Indian whisky is typically referred to as ‘Indian-made foreign liquor’, making it a separate category in the world of liquor just like Scotch whisky and American Bourbon.
Many Indian whisky brands blend imported Scotch malts together with grain spirits or neutral spirits although the exact ratio differs from brand to brand. Sometimes, neutral spirits distilled from fermented molasses with hints of traditional malts - usually 10%-12%, are labelled as whisky in India.
There is no strict definition of whisky in India and it is often broadly conceptualised. Unlike European whisky, their Indian counterparts are not distilled from cereals and not matured.
This ensures the relatively cheaper prices for Indian whisky and blends, and even wider variety of choice for the Indian whisky drinker as compared to the more traditional and strict process driven whisky such as Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and Bourbon whiskey.
Liquor derived from molasses make up 90% of Indian whiskies although traditional whiskies are wholly blended from malt and specific grains. Regardless, Indian whisky is hugely popular among local whisky lovers and consumed in large amounts.
Whisky was first introduced in India during the late 1820s by British colonists. The first brewery in India was established in Kasauli by an Englishman named Edward Dyer. This heralded the beginning of Indian whisky, which continues till date to be the most popular liquor in the country.
The brewery was quickly shifted to Solan (near Shimla) due to the availability of abundant fresh spring water there. The former brewery in Kasauli was converted into India’s first distillery, which is presently owned and operated by Mohan Meakin.
The scarcity of grains which led to food shortages posed a major hurdle for whisky production. Grains are an important food source and hence it is generally avoided to use food grains for the production of alcoholic beverages. Factors like poverty and the ambivalent reputation of alcohol further compounded this issue. Utilising grain for alcohol production had become a controversial subject. Distillers gained access to better technology in the 1990s due to economic reforms that reduced import duties to approximately 35%.
In 1982, Amrut Distilleries pioneered Indian whisky manufactured from grains unlike their predecessors. The Amrut brand soon gained prominence as a popular whisky brand in India.
Amrut Distilleries sourced barley and molasses from farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. Subsequently in 1986, they introduced Prestige Blended Malt Whisky in Canteen Stores Department. The first batch of single malt whisky in India was ready in approximately 18 months.
Back then, single malt whiskies were not popular in India and most Indians were oblivious to that concept. Which is why earlier, they were not bottled as single malt but were blended with spirits derived from sugarcane to produce MaQintosh Premium Whisky. The relative obscurity of alcoholic beverage industries in India made it difficult for blenders to adopt sophisticated distillation methods.
On 24th of August, 2004, Amrut distilleries introduced Amrut – the first ever single malt whisky in India. The availability of aging malt at the distillery further facilitated the production of this premium Indian whisky.
Formerly, Amrut aged its malt whisky for about a year before blending it. However, due to changing customer demands, the blends were produced with a lesser amount of malt whisky. The master blender at Amrut – Surinder Kumar, declared that, “Due to climatic differences, one year of aging whisky in a barrel in India is equivalent to three years of ageing in Scotland.”
Another popular single malt variant in India is called Paul John Whisky. It is being manufactured since 2008 by John Distilleries, who previously blended the generic Indian Whisky.
Another quality whisky brand in India is Paul John, manufactured by John Distilleries. It was launched in 2012 in London, and is made from malted Indian barley and imported Scottish peat.
Indians consume the most amount of whisky globally by volume and the voluminous population of India is a significant contributing factor. The taxation of liquor here is complex with taxes being levied from both Central and State Governments.
Import taxes are generally exorbitant making imported liquors unaffordable for majority of Indians. It makes Indian whiskies a viable alternative for the local populace, contributing to the popularity of locally manufactured ‘Indian Whisky’.
The taxes imposed by state governments differ across different states which further complicates Indian whisky rates. Hence, there is no uniformity of liquor rates across the country. Whisky is the chief amongst Indian-made foreign liquors – accounting for almost 60% of this category in 2010.
Indian whiskies generally have the following flavours: Honey, Oak, Cinnamon and Toast.
These are some of the top whisky brands in India that have continued to satisfy the needs of the Indian whisky lover, as well as whisky seeking tourists from around the world.