How India’s New Taste For Local Whiskey Is Shaking Up The Global Beverage Market | Global Development

for years, Mohinder Singh’s travels outside India meant a mandatory stop at the airport duty-free liquor store, where he would join long lines to stock up on imported single-malt whiskey. Three years ago, he came across a brand – Paul John – he’d never heard of, at a tasting a few miles from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where he teaches political science. It was an Indian single malt; the smoky smell was rich, the taste was even better. Singh was addicted.

“That was a game changer for me,” he says. Singh introduced his friends to the brand, which is now their drink of choice when they meet. “Everyone loves it.”

They are not alone. Drinkers in India, the world’s most lucrative whiskey market – valued at $18.8 billion (£15 billion) last year – have traditionally riveted glasses of blended whiskeys or imported single malts. Now several Indian single malts launched internationally a few years ago – led by Paul John, Amrut and Rampur – are conquering much of the domestic market. It’s a seismic shift for the global whiskey industry.

Vinod Giri, head of the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC), says homegrown single malts make up 33% of the market in India, compared to 15% five years ago. That figure is poised for an even faster rise: Sales have increased an average of 42% year-on-year over the past three years, compared to just 7% for imported rivals, according to CIABC data.

D'Souza is seen drawing whiskey from a barrel with a long tube
Michael D’Souza, master distiller at Paul John of India, prepares to taste from a barrel.

This trend has also attracted the attention of international companies. Diageo, the world’s second-largest alcohol company by rating and headquartered in London, launched an Indian-made single malt called Godawan in March. “Global giants are recognizing the demand for homegrown single malts in India,” said Sanjeev Banga, an executive at Radico Khaitan, the makers of Rampur. “What greater approval could there be?

That “approval” comes two decades after the European Union refused to even recognize Indian whiskey. Traditionally, India struggled with a shortage of grain, but it produced a lot of sugar cane, so spirits companies like Amrut, which was founded in 1948, relied on spirits derived from molasses. However, the EU said this meant that what India claimed to be whiskey was actually rum.

Now India is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat. In 2004, Amrut launched India’s first single malt in Glasgow before expanding across Europe. It entered the Indian market in 2010. Paul John followed a similar route, introducing his single malt to the UK in 2012 and then to Indian consumers in 2013. Rampur joined them in 2015. Indri Trini, a new Indian single malt from the north is Haryana, was launched last year and has already won international awards.

“Only the crème de la crème of Indian society knew about single malts until recently, and they only knew and trusted foreign whiskey,” said Pramod Kashyap, Amrut’s head of international operations, explaining why Indian brands had more confidence in launching their whiskeys worldwide than across their home market.

However, their bet on Indian consumers has paid off well as the tastes of Indian whiskey drinkers have evolved.

A new generation has grown up without the colonial ingrained assumption that imported goods are superior to Indian products, says Giri. “They rely on their judgment of the quality rather than the origin of the product,” he says. “There is in fact an inverse underlying idea that Indian products are equivalent or even better than global products.”

Indian whiskeys also offer unique flavors, says Devaki Rajagopalan, a marketing executive from Bengaluru. Her favorite is Amrut Amalgam, which combines the fruity flavors of nectarine, melon and pears with the smokiness of peat and the sharp punch of Indian black pepper. “I’ve tried whiskeys all over the world and I’ve never had an aftertaste that lingers so strongly,” she says.

Her father, she says, drank only blended whiskeys and was reluctant to change, but the subtle infusion of Indian flavors — like the pepper in Amrut Amalgam — converted him.

However, it’s not just what’s added that makes the flavors different, Giri says. India’s hot and humid weather also plays a vital role, as whiskey matures faster than Scotland’s cooler climate. “Such rapid aging gives Indian single malts a unique flavor profile and texture,” he says.

The rise of Indian whiskey makers has led to the rise of enthusiasts meeting for tastings and checking out new offerings.

Amrut Distillery in Bengaluru.
Production at Amrut Distillery in Bengaluru. Photo: Mint/Hindustan Times/Getty

It was during one such session, organized by Bengaluru’s Single Malt Amateur Club, that Rajagopalan first tried Amrut two years ago. After seeing the club’s online review of Amrut Neidhal – a new limited edition whiskey described as having notes of sea salt, orange zest and the smell of coastal peat – she rushed to get a bottle last November. Neidhal means a coastal town in her Tamil language. “These little associations make it a personal, warm experience,” she says.

Breaking with the elitism often associated with single malts in India, reviewers rate homegrown whiskeys in local languages ​​and in English, reaching new audiences.

Their relatively low price compared to imported whiskey has also helped Indian brands. In his Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, Singh can buy a bottle of Paul John for around £22, while Amrut Amalgam costs £28. India levies a 150% tariff on imported whiskeys, so Glenmorangie costs £67.

“Indian consumers of single malt have never had a top-quality alternative to imported whiskeys,” says Singh. “When you get a single malt that’s as good or better, for less than half the price, that’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

In 2020, the Indian government banned foreign spirits from the country’s 4,000 stores for the armed forces, creating a market for prisoners, Giri says. Also, the disruption of global supply chains from the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many Indian drinkers to local whiskeys for the first time, he says. “Once consumers felt they met their expectations, they stayed.”

All this together has led to an explosion in local demand that Indian manufacturers had not foreseen. Amrut produced 350,000 liters of single malt in 2019; today it distils 1 million liters, says Kashyap. Some of Rampur’s offerings are sold out and Radico Khaitan is struggling to keep up with demand, Banga says. “We just don’t have the capacity to produce what we know we can sell. We hope to get there in a few years, and I promise you will see a lot more Rampur on the shelves.”

That may depend on how Indian single malts are served by the free trade agreement Delhi is negotiating with London. When Boris Johnson was Secretary of State, he described bringing a bottle of whiskey with him when he visited the family of his half-Indian ex-wife Marina Wheeler so they could avoid the high import tariffs. “Now is the time to break down these barriers,” he said.

But dramatic rate cuts, as the UK wants, “could give us a nosebleed,” says Kashyap. A free trade deal could be troubling for Indian manufacturers if Britain insists that whiskey must be aged in wooden barrels for at least three years, Giri says. In the Indian climate, that would vaporize 30% of the whisky, he says, driving costs to “non-viable levels” with the result that Indian whiskeys would not be able to access the UK markets selling British single malts in India. to have.

Nevertheless, Banga says he is confident that Indian single malts can withstand the competition from imports, even if they are priced comparably. “Remember, we competed with them abroad,” he says.

For whiskey drinkers like Singh and Rajagopalan, there is no turning back. On an upcoming trip to Goa with her father, Rajagopalan wants to visit Paul John’s distillery. “It’s exciting — the journey almost feels like a pilgrimage,” she says.

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