Indian Single Malt: Whisky’s Indian summer

04 February, 2019

For producers of Indian single malt whisky, 2018 was a year of consolidation. and, argues Dominic Roskrow, potentially the calm before the storm

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AS SHOCKS TO THE system go, my experience of Happy Hour Bangalore style is up there with Leicester City winning the English Premiership and Rick Astley’s 2018 comeback.

As dark suddenly fell on the city and the countless tuk-tuks geared into manic mode, I’d expected to visit a plush hotel bar where office workers were sipping whisky, perhaps mixed with ginger ale, or a quaint hostelry alive with chatter and laughter.

The reality was rather different. A straggle of pathetic men buying plastic bottles of spirit from a shuttered window then downing it in one in a soulless, chairless room stinking of urine. And as each one did so, my host, with the sensitivity of an autistic amoeba, pointed at him, quite literally laughed in his face, and said: “See that! Happy Hour.”

The whole experience was both sobering and upsetting, but it provided a salutary reminder that, for the vast majority of Indians whisky does not mean single malt made with barley, but a cheap molasses spirit. And while the economy of India is becoming a powerful global force, three quarters of the sub continent’s vast population are not part of it. Few other countries have such a vast gap between haves and have nots. And no other country has two totally different worlds of whisky as India does.

We’re talking Venus and Mars here. On the one hand there are mass-consumed cheap blends sold for a few rupees to the biggest ‘whisky’ market on the planet. On the other are a handful of distilleries making single malt whisky, mainly for export. And very good single malt whisky at that. Most big selling Indian ‘whisky’ brands do not feature on stats charts because they are not recognised as whisky and are generally not exported.

For the suppliers of quality spirit, that creates a problem – or at least it did in the not-so-distant past. That’s because the sheer volume of cheap molasses ‘whisky’, flavoured with a dose of cultural superiority, snobbishness, and even racism, has meant that India’s single malt producers have had to fight harder than pretty much any other country to be taken seriously. It took first Amrut and then Paul John to produce consistently good expressions of whiskies and to pick up scores of awards for the whisky world to take the country seriously. The battle still isn’t over.

UPS AND DOWNS

“The last year has been pretty good,” says Amrut’s brand ambassador, Ashok Chokalingam. “But there are ups and downs in different markets, the reason being changes in the economic trends, more brands, and competition from all corners. It is certainly way better than it was when we started. But I would say there is still a long way to go but the trends are positive.

“Certainly the knowledge is growing. Maybe not at the pace that I wanted to see. Lots of hard work is going on in education and that’ll continue I guess. But we are in the middle of a transitional phase. Indian whisky is not taken super seriously as the Japanese category as yet. But it is coming and I do not know when the turnaround will come.”





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Dominic Roskrow

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