It’s time to take stock of just where we are. Christmas? Check. Got five bottles of whisky under the tree. New Years? Broke into three of them. January? Cold. Big snowstorm. Then really cold. No body is going anywhere. Hunkered down for the season.
I think that it’s time to warm up. A southern vacation maybe? I know. Let’s go somewhere really hot. Where folks love their whisky. A virtual trip to India. The land of mystery and diversity. The land of – a different kind of whisky.
Let’s start off with the stats. According to many sources, India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of whisky. Why, you ask? It all started in 1599, when Queen Elizabeth 1 issued a charter to form the East India Company, intended to enhance British trade for Indian goods. Gradually, the company focus changed from trade to governance, until 1857, when India revolted in protest of the increased control exerted by England. In response, the British government moved to direct rule, lasting until 1947, when India reverted to a sovereign country.
So what does this have to do with whisky? Well, following the collapse of the french wine industry in the late 1800’s, the supply of wine-based Cognac was severely impacted. In response, the British aristocracy turned their attention to the finer scotch whiskies. They took these whiskies with them to India, where they soon became popular with the local population. And the rest, as they say, is history…
If we take a detailed look at the development of Indian whisky since the British occupation, or Raj, as it was known, it’s clear that local whisky production didn’t exactly follow the traditional Scottish process. Much of what was called whisky in India was made from molasses. In fact, pretty much any distilled spirits were referred to as ‘whisky’. A 2013 report by the Scotch Whisky Association (the controlling Gods of whisky) found that 90% of ‘whisky’ produced in India was made from molasses. So much for the title of world’s largest whisky producer.
In recent years, however, real whisky production has been on the rise. In 1982, the first malted grain Indian whisky was produced at Amrut Distillers. In 1986, they produced India’s first single malt whisky, made with domestic barley from the northern part of India. This more tropical barley variety produces six rows of barley grains, compared to the tradition two row Scottish barley, and gives the whisky a spicier flavor.
Since Amrut, several other India whiskies have come on to the global scene, including Paul John, Rampur, and the Beam-Suntory-owned McDowells. Officer’s Choice and Imperial Blue are also making their mark in the international scene. Due to international trade laws, traditional molasses-based ‘whisky’ from India can’t be called whisky, so any Indian whisky that you see in stores outside of India, really is whisky.
So, how does it compare to its traditional American, Scottish, Canadian and Irish counterparts? First, remember that Indian whisky is made in hot conditions. This can speed up aging but can also negatively affect the fermentation process. Secondly, most of the modern Indian distillers use traditional whisky making methods – oak barrels, malted grains, sherry and port finishes, and, in some cases, peated flavor. Lastly, because of the intense heat and general lack of humidity, there is a ton of evaporation during the aging process, creating a more intense flavor. So, in theory, the end product should be similar. But different. And it is. If that makes any sense. Complex, spicy, lots of interaction with the oak. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But, as Indian distillers refine their methods and improve their marketing, the world-wide popularity of Indian whisky is growing every year.
I admit, it’s extremely hard to find Indian whisky where I live. I’d like to try a bunch to give a better opinion, but, for now, I’ll leave that up to you. So keep an eye out for some of the whiskies of India the next time you are out shopping for something new and different. I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed.
Next time, we’re going back to the motherland, where over the next few weeks, we’ll take an in-depth look at the whisky producing regions of Scotland. Until then, cheers!