My love for whisky started during my stay in UK, over the year, I have become an advocate of whisky on my regular Weekend Spiritual Guidance on twitter. Few days back, a friendly Journalist asked for recommendation of Indian whisky for his visiting foreign friends, while recommending him with my pick, I realized how unstructured Indian whiskies have been traditionally.
India consumes almost as much whisky as the rest of the world put together. Officer’s Choice, a whisky launched in 1988 by Allied Blenders Distillers, is the world’s No 2 alcoholic beverage brand at 32.3 million litre cases.
Distilled alcoholic beverages that are labelled as “whisky” in India are commonly blends based on neutral spirits that are distilled from fermented molasses with only a small portion consisting of traditional malt whisky. Outside India, such a drink would more likely be labelled as rum & it cannot be sold in Europe as whisky.
The EU follows a strict definition of whisky, introduced in 1989, which requires it to be distilled from cereals, below 94.8 per cent volume so it retains the flavour and aroma of the raw materials, and to be matured for at least three years in wooden casks. No flavorings may be added to whisky.
“In contrast, there is no compulsory definition of whisky in India, and the Indian voluntary standard does not require whisky to be distilled from cereals or to be matured”
Almost all of the whisky produced in India is made by blending spirit distilled from fermented molasses (similar to what we know as rum) with either grain whisky (maize, wheat, rye or barley) or pre-blended Scotch whisky.
Scotch Whisky Regulations permit imports of blended Scotch whisky in bulk to be bottled in another country. India is one of the many places this happens; for example you can find locally bottled examples of Teacher’s, Vat 69 and Black & White. This ensured Indians have access to quality malt whisky at relatively cheaper price (entry level).
Indian whiskies too have evolved over time and so have distillers in terms of satisfying the consumer needs. Yes, we still do have those blends that are a ‘Scotch and sugar based neutral spirit mix, but we’ve also moved on to the ‘Indian malt and Scotch’ mix and the not so recent introduction of Single malts into the mainstream market
The first decent malt whisky brand in India “Solan No. 1” by the Kasauli Distillery. Named after the nearby town of Solan, It was bestselling Indian whisky for over a century until the 1980s. Another Honorary mention of India Malt whisky goes to Khoday India Limited (KIL), which launched Peter Scot whisky in May 1968.
The honor of first India Single malt to be made commercially available goes to United Breweries’ McDowell’s Single Malt, launched in early 90’s, it take pride in calling itself as India’s original Single Malt whisky
Despite these notable attempts, a true malt whisky or even Single malt was wanting, traditional Indian distillers had constraint of technology and climate along with lack of knowledge for blending method of malts, never ventured into true world class malt whisky. The lack of humidity is arguably the biggest obstacle faced by Indian whisky producers for two reasons: it causes both the ageing process to accelerate (around six times, so a three-year-old Indian malt is similar in maturity to an 15-18 year old Scotch), and for a higher ratio of water to alcohol to evaporate (the angel’s share), so the abv rises during maturation.
This paradigm changed few years back when Amrut Distillery launched its flagship products, Amrut Single Malt & Amrut Fusion Single Malt. Amrut, which means ‘nectar of the gods’ in Sanskrit, was introduced to the overseas market first in 2004. Amrut conformance of European standard packaging & its quality helped gains acceptance in European & North American market. Success came instantly when Amrut Fusion Single Malt was given title of Third Finest Whisky in the World by Jim Murray in the 2010 edition of the Whisky Bible.
Then in the year 2012, Bangalore based John Distillery (makers of Original Choice whisky) launched Paul John Single Malt Whisky in the United Kingdom. Later it won Best Asian Single Malt 12 Years and Under for Paul John Select Cask Classic at The World Whiskies Awards 2015.
Next to join the race was Rampur Single Malt Whisky, which is distilled in India’s one of the oldest distillery, Radico Khaitan. Launched in 2016 only, it quickly gained appreciation of whisky regulars
For Indian Single Malt brands, winning the eminent awards from among an ensemble of some expert whisky producers and distillers from across the globe made it a landmark victory.
In India, the angels’ share — the fraction of liquid lost to evaporation during aging — is about 10–12 percent every year, while in Scotland it is just about 2 per cent. Such heavy evaporation leaves only one-third of the matured malt in the barrels, as compared to that in Scotland. Though the evaporation makes the malt whisky expensive, it also gives maturation benefits. The malt whisky matured in a barrel under hot and humid climate in Goa or Bengaluru just for year or two may give a feel of seven- to eight-year-old whisky (Reason – there is hardly a mention of age statement in Indian Single malts).
Both Paul John & Amrut have started experimenting with their whisky, trying different blends. We can find limited edition of these blends in international market. This is a good sign for future of Indian single malt. It also confirms the new found confidence among Indian Distillers. Hopefully we will see more brands to jump into Indian Single Malt bandwagon.
One thing which I feel goes against these brands is their relative cold-shoulder to domestic market, in fact in Delhi/NCR being one of the biggest market, none of the 3 brands are available.
The writer @vikrantkumar is a whisky enthusiast … 🙂