While it may not be officially recognized yet, India, the world’s most populous country, is rapidly becoming one of the most promising markets for whisky sales. Rojita Tiwari provides insights into this growing trend.

In a noteworthy development, India has surpassed France to become the largest scotch whisky market for the United Kingdom in terms of volume, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). This achievement highlights the steady growth of the Indian whisky market, which is projected to maintain a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 12% between 2021 and 2026—an exceptional rate compared to other regions.

At a recent drinks festival held in Mumbai, Diageo India’s Chief Business Development Officer, Shweta Jain, expressed the company’s serious consideration of expanding its domestic whisky portfolio, with a particular focus on the craft spirit segment. This move follows Diageo India’s successful introduction of United’s Epitome Reserve and two expressions of Godawan single malts. In a similar vein, Bacardi has introduced three new whiskies in the Indian market—Bacardi Legacy, Dewar’s Japanese Smooth, and Dewar’s Double—within the past two years.

The renowned global drinks major, Beam Suntory, has also recognized the potential of the Indian market and launched its Oaksmith (blended) whisky variants, targeting domestic consumers. Pernod Ricard, another key player, introduced Oaken Glow in 2021—a blend of aged scotch whisky malts imported from Scotland and bottled in India. Responding to the growing demand for single malts, Pernod Ricard has also launched its first Indian single malt, Seagram’s Longitude 77.

The Whisky Evolution in India:

For a long time, Indian whiskies faced skepticism due to their reliance on molasses as a primary ingredient. Domestic spirits producers such as United Spirits Limited (USL), Radico Khaitan, Allied Blenders and Distillers (ABD), Khodays, John Distilleries, and Tilak Nagar Industries dominated the Indian whisky market. While ABD’s Officer’s Choice (blended) whisky continues to top the global Millionaire brands list, a new generation of whisky consumers has begun to gravitate towards premium blended whiskies and single malts.

Pernod Ricard’s introduction of Royal Stag and Blender’s Pride whiskies in 1996, which incorporated Indian grain spirits and imported scotch malt, brought about a significant change. However, the true turning point arrived in 2004 when Amrut Distilleries introduced its first Indian single malt, thereby giving Indian whiskies a notable image makeover.

Taking inspiration from these developments, John Distilleries, based in Bengaluru, established a subsidiary company and a distillery in Goa, leading to the introduction of Paul John Whisky in 2012, further propelling the Indian single malt journey.

Current Market Dynamics:

It is important to note that whisky brand preferences and styles in India can vary regionally and evolve over time. While popular brands such as Officer’s Choice, Royal Stag, Blender’s Pride, Signature, Imperial Blue, and 100 Pipers continue to enjoy a large consumer base, the real growth lies in the premium whisky segment. Consumers are increasingly willing to invest more in higher-quality and exclusive whiskies.

Craft spirits are driving trends in the industry. Although relatively new, many small, independent distilleries are emerging, offering unique and innovative whiskies that appeal to a younger and more experimental audience. Brands like Radico Khaitan’s Rampur single malt range, Piccadily Distilleries’ Indri single malt, and GianChand—the first single malt from Kashmir, produced by Devans Modern Breweries—are perfect examples of the experimentation and innovation seen in new world whiskies. These brands have introduced innovative flavors and blending techniques, making them more appealing to a larger audience.

What Sets Indian Single Malts Apart?

“The new GianChand single malt is one of the most fascinating whiskies I have come across. Unlike any other Indian malt I have encountered before,” said a famous whisky critic.

Indian single malts have gained popularity among whisky experts and consumers alike due to several factors:

1.       Unique Aging Process: The Indian climate, characterized by high humidity and temperature, accelerates the aging process, resulting in faster maturation compared to scotch or other single malts. This imparts a distinct flavor profile to Indian single malts.

2.       Local Ingredients: Indian single malts primarily utilize locally grown six-row barley, abundant in the northern regions of India, and locally sourced water, giving the whisky unique characteristics.

3.       Innovative Techniques: Being part of the modern world whisky-producing regions, Indian distilleries have the freedom to employ innovative techniques in creating their single malts. For instance, Indri is finished in three types of casks, Amrut combines Indian and Scottish barley aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and new oak casks, while Rampur Asava single malt is finished in an Indian Cabernet Sauvignon wine cask.

The success of Indian whisky brands in international markets has fostered a sense of national pride. Indian whisky makers emphasize the cultural significance of their craft spirits, contributing to the growing momentum of Indian single malts in both domestic and global markets. These brands have not only won numerous awards and accolades but have also expanded their presence in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, exponentially increasing their reputation and acceptance in recent years.

The Indian whisky market is categorized into Bottled in Origin (BIO) for imported whiskies, Bottled in India (BII), Blended & Bottled in India for premium blended whiskies, India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), and Indian single malts.

The Blended and Bottled in India segment also holds promise, with recent entrants like Consilium Black Whisky by The Consilium Whisky Company offering artistically crafted blended whiskies. Consilium Black presents two variants: a blended Rye Malt (imported barley malt from Scotland and rye malt from Germany bottled in India) and a blended peated whisky called Cigar malt.

In 2022, India imported 219 million bottles of scotch—a growth of more than 200% in the category over the past decade. This surge in demand for premium whisky, coupled with an expanding consumer base eager to explore new options, has contributed to this significant growth.

Trivia: Did you know that India’s first single malt, Solan No 1, was first produced in 1835 and is still available in the market? It is a whisky made at Kasauli Brewery (formerly produced at Solan Brewery) and remains India’s first single malt whisky.