FFor years, Mohinder Singh’s trips out of India meant a mandatory stop at the airport’s duty-free liquor store, where he joined long queues to stock up on imported single malt whisky. Then, three years ago, he came across a brand – Paul John – he had never heard of, during a tasting a few kilometers from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where he teaches politics. It was an Indian single malt; its smoky smell was rich, the taste was even better. Singh was hooked.
“It was a game-changer for me,” he says. Singh introduced the brand to his friends, which is now their favorite drink when they meet. “Everyone likes it.”
They are not alone. Drinkers in India, the world’s most lucrative whiskey market – worth $18.8bn (£15bn) last year – have traditionally toasted glasses of blended whiskeys or single malts imported. Today, several Indian single malts that were launched internationally a few years ago – led by Paul John, Amrut and Rampur – are capturing a significant share of the domestic market. This is a seismic shift for the global whiskey industry.
Vinod Giri, who heads the Indian Alcoholic Beverage Business Confederation (CIABC), says local single malts account for 33% of the market in India, up from 15% five years ago. That figure is poised to rise even faster: Sales have jumped at an average annual rate of 42% over the past three years, compared to just 7% for imported competitors, according to CIABC data.
This trend has also caught the attention of global companies. Diageo, the world’s second-largest alcohol company by rating and headquartered in London, launched an Indian-made single malt called Godawan in March. “Global giants recognize the demand for local single malts in India,” says Sanjeev Banga, an executive at Radico Khaitan, the makers of Rampur. “What greater approval could there be?
This “approval” comes two decades after the European Union refused to even recognize Indian whisky. India historically struggled with grain shortages, but it produced plenty of sugar cane, so liquor companies such as Amrut, founded in 1948, relied on spirits derived from molasses. . The EU, however, said that meant what India claimed was whiskey was actually rum.
Today, India is one of the largest wheat producers in the world. In 2004, Amrut launched India’s first single malt in Glasgow, before expanding across Europe. It entered the Indian market in 2010. Paul John took a similar route – introducing his single malt to the UK in 2012 and then to Indian consumers in 2013. Rampur joined them in 2015. Indri Trini, a new single malt in the northern Indian state of Haryana, was launched last year and has already won international awards.
“Only the creme de la creme of Indian society knew about single malts until recently, and they only knew and trusted foreign whisky,” says Pramod Kashyap, Amrut’s international operations manager, explaining why the Indian brands were more confident about launching their whiskeys globally. than they were in their home market.
However, their bet on Indian consumers paid off as the tastes of Indian whiskey drinkers evolved.
A new generation has grown up without the ingrained colonial assumption that imported goods are superior to Indian goods, says Giri. “They rely on their judgment of quality rather than the origin of the product,” he says. “There is actually an inverse underlying notion that Indian products are at par or even better than global products.”
Indian whiskeys also offer unique tastes, says Devaki Rajagopalan, a marketing manager based in Bengaluru. His favorite is Amrut Amalgam, which marries the fruity flavors of nectarine, melon and pears with the smoke of peat and the sharp punch of Indian black pepper. “I’ve tried whiskeys from all over the world and I’ve never had such a powerful aftertaste,” she says.
Her father, she says, only drank blended whiskeys and was reluctant to switch, but the subtle infusion of Indian flavors – like the pepper in Amrut Amalgam – converted him.
It’s not just what’s added that makes the flavors different, says Giri. India’s hot and humid climate also plays a vital role, with the whiskey aging faster than Scotland’s cooler climate. “Such rapid aging lends a unique taste profile and texture to Indian single malts,” he says.
The rise of Indian whiskey makers has led to the emergence of enthusiasts who gather for tasting sessions and examine new offerings.
It was during one such session, organized by the Single Malt Amateur Club of Bengaluru, that Rajagopalan first tried Amrut two years ago. After seeing the club’s online review of Amrut Neidhal – a new limited-edition whiskey described as having notes of sea salt, orange peel and the smell of coastal peat – last November, she rushed to get a bottle. In its Tamil language, Neidhal means a coastal town. “These small associations make it a personal and warm experience,” she says.
Breaking with the elitism often associated with single malts in India, critics rate local whiskeys in local languages, as well as English, reaching new audiences.
Their relatively low price compared to imported whiskey has also helped Indian brands. In his Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, Singh can pick up a bottle of Paul John for around £22, while Amrut Amalgam costs £28. India imposes a 150% tariff on imported whiskeys, so Glenmorangie costs £67.
“Indian single malt consumers have never had a premium alternative to imported whiskeys,” Singh says. “When you get a single malt that’s as good or better, at less than half the price, that’s an offer you can’t refuse.”
In 2020, the Indian government banned foreign spirits from the country’s roughly 4,000 stores for the armed forces, creating a captive market, Giri says. Also, the disruption of global supply chains by the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many Indian drinkers to local whiskeys for the first time, he says. “Once consumers found them to match their expectations, they stayed.”
All of this has combined to create an explosion in local demand that Indian manufacturers had not anticipated. Amrut produced 350,000 liters of single malt in 2019; today it distills 1 million liters, says Kashyap. Some of Rampur’s offerings are sold out and Radico Khaitan is struggling to keep up with demand, says Banga. “We just don’t have the capacity to produce what we know we can sell. We hope to get there in a few years, and I promise you’ll see a lot more Rampur on the shelves.
It could depend on how Indian single malts are served by the free trade deal Delhi is negotiating with London. When Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, he described bringing a bottle of Scotch when he visited the family of his half-Indian estranged wife Marina Wheeler so they could avoid high import tariffs. “Now is the time to break down those barriers,” he said.
But dramatic tariff cuts, as the UK wants, “could make our nose bleed”, says Kashyap. A free trade deal could be troubling for Indian makers if Britain continues to insist that whiskey be aged for at least three years in wooden casks, Giri says. In the Indian climate, this would evaporate 30% of whisky, he says, pushing costs to an “unsustainable level”, with the result that Indian whiskeys would not have access to UK markets that UK single malts have in India. .
Nonetheless, Banga says he is confident Indian single malts can withstand competition from imports, even if priced similarly. “Don’t forget that we competed with them overseas,” he says.
For whiskey drinkers like Singh and Rajagopalan, there is no turning back. On an upcoming trip to Goa with his father, Rajagopalan wants to visit Paul John’s distillery. “It’s exciting – the journey is almost like a pilgrimage,” she says.
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