Indian renaissance

From pariah to performer. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the two brands that are rehabilitating the reputation of Indian whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

Ahead of a recent trip to India I had it in my mind to secure some samples for a report on Indian whisky. Unfortunately this proved difficult; I was informed that transporting liquor across certain state borders – in this case from Goa and Bangalore to Delhi – is prohibited. The problem was eventually resolved using a more circuitous route (via the UK!), thanks to the gracious people at Paul John and Amrut, but the experience gave me a little bit of first-hand insight into the contorted nature of Indian liquor legislation. Their complicated system of national and state regulations has engineered a bizarre situation where the majority of people in the world’s largest whisky drinking market don’t drink whisky, and can’t drink whisky (at a reasonable price).

India consumes some 1.5 billion litres of “whisky” per year, hugely in excess of any other country. The inverted commas however account for the fact that most of it isn’t actually whisky – anywhere other than in India. A glance at South African law for instance would reveal a stipulation that for whisky to be sold as whisky in this country it would need to “be produced from a mash of grain”. Whisky by historical tradition, by overwhelming convention, and by regulatory definition in most countries – as we’re seen with our local example – must be made from grains. In India the bulk of local whisky is made from molasses, which is subsequently blended with various proportions of grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premium-ness. “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said Bill Lumsden, an industry pioneer and the master distiller at Glenmorangie, of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. This is a simplistic analysis of course – there are other concerns, maturation for instance -but it’s sufficient to make the point that Indian whisky by any objective measure is largely substandard. The buttresses that keeps these whiskies afloat, and protected from redress by healthy competition, are the regulations to which I’d earlier alluded, primarily a set of exorbitant tariffs which violate World Trade Organisation rules, and without which that local industry would collapse.

This scenario is bleak for many reasons. It’s costing the country both economically in lost revenue and blunted potential, and socially in that whisky lovers are being deceived and short changed. I don’t think I’m being dramatic in suggesting that this is probably the single biggest issue in the whisky arena today. Negotiations have been ongoing for some time, but I would imagine that the scale of entrenchment makes progress difficult. It might seem like a horse-before-cart, pie-in-the-sky prognosis but things will probably change only if India cultivates quality brands that can stand up to their international peers.

This kind of a solution is some way off for the mainstream, but faint ripples have started to appear. In the Bangalore based Amrut first, and more recently the Goa based Paul John, India has two distilleries producing world class, genuine whisky. This is exciting not only for India – primarily at this stage as an affirmation of their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best – but also for us, for whisky drinkers globally; with their emergence we have access to an exciting, dynamic new style of whisky.

My first experience of Amrut was of the ground-breaking Fusion – arguably the whisky that made its name. A fusion indeed, of Indian grown barley, with Islay peated malt, it is a delightful whisky, explicitly smoky but not overpoweringly so, leaving plenty of space for a plethora of other rich, spicy, fruity flavours. I made the mistake of serving my first bottle some five years ago at my birthday party. It was smacked out of its brief existence in short order, such was the immediate rapport that it struck. This time I intend to savour the new bottle in more fitting tribute to its indisputable merits.

The style of Fusion, and indeed the others that I examined, the Amrut Single Malt, the Paul John Brilliance, and the Paul John Edited, has been cast in the mould of Scotch single malt, with a similar-ish palette of flavours. The critical point of difference is maturation. Both Amrut and Paul John are produced in the oven that is Southern India – resulting in an intense, accelerated ageing process. These malts, ranging from three to five years old, would not have been ready to bottle if matured in Scotland, or in most other whisky producing climates. It’s a benefit and a hindrance though, the bonus of good whisky fast tempered by the unlikelihood (or, dare I say it – impossibility) of turning out anything old and superpremium. Quick to cook, quick to burn (and evaporate!), with a much reduced sweet spot. This though is the distinctive feature which will define Indian whisky as style of its own amongst aficionados.

The Amrut Single Malt and the Paul John Brilliance are solid, quaffable single malts – abundant with the vanilla and honey typical of bourbon casks. Mostly I was surprised by their poise and balance. Surely, I thought, there’s got to be a cost to the speed; but if there is it’s not apparent in these two whiskies. They may not be the fullest and richest, or the most complex, but they’re well-executed and interesting…and well worth exploring. The Paul John Edited, like the Amrut Fusion, is peated, although more lightly peated, but it’s travelled a different and imaginative road to get there. Fusion uses Scottish peated malt, Paul John uses Indian barley malted using Scottish peat. I can’t say that I could ascribe a difference to the influence of each – noting that the peat used may be different too – but it’ll be fun spending some time with both to try to identify it. Regardless, the added dimension introduced by the peating propels this variant from solid to superb, as gentle smoke wisps amongst streaks of chocolate-y sweetness.

If ever a country needed a whisky redemption, there’s no doubt that it is India – because of its diabolical rotgut (I say this relative to what it should be) and because of its importance. In response Amrut and Paul John have delivered and delivered decisively. For the country’s whisky drinkers the road may be long and hard, and the destination uncertain, but the potential is quite conclusively there. Whatever happens it seems that the rest of us can look forward to some fine Indian single malt, and who knows what else, in the years to come. May the dram be with you, and all.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

 

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6 responses to “Indian renaissance

  1. My slant on Indian Whisky is rather different.
    Having tasted Royal Stag – the worlds 4th biggest selling brand – I think it can stand up to international competition.
    Vijah Mallya has argued that for India to drop the 150% import duty then Indian Whisky – and by that he means all those not currently adhering to EU regulations on whisky – should be made available in the EU.
    It all smacks to me of westerncentrism.
    Many bourbons also don’t comply with whisky rules – 3yrs maturation? – yet can be sold in the EU.
    Indian Whisky is not Scotch – and why should it be?
    It’s the different taste profile which makes it interesting.
    Why can’t there be a new definition of Indian Whisky that takes into account the molasses element?
    By the way – Royal Stag is made with Indian Neutral Grain Spirit and Scotch malts so therefore should comply.
    And if you don’t trust the label – why do you trust the label on Glenlivet?
    Pernod Ricard makes both of them.

    • Thanks for the comment. The key point is that whisky has always been made from grains. This is central to its definition (and certainly to the legal definition enshrined in EU and other regulations). The three years maturation applies to Scotch, Irish and others, but not bourbon. So it is not an issue governing whisky in general. Indian “whisky” in large cannot claim to be entirely made from grain, so rightfully it cannot be sold in the EU and these other jurisdictions as whisky. Royal Stag is a bit of an exception. I’m not particularly familiar with it but a quick web search revealed that it seems to be “…the first Indian whisky brand to not use any artificial flavour”. It also seems to be a diluted Scotch in constitution, so not really representative of Indian whisky.

  2. My key point is who makes the rules and why.
    The free market isn’t so free when it challenges the status quo.

    • The people who created the category make the rules, which is logical and right. There’s a certain weight and momentum to history, of which Indian whisky is on the wrong side. To make your case for you however take a look at the definition of Canadian whisky, which allows for a 9% component of anything liquid really, including stuff not made from grain. We need to ask ourselves why this is allowable when a molasses component is not.

      • History.
        Tricky when it comes to India.
        The British Empire systematically pillaged India for raw materials to boost it’s own domestic producers and therefore kept India deliberately un-industrialised.
        You could argue Scotch Whisky benefited from this – and still does.
        It’s certainly logical – but not right.
        History was on India’s side then.
        If Indian whisky is the biggest selling whisky in the world – isn’t there a case for India to re-write the rules again?

        • Ah, that’s a much wider discussion. I meant only that India is on the wrong side of history, as far as it pertains to the conception and early cultivation of whisky. Its colonial exploitation would have been crippling in many respects, but it would have also served to introduce the country to whisky – so without it we probably wouldn’t even be debating this question. In terms of prominence we’re still stuck with the problem that the stuff that they’ve got that’s the biggest selling isn’t technically whisky, or not accepted as such by most of the world. They’re entirely free to call it something else. Going in a bit of a circle here, but there you have it.

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