Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be.
In this edition, we’re taking a look at Indian whisky. Once written off in the international spirit market, India has produced some truly remarkable whisky innovations in recent years that have made more established Spirit-making nations take note.
We’ll be covering the history of Indian whisky; the unique challenges the country faced in making the spirit, how it overcame them, and why its place in the global spirit market has sometimes been controversial. And, of course, we’ll be recommending our favorite Indian whiskies for you to sample.
So, tulip glasses at the ready – let’s dive in!
Scotch whisky found its way to India in the 19th century, introduced to the country’s populace by the British Raj. It was a slow import to take off – many locals viewed the drink as “foreign poison” and opposed its introduction.
As for the widespread manufacture of local Indian whisky, that came later, and after a protracted process. India’s first distillery – the Kasauli distillery – was established in the late 1820s by a British man named Richard Dyer, who brought copper pot stills from Scotland and aimed to take advantage of the abundant spring water in the Kasauli region. However, the production of alcohol from grain was hampered as food shortages in India meant that extra grain was in short supply (due to continued poverty in India, the use of grains in Alcohol production remains controversial to this day).
A solution to this problem was to make whisky using ingredients other than cereal, which many Indian whisky manufacturers did, and still do. The addition of a molasses to the spirit to bulk it out became a common practice (and, as we’ll find out momentarily, a particular source of controversy), resulting in a drink that only contained 10-12% traditional malt whisky and that many outside of India would consider closer to a rum.
India’s journey into high-end whisky production didn’t start until the 1980s, and a single distillery – Amrut – is heralded as the company that changed the game. Like its competitors, Amrut made whisky by blending a grain-based mash with molasses. But, the company’s chairman, Neelakanta Jagdale, also recognized the potential for a connoisseur’s whisky product, and began procuring barley from Indian farmers in 1982.
By the tail end of the decade, Amrut had made their first batch of single malt whisky, though there was little demand for the product in the domestic market. India had no culture for consuming single malts, and it was ultimately blended with sugarcane-distilled alcohol to produce MaQintosh Premium Whisky, a drink more suited to the country’s tastes.