Whiskies of the World: Indian Whisky
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.
It was 2004 when Amrut finally released their namesake single malt – the first single malt whisky ever to be produced in India. The production of the Amrut single malt came about when the distillery realized that they could age malts much quicker than their Scottish counterparts. Thanks to the heat in which they are distilled, Indian whiskies age in about a third of the time of Scotch. The result according to Amrut head distiller Surinder Kumar, is that a bottle of Amrut aged 5 years ”can be compared easily with some 15 year olds in Scotch scale.”
A hit with consumers upon its release, Amrut continued to innovate in the single malt field, introducing the “spectrum” barrel, which hybridised new woods from America, France and Spain along with those from ex-Sherry casks. And they aren’t the only ones. The Paul John distillery, based in Goa, launched their first single malt in 2012, tailoring their brewing and fermentation procedures to the Indian climate. Both Amrut and Paul John varieties have since gone on to win many accolades at spirits festivals across the world, changing connoisseurs’ preconceptions about Indian whisky varieties and establishing Indian whisky in the global marketplace.
The Trade Controversy
Thanks to the successes of Amrut and Paul John, Indian whisky is becoming increasingly prominent in the global marketplace. But, India still maintains something of an outsider status in the spirit world, in no small part due to trade disputes with other spirit producing nations. Indeed, the relationship between Indian whisky manufacturers and the rest of the spirit-consuming world, particularly the European Union, is still fraught.
Established whisky-making nations such as Scotland, have taken issue with India because of the huge tariff barriers – up to 150% – that the country imposes on imported whisky to encourage the consumption of the native, molasses-based drink. The mark-up on Scotch in India is huge as a result and, contrasting other global markets, Soctch bottled under its own brand names only makes up 1% of the total tax mark-up. It’s a practice that the Scotch Whisky Association has rallied against, describing it as “pure protectionism.”
Indian distillers, on the other hand, have accused the European Union of erecting its own trade barriers by forbidding the marketing of traditional molasses-based Indian spirits as “whisky.” Vijay Mallya, the Indian spirit mogul who acquired scotch-whisky producer Whyte & Mackay in 2007, has described the EU’s policy of labelling Indian whisky as IMFL (Indian-Made Foreign Liquor) as an “imposition of British imperialism,” and called it unacceptable.
Recommended Indian Whiskies
Now you know the backstory, it’s time to get tasting! Perhaps unsurprisingly, our recommended bottles this week all come from Amrut or Paul John – the two distillers that have lead India into the global marketplace. All three are complex, surprising, and indicative of the innovations that India has brought to the spirit world.
Made in Amrut’s signature Spectrum cask, Amrut Spectrum is big on complex flavor. It offers a sweet and salty combination on the nose – a surprising blend Marmite and caramel – and a palate that starts with sweet fruitiness and ends with notes of ash. There’s a lot going on in this one. But, for all its complexity, it’s incredibly balanced and masterfully crafted.
Paul John Brilliance
On its initial release in 2013, Paul John Brilliance was the sprit that positioned the upstart distiller as a player in the global marketplace. Fruity and almost nougat-y on the nose, the quality of the barley used really shines through in the tasting, while its finish is lightly spicy with pleasing, creamy notes of vanilla.
With this one, the clue is in the name. Made with a mix of 75% unpeated Indian barley and 25% peated Scottish barley that are separately distilled and aged for four years before being “fused” together at the end of the distillation process, Amrut Fusion catches you off guard with it’s rich, fruity taste, followed by an unexpectedly smoky finish. With hints of Earl Grey and Sea Spray on the nose, this is a surprising, yet incredibly rewarding spirit.