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We are finally making good, authentic whisky in India

Are you surprised by all the hype around high quality Indian whisky?

A little taken aback, perhaps, by claims that Indian whiskies are among the best in the world? Staggered by the number of awards Indian whiskies are supposed to have won at international competitions that you have never heard of?


And, in the midst of this blizzard of hype, do you ask yourselves the obvious question: wasn’t Indian whisky supposed to be so substandard that those who could afford to drank Scotch instead? How then did Indian whisky suddenly reach these heights?


   If you do, then don’t be overly impressed by claims that Indian whisky is better than Scotch or any other whisky.


   Because it is not that simple.


   First, a little background. India has long been a whisky market thanks to the British. Till the 1950s, the whisky-drinking classes drank imported Scotch. Then, as import controls were imposed, duties shot up and it became more and more difficult (and prohibitively expensive) to import Scotch.


   Many Indian entrepreneurs rushed to fill the vacuum. Importers of Scotch now tried to produce domestic whisky. But none of it ever really tasted like Scotch for a very good reason: the way we made it.


   Scotch is usually made from barley. The clear liquid that results from the first part of the whisky making process is then put into a variety of barrels so that it takes on the flavours of those casks. That’s why you will hear about whisky that has been aged in say, sherry casks or bourbon barrels.


   The Scots have long claimed that provenance is crucial to their whisky. Basically, ‘provenance’ is what the French call terroir. That includes the soil on which the barley is grown, the character of the water and the micro-climate where the whisky barrels are aged.


   But all this provenance stuff never applied to Indian whisky because it was never made the same way as Scotch.


   Indian whisky was traditionally made by taking neutral spirit (alcohol) made from a variety of sources (sugarcane and molasses in legend but more likely to be rice these days) to which was added some kind of whisky flavouring, perhaps a real malt whisky. This was rarely aged for as long as Scotch. And so, when it hit the market, it was never as good as Scotch. But it was much, much cheaper. We called it IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) to distinguish it from local country liquor.


   It was IMFL that had a negative image (not entirely undeservedly) and many countries (the UK, the EU etc.) wouldn’t even let us call IMFL ‘whisky’ on the grounds that it was just flavoured neutral alcohol.


   But even as the world sneered, it needed the huge Indian market more than we needed the world. For instance, an Indian brand McDowells is the largest-selling whisky in the world, on the basis of the vast volumes it sells at home.


   India did make some real whisky. Solan Number One (ask your parents about it) was a genuine malt whisky and in the days when Vijay Mallya owned McDowells, the company produced a hard-to-find malt whisky, bottles of which were sent to Vijay’s friends and acquaintances.


"Don’t be too carried away by talk of global awards; some are meaningful but many are available to anyone who is willing to pay to enter the competitions." 

   But the pioneer of the whisky boom you hear so much about these days was a man called NR Jagdale who had inherited a distillery from his father. Jagdale made malt whisky which was sold to firms who blended it for their own whiskies. But after 1990, when the big international companies entered the fray, there was less demand for Jagdale’s malts.


   Jagdale had the idea of using his malts for a whisky he could sell directly to customers. He called the whisky Amrut and went straight for the international market. It took three years but eventually Amrut broke though. It gained a reputation abroad and was later launched in the Indian market.


   Fifteen years ago I interviewed Jagdale for Brunch and asked him if he thought others could also make good malt whiskies in India and go beyond our much derided IMFL. He responded that other distilleries were also sitting on stocks of good malt whisky and if the industry chose to, then India could easily go beyond IMFL.


   At the time, both Jagdale and I were sceptical that this would happen and it did take a while. But it’s certainly happening now. Such brands as the highly regarded Paul John have found success in the market and Indri is so popular that it is served everywhere.


   So it was only a matter of time before the big international companies got interested. The process was led by Diageo which took a niche/craft approach. It first launched a limited edition whisky called Epitome, the first batch of which was made from old barrels of rice spirit that Vijay Mallya (who owned the company before Diageo took it over) must have laid down years ago.


   And then it went for broke, launching Godawan, an artisanal whisky created in Rajasthan to reflect the terroir. Godawan has two variants. The first is on par with any good Scottish malt. The second is more easily accessible to people with no background of malt drinking and can make a base for cocktails.


   I went for the Godawan launch party in New York and was astonished to see how much the whisky was appreciated by a room full of F&B professionals and spirits experts.


   Diageo has now followed up on Godawan’s success by launching a McDowells malt whisky. This is a new product, unrelated to the old malt Vijay Mallya used to make and just as Godawan reflects Rajasthan, this uses the terroir of Nasik and water from a local river. It is made according to a complicated process in which the whisky goes through to three to four stages of barrel ageing. (Bourbon casks, virgin oak, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz barrels.) It is a very small production (6000 bottles) but it will be available in the shops.


   A McDowells single malt? Why would you name such a high quality malt whisky after a mass-market IMFL whisky? I put the question to Ruchira Jaitley, Diageo’s Chief Marketing Officer, and the answer I got was that Diageo was very proud of McDowells century-plus heritage, and wanted to build on that tradition. I tried the new whisky and found it easily accessible with rich complex flavours (Jaitley compared it to the richness of a Christmas pudding which seems appropriate).


   Though nobody at Diageo will say very much, my guess is that the use of the McDowells brand for such a high quality product is part of a broader strategy to exploit the heritage and fame of McDowells and to take the mother brand more upmarket. There may well be other launches using this brand though, of course, Diageo would not comment.


   What does all this mean for Indian consumers? Well, first of all, we are finally making good, authentic whisky in India. Don’t be too carried away by talk of global awards; some are meaningful but many are available to anyone who is willing to pay to enter the competitions. As good as the new Indian whiskies are, they are certainly not the world’s best despite the domestic hype.


   But what we are seeing is the beginning of a genuine domestic whisky-making culture. It will have its artisanal luxury segment (like the small-production Diageo whiskies) as well as more mass market brands. And it will have different terroirs just as Scotland has distinctive malts from different regions (Islay, Highland, Speyside etc.). But the IMFL market will not die. The imported Scotch market will also be unaffected.


   Remember though that this is just the beginning. Now that Indian whisky manufacturers are finally pursuing quality, who knows what will happen next?



Posted On: 19 Apr 2024 11:30 AM
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