I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris.  If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.

You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.

When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.

The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude.  After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?

When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance.  I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.

How would you prepare iguana?

I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it.  It tastes like a reptilian chicken.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.