As I sit by strewn Christmas lights and baubles, swiveling my Glenfarclas nosing glass with the last jigger of Rampur single malt, dad skips by with a highball filled to the brim with 30 ml of Black Label, the ice diluting speedily. “Cheers,” he bellows, before disappearing into the TV room for his evening show.
Momentarily snapped out of my evening lull, I wonder how someone twice my age has never switched his potion for another since the day he started drinking whiskey.
Whiskey was introduced to India in the late 18th century, during the days of the British Raj. Our royal families enjoyed many a tipple to fraternize with the frenemy, and soon enough our very first brewery was set up in the sleepy hill town of Kasauli, later to turn into a distillery. It’s still in operation today by the Mohan Meakin group of companies. They were instrumental in introducing our most popular rum—Old Monk—which is, to date, widely consumed across the country and at the barracks on our borders to keep our country’s protectors warm.
The production of grain-based spirit was looked down upon given our conservative views on the effects of alcohol and the fact that grain demand exceeded supply. Most Indian whiskey, therefore, is a combination of fermented molasses and very little (around 10 percent) grain. It’s more akin to rum production: traditionally, the process of making rum is by distilling sugarcane byproducts (molasses) or juice after which the liquid is aged. Old Monk Rum, which is made at the same distillery indeed runs parallel to what is considered our very first whiskey.
The distillery’s other product line, a whiskey branded as Solan No. 1, was India’s first blend. The name derived from the area, soon to be followed by many brands and versions in the years to come. India had entered into the whiskey drinking space, albeit one primarily made from molasses.
One of the underlying factors that determined our whiskey should be made from fermented molasses was the fact that the Indian palate loves anything sweet. If you were to look at the way people drink cocktails or spirits in the country, it has always been either with heavy sugar mixers (rum and coke, OJ and vodka) or with water. Rarely would you find a drinker sipping on neat whiskey.
The spirit serving styles are also over-diluted here as we tend to veer towards masking the sharp taste of alcohol, even though it is sweeter than most brands abroad.
On the rocks means the glass has to be filled to the brim with ice. Aged malts will still find small pours in highballs, topped with soda. And Prohibition-style cocktails are somehow only recently finding a way into the hearts of connoisseurs or recent converts.
Our sugar industry is also highly valuable and politically driven. As one of the largest producers of sugar in the world, we produce an excess, giving way to molasses as a by-product. In the western state of Maharashtra, sugar mills are numerous and have ancillary Extra Neutral Alcohol (ENA) units besides them.
With the addition of yeast to molasses or grains, the fermented liquid is distilled several times till it produces a pure, clear spirit called Ethyl Alcohol or Extra Neutral Alcohol (ENA). This is used in the cosmetics industry and for the production of almost all Indian spirits. It’s highly profitable as it is made from a byproduct (sugarcane molasses) which would otherwise be discarded. Producing ENA means converting a waste product into a commodity.
Pressure from the U.S. government led to India banning cannabis in 1985, driving away centuries of legal lightheadedness. The world started looking for alternative fixes and alcohol took precedence over the black market of mind alterers. The whiskey drinkers increased as distilleries mass-produced their sweet versions.
The ‘70s saw another issue arising in the west. Scotland and the neighboring malt producers were facing a crisis of excess single malt stocks. Some research by a close friend of mine, beverage consultant Ajit Balgi (www.thehappyhigh.com) indicated how the demand of white spirits increased around that time and the small distilleries producing malt suffered drastically. And so marketing strategies shifted towards highlighting the beauty of the malts, in manner of source, legends, history and process.
In the early ‘80s India saw its own producers trying to manufacture malt. Amrut Distilleries saw an opportunity to drive malt-based whiskey to our palates. The north of India, where they were situated, was rife with grain. While single malt was not yet culturally entrenched in our drinking culture, the distillery had to continue creating blended whiskey to ensure it could remain in most lower-end retail markets for a long time to come.
The government wasn’t far behind in learning about the discerning tastes of Indian consumers. Realizing the growing demand for grain-based spirit, they had to do something to protect the depleting grain stocks for use in anything other than staples. They started liberalization of import duties in the ‘90s and the influx of foreign brands was unstoppable. By now, India was touted as a whiskey drinking nation in the eyes of the world.
My grandfather introduced me to Indian Made Foreign Liquor. Basically any hard liquor apart from the rustic, local ones (Arack, Feni, Mahua, and so on) are called IMFL. McDowell’s India, a Scottish alcohol trading company, was one of the first distillers of IMFL.
Grandpa used to swig McDowell’s No. 1 brandy the same way as my father does today, on the rocks but in an old fashioned glass. I still remember the free glasses he used to get with each bottle he bought, some of them turned into my everyday milk glasses. A proud moment shared while he unwound with his glass of whiskey.
Vittal Mallya’s company United Breweries Ltd. overtook over McDowell’s to become the high powered player in the market. They imported and flooded India’s spirit base with over 140 liquor brands. including their own distilled spirits comprising brandy, rum and gin, and the hot selling McDowell’s Signature Whiskey.
Other IMFL brands like VAT69, Black and White, Jim Beam, Teachers, Black Dog and 100 Pipers soon became a regular feature on menus and home bars alike.
United Breweries was taken over by Diageo, the world’s largest distiller, in 2013. With Diageo entering our world with its massive portfolio, we were suddenly faced with more liquor than we could ever imagine. They reinvented the wheel when it came to single malt appreciation with the Glens and Islays making their mark and creating a wave of nostalgic whiskey drinking, once again.
Today, Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal, the world’s most popular blends, rule the roost in India, while Officers Choice sells 31.5 million cases per annum, Johnnie Walker clocks about 18 million and Chivas around 4 million. We take pride in the fact that six of the top 10 consumed whiskies in the world are from India.
While single malts have taken center stage in India, with Diageo bringing in all kinds of distinctive brands, Indian malt manufactures such as Amrut, Paul John and Rampur have not only managed to flood international waters but are upscaling their market back home too.
Indian bartenders are showcasing their skills, brand ambassadors (especially for single malts and whiskey) are finding various ways to attract the regular consumer, and brands are up-selling their products with all sorts of marketing strategies targeting millennial consumers.
We are still a nascent palate when it comes to our understanding of whiskey and other spirits. I seem to be the one to jump through several bottles from all over the world, while dad continues to replenish his stock of Scottish-made Johnnie Walker.
Nikhil Merchant is an Indian-born, Mumbai resident who writes about food, drink and travel for luxury and lifestyle publications to business magazines. He describes himself as a gourmand-turned-gastronome.