The meteoric rise of Asian single malt is perhaps the most widely reported whisky story of the past decade. Japan and Taiwan have positioned themselves at the center of the spectacle, birthing liquids that have become feverishly revered and prohibitively allocated. But they are by no means the only players in this game.
On the other end of the continent, meanwhile, India is putting it’s best foot forward, stepping up to the global stage. Some connoisseurs are already convinced that the subcontinental subcategory is the one to watch in the years ahead. Here’s what you need to know about Indian whisky.
“India is the largest per capita consumer of whisky in the world,” explains Raj Sabharwal, a founding partner of Glass Revolution Imports, importer of Amrut Indian Single Malt. “Over 600 million cases of spirits are sold per year.” By comparison, the United States ran through just over 64 million cases of whiskey in 2017 (according to the Distilled Spirits Council).
But this staggering rate of consumption comes with an equally astonishing footnote. “Most of what is sold in India as ‘whisky’ would not be considered (or qualify) as whisky in the rest of the world,” Sabharwal explains. “Most of what is produced in India is made from a neutral sugar cane spirit with either Foreign Made Liquor (FML), grain spirit, or some malt spirit added. Although there are more distilleries in India than in Scotland most continue to produce this domestic version of ‘whisky’.”
In other words, whiskies in India can sometimes bear more resemblance to rum than they do blended scotch. This unfortunate reality has proven itself a serious impediment to international trade. “For years India has argued with the European Union with regards to tariffs on imported alcohol,” explains Sabharwal. “India’s position has been that they will lower tariffs if the EU recognizes the spirit called ‘whisky’ in India to be exported.” And since—let’s face it—that’s never going to happen, natives are forced to decide between irregularly overpriced imports and watered-down sugar/grain hybrids.
A notable middle-ground finally emerged in 2004 with the launch of Amrut. At the time the only Indian distilleries crafting single malt were selling their spirits into domestic blends. But it turns out that the country is capable of growing grain that shines on its own. The brand’s original release used 100% native barley, harvested to the north of the country. Chill filtered and bottled at 40% ABV, it carried the same soft, grassy subtleties that define Highland scotch.
With a couple of notable exceptions, of course.
“Indian barley is 6 row, rather than the 2 row variety used for Scottish single malts,” Sabharwal points out. “This strain of barley is more protein rich with less starch resulting in a lower yield. The climate in India also has a large impact on the maturation of the whisky. Whereas in Scotland the average evaporation [angel’s share] rate is 1-2 percent per year, in India it can range from 10 to 15 percent per year. So, in 5 years, 50 percent of the barrel contents have been consumed by those very happy angels.”
It’s a sorry loss for the ledgers, but a joyous victory for the palate. Increased activity within the barrel develops a depth of flavor over just a few short years; dark fruit and leather notes its Scottish counterparts take decades to achieve. Amrut Fusion is an obvious example. It’s a combination (ahem, fusion) of distillate derived from both Indian barley and Scottish peated malt. With just over 4 years of maturation, the liquid that hits the bottle demonstrates exquisite complexity and a sustained tobacco spice finish. Good luck finding any scotch bottled so young, let alone one worth drinking.
“Whereas in Scotland the average evaporation [angel’s share] rate is 1-2 percent per year, in India it can range from 10 to 15 percent per year. So, in 5 years, 50 percent of the barrel contents have been consumed by those very happy angels.”
Amrut Distillery is in Bangalore, located inland at 3,000 feet above sea level. The average humidity here is a damp 65 percent, insuring water evaporates from the barrel faster than alcohol. “In 5 years 50 percent of the barrel contents will have evaporated and the alcohol content will have gone from 62.5 percent ABV to near 74 percent,” notes Sabharwal. “We like to say that 1 year in Bangalore is equivalent to 3 years in Scotland.”
And since oak isn’t prevalent in India, the barrels are sourced from all around the world, encouraging a wide range of cask experimentation. Beyond just ex-bourbon, in the warehouse, you’ll find casks from France, Portugal, Spain, the Caribbean, even parts of eastern Asia.
While it was quick to catch on in U.K. and European markets, Indian Single Malt hit a snag in the States. The hiccup was with TTB—the federal labeling authority—which couldn’t determine a way to label the incoming liquor. Since there is, of yet, no formal designation for ‘single malt’ beyond scotch, Indian malt makers agreed to adhere to pre-existing scotch regulations.
This official recognition in 2010 opened the floodgates. Following in Amrut’s wake was Paul John, which began exporting in 2012, and Rampur—a half century-old producer whose single malt finally came on-line in 2016. The companies recently formed an alliance to ensure standards and promote the global stature of Indian Single Malt, which is now available in over 45 countries worldwide.
The United States has emerged as the largest export market, swallowing up almost a 1/3rd of Amrut’s annual output. And, according to Sabharwal, current demand within India exceeds supply by 5 to 1. Nonetheless, the category remains available and relatively affordable on American liquor shelves. For now. So if you’re considering exploration, don’t delay. These days, Asian single malt has a habit of making itself scarce.
BOTTLES WORTH BUYING: