Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is Indian Whiskey?

The United States consumes a lot of whiskey. Know what country consumes more? If you said, “India,” you would be both right and wrong.

Probably you have heard about the booming Indian economy. Even in the current malaise, India is booming and creating unprecedented economic growth. That’s thirsty work. India has a domestic distilled spirits industry but her vast consumer markets are being eyed eagerly by the big international drinks companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard too.

Whiskey is very popular there. Unfortunately, most of what they call whiskey is not the same as what we call whiskey.

Although a few snobs believe that only a distillate made from 100 percent malted barley should be called whiskey, most Americans and Europeans agree that whiskey is any spirit made from grain, distilled at a relatively low proof, and aged in wood. India prefers a more expansive definition. They recognize our kind of whiskey but they call un-aged spirits made mostly or entirely from sugarcane whiskey too.

Not only do they call it whiskey, they color and flavor it so it resembles scotch, which was introduced to India during the British colonial period. Many brands have Scottish-sounding names and use Scottish imagery in their packaging.

India has made distilled spirits from sugarcane for centuries, since even before the Raj.

Neither the European Union (EU) nor the United States will permit non-grain whiskey to be imported into our markets and sold here as whiskey. This is only a problem because it is getting in the way of our desire to sell our whiskey to them. EU regulations have become very influential internationally and other countries have adopted them too, creating a de facto world standard, with India on the wrong side of it.

In 2007, India’s UB Spirits Company bought Scotland’s Whyte & Mackay for $1.5 billion. The sale included 115 million liters (30.4 million gallons) of aging scotch whiskey. The Whyte & Mackay line was launched in India early this year and already has a 13 percent market share, according to the new CEO.

Not all domestic Indian ‘whiskey’ needs finger quotes. Amrut is made from malted barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan. It is a two-million case brand, big by anybody’s standards. It is available in the United Kingdom, but I haven’t seen it here.


Unknown said...

Hi Chuck,
I have a sample bottle of cask strength Amrut on my desk--which will be poured at our upcoming "World Single Malt Tasting" June 13. It really is quite impressive, especially considering the age which is not stated but is something like four years. Apparently the Indian climate ages whisky in a big hurry. It is coming soon to the US, should be here by autumn. Hope you are well,
Jay Erisman

sku said...

As usual, a great, succinct statement of a rather complex issue.

By the way, I think John Hansell reported a few weeks ago that Amrut was headed for our shores. I know I'll be interested to try it.

Max Watman said...

I had some Amrut in Kentucky under the guidance of Jim Murray, and I think Jay did, too. I can't remember if you were there, Chuck, but I assume you were. Suffice to say, I wish that I, too, had a sample of cask strength on my desk. It's good stuff. My opinion is humble, but if Jim can make a roomful think that they might be drinking Oban 16, Amrut must be doing something right. Or Jim is Jedi. I'm not voting either way, come to think of it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I know when you mean, so maybe I did taste it. The good thing about a bad memory is how much you have to look forward to.