Indian whisky brands sell a staggering amount on their home turf but much of what is sold as ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be recognised as such in the EU or America. But now this distilling giant is producing single malts to take on the world. Ian Buxton takes a closer look at the biggest whisky market of all.

What’s the best-selling whisky in the world? You’d probably guess Johnnie Walker, or perhaps Jack Daniel’s. You’d be wrong. In fact, it’s Officer’s Choice, which outsells Walker roughly two to one. Diageo’s global behemoth is also outpaced by a number of other little-known brands such as McDowell’s No. 1, Imperial Blue and Royal Stag.

Of course, ‘little-known’ is quite incorrect.  As befits their staggering sales – Officer’s Choice alone sells over 32 million cases annually – they are very well known indeed in their home market, which just happens to be India, the world’s largest whisky market. Even the tenth biggest seller, Bagpiper, accounts for some 6 million cases which would make it easily the world’s third largest selling Scotch. It’s not as it happens, though you might think the name and packaging just a trifle confusing.

For years, most of us outside India have tended to look down on Indian whisky, if we thought about it at all. Quite a number of the cheaper brands are distilled from molasses, which makes them rum in the eyes of EU and US regulators, hence the fact that they never appear on our shelves. The better Indian whiskies, however, are distilled from grain and frequently blended with a proportion of real Scotch. Scots distillers aren’t above shipping bulk whiskies to India for local bottling with Indian-made spirit, it’s just that they don’t make much noise about it.

The inability of the huge Indian distilling industry to sell most of its products in the EU has long been a source of friction and partly accounts for India’s significant tariff barriers on imported Scotch (up to 150% with additional regulations at individual state level). However, in recent years the more innovative Indian distillers have been producing single malt whiskies that meet EU legislation in full and, from a slow start, have been gaining sales here.

Ashok Chokalingam from Amrut in action

One of the pioneers was Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore who first launched in the UK in August 2004 in Glasgow. Since then they have collected both awards and appreciative fans who look to Amrut for both flavour and value.  Because of the rapid maturation of Indian whiskies and their willingness to experiment with finishes there has been a steady stream of releases and there is more to come. “We have released three different versions of Greedy Angels 10 Years Old last year and a single grain (first ever single grain whisky from India and one more first from India),” master distiller and head of international sales, Ashok Chokalingam told me. “In 2020 we are planning to release a number of exciting single casks for a number of countries, mainly for Europe and America. Also one more first of its kind is planned from India by May 2020,” he added intriguingly.

Amrut have progressively moved up-market: the 2019 Greedy Angels release commands a near-£700 price tag, albeit at 55% ABV. Stocks are very limited but such is the demand that a price hitherto unimaginable for whisky from the sub-continent can be sustained. Similarly, the Paul John range from John Distilleries of Goa also includes a number of interesting variants at £100+ prices.

Nor have rivals been idle. Rampur, based in the foothills of the Himalayas and one of India’s oldest distilleries, currently offers its Select single malt expression with a Double Cask and PX sherry finish variant due to follow shortly. Well informed critics tell me that Double Cask is an excellent product. “Rather nice” is how one understated Scots distiller described it; which, take it from me, is praise indeed. But then, this is a serious distilling operation – the company’s 8PM blend is one of India’s top ten whiskies, with annual volumes estimated to exceed 7 million cases.

Rampur Double Cask, “rather nice”

No surprise then, that Rampur has been looking at the lucrative European markets with interest and employing Scottish expertise to provide the essential skills. The legendary Dr Jim Swan was involved in their early single malt production and, more recently, former Diageo master distiller Charlie Smith (once of Talisker and latterly responsible for getting Ballindalloch up and running) has been working to install new distilling plant with a production potential approaching 2 million litres of spirit annually.

The new distillery will be capable of producing two distinct spirit types (think Roseisle) and is to be supported by new warehousing facilities with sophisticated humidity control to combat the estimated 12% angel’s share. These are substantial investments and indicative of the serious long-term thinking behind this project and the company’s commitment to quality.

Perhaps then, it’s time to rethink our attitude to Indian whisky.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former marketing director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.