Close your eyes and imagine a distillery making exceptional, single malt Scotch.
You might envision gray Islay or scenic Speyside. Or perhaps the fecund woods of Kyoto, where Yamazaki is made. A cooler climate locale, certainly, where distillers wear wool sweaters to brave the chill.
India probably does not immediately come to mind. But that might change, once you open your eyes.
India’s centuries-old whisky history is evolving, from record-breaking import figures to high-quality homegrown expressions. Two distilleries, Amrut and Paul John, based in Bangalore and Goa, respectively, have spent the better part of the last decade quietly and quickly gaining an international reputation for their spirits.
Last year, Whisky Advocate named Amrut Spectrum the World Whisky of the Year, and the U.K.’s Independent called Amrut Fusion, a single malt made with Scottish and Indian barley “a wonderful whisky.” Meanwhile, among the many accolades for Paul John Single Malt was a Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
In other words, India isn’t the world’s next big whisky market. India’s modern whisky movement is already well underway.
Centuries of Whisky
The British Raj is believed to have brought Scottish whisky to India as early as the middle of the 19th century. Among the earliest records of India importing the stuff is from 1909 (though many locals strongly opposed the introduction of this “foreign poison”).
Fast-forward to 2018, and the Scotch Whisky Association reports that India is currently its third-largest export market. Over the past five years, whisky sales in India grew by 15 percent, according to the IWSR. Indians consumed 1.5 billion liters of whisky in 2014, versus America’s 462 million liters.
India’s homegrown whisky distilling began more recently. Bangalore’s Amrut Distilleries, a rum and brandy producer founded in 1948, began producing single malt whisky using locally grown barley. The company introduced its Amrut Single Malt in Glasgow, Scotland in 2004, before selling it in India. Amrut now sells in 22 countries worldwide.
Paul John followed suit, launching its first whisky in the U.K. in 2012, and in India in 2013.
Embracing the Elements
The country’s tropical humidity doesn’t strike one as ideal for whisky making or, more importantly, barrel aging, because, well, heat. But Amrut and Paul John have found success by embracing what is unique about their weather conditions, and using it to their advantage.
Let’s start with angel’s share, the mysterious portion that disappears from barrels as the spirits lay sleeping. In cooler whisky regions, the loss rate might be 2 percent per year. According to Amrut’s head distiller, Surinder Kumar, its barrels in the Bangalore warehouses lose up to a whopping 15 percent a year into the ether.
“I think as much as the heat creates problems in terms of angel’s share, it also helps us to bottle the whisky at an average age of five years,” he says. “This can be compared easily with some 15 year olds in Scotch scale.” In other words, Bangalore’s heat speeds up the aging process, resulting in beautifully matured spirits in a fraction of the time. In 2013, Kumar estimated that “one year of maturing in India would be equal to three in Scotland.”
In these compressed timespans, Amrut, which is the Sanskrit word for “nectar of the gods,” has been able to produce intense and mature whiskies that, coupled with its six-row barley, soil conditions, and creative use of casks, are now being sought by collectors.
“We use varieties of American and European casks. The former is both virgin oak and ex-bourbon barrels,” Kumar says. “A specialty from Amrut is the Spectrum barrel (a hybrid barrel made with five different types of oak staves, the first in the world). The Spectrum barrel is something we are proud of and no one else has done this before.”
Amrut Spectrum has bold flavors of butterscotch, nuts, rum, licorice, and chili-spiked chocolate.
The Next Wave
While Amrut has been the pioneer in creating Indian single malt whiskies, younger upstart Paul John is no less creative or competitive.
The distillery is based in Goa, an area better known for raves and gap-year hippies than culinary culture. But from the get-go, the plan was to make full-bodied, world-class whiskies; so Paul John’s distillers imported peat from Scotland to get a head start.
Because Paul John faced the same climate issues as Amrut, it decided to focus on the flavors of the whiskies, and not the age statements.
“We decided to work with the environment,” Michael D’Souza, master distiller, says. “We designed two warehouses, one underground and the other above ground level, we chose our casks carefully, and our brewing and fermentation procedures had to be tailored differently.”
In 2012, the first Paul John Single Malt was produced and was quickly followed by new flagship expressions Brilliance and Edited. Brilliance has a sweet, spicy smoothness offset by cocoa and slight saltiness (Goa is known for its beaches), and Edited is a peaty, smoky spirit with hints of mint and mocha.
The accolades started flowing faster than the distillate: Gold awards at both the International Whisky Competition as well as at the World Whisky Masters. Whisky authority Jim Murray of “The Whisky Bible“ also gave the Edited a rating of 96.5. (To compare, the Laphroaig 10 Years is 90, the Talisker 12 Years is 86.)
The Value of Tastings
The tropical climate and humidity helped in a quicker extraction of certain wood compounds such as Demerara sugars, vanilla, orange blossom honey, and chocolate, giving the distillers a more intense and richly flavored spirit in a much shorter timespan.
But the two brands still had to overcome one prejudice: the fact that they were making Indian whiskies.
“When we started there was no benchmark,” Kumar says. “Indian single malt was unheralded and Indian whisky [thought to be] IMFL.” (That stands for Indian Made Foreign Liquor, which comprises rum, brandy, or whisky. Such products are often made from molasses and considered crude.)
Much in the way that the Judgement of Paris put American wine on the global stage, blind tastings helped both master distillers get their single malts noticed.
“We believe blind tasting is the best way to crack the myths and prejudices,” Kumar says. “Consumers are more open to the idea of world whiskies now, but we still have a long way to go in terms of education.” The heat is on.