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The frisky business of Indian whisky

We consume almost half the world’s whisky without knowing what Indian whisky actually is. How do we secure homegrown brands on a global platform?

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has specified norms that details what makes whisky Indian. (Istockphoto)
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has specified norms that details what makes whisky Indian. (Istockphoto)

How Indian is Indian whisky? It’s probably a question you haven’t really thought about. You’re either a brand loyalist who knows exactly where your Scotch bottle comes from or you have a rotating selection of Indian whiskies you pick from. But in a country that consumes almost half the world’s whisky, its perplexing that we don’t pause to ask this question more often.

Most regions that produce whisky, be it Scotland, Ireland or the US, have a set of regulations that all producers need to follow to be able to call themselves as whisky from a particular region. Scotland has a set of elaborate rules that define what Scotch whisky means—for example, how long the whisky needs to mature and bottling requirements, among other rules regarding production, labelling, advertising and packaging . Even the US has rules about what constitutes rye whisky or bourbon whisky.

The latest country to join their ranks has been Japan, whose whiskies have steadily been taking over whisky lovers’ palates across the globe. From April 2021, all whisky makers in the country will have to adhere to a set of guidelines so as to create a standardised and recognisable version of Japanese whiskies. Until recently, no one knew what Japanese whisky actually meant, except for certain brand names like Suntory and Yamazaki.

Ansh Khanna, co-founder of Peak Spirits from Haryana, who has previously worked with spirit importer and distributor company High Road Spirits based in Chicago, says that there was no way of figuring out authentic Japanese whiskies until one actually made trips and contacts in the region. In one instance, a Japanese whisky maker was found to have been selling Scotch whisky bottled in Hong Kong and calling it Japanese whisky.

Khanna, who launched India’s newest whisky called Kamet Whisky earlier this month, says that regulation would be a good thing for Indian whiskies, too. “You can name any distilled spirit as whisky at the moment but if there are certain regulations, things would definitely improve for whisky makers and discerning whisky lovers. Most brands do follow regulations but it takes just one bad apple to spoil the industry’s reputation,” he says.

The problem

According to market research platform Statista, average per capita consumption of whiskey per person in India stands at 2.6 litres in 2021, with the market expected to grow by 8.14%. Revenue in the whisky segment amounts to $21,010 million in 2021.

To be sure, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has specified norms about what makes whisky Indian. In a gazette notification dated March 2018, it specified that, “Whisky is an alcoholic beverage made by distilling the fermented extract of malted cereal grains such as corn, rye, barley, or using neutral grain spirit or rectified grain spirit, or neutral spirit of agricultural origin, or their mixture.” It also defined single malt whisky and blended malt whisky or blended grain whisky in the same gazette.

On the ground, things haven’t really changed. Nor is there clarity on what steps the FSSAI plans to take so that alcohol companies comply with its notification. Most people Lounge spoke to say that any sort of regularisation is likely to take years, thanks to the various complexities regarding maturation and excise laws that vary from state to state. There is also uncertainty on how these rules and regulations should be implemented.

Uday Balaji, founder of The Whisky Advisor, which conducts whisky experiences and a whisky ambassador certification course, says that well-known single-malt Indian producers such as Rampur, Paul John and Amrut already follow standards equivalent to Scotch whisky and they’ve been recognised for their high quality globally.

“I believe Indian authorities should set a high bar for Indian single malts and Indian blended whiskies by adopting the best standards from around the world, while allowing for a general category of Indian whisky for those that don’t meet the aforementioned standards. This allows for multiple categories to co-exist in a country that has a highly varied spending power,” he says. Khanna also admits that regulations would differ within the country, thanks to its topography. “India is a large country and every micro-climate has its own aging so regulation could get complicated,” he explains.

Finally, the lack of recognition for what constitutes Indian whisky means distributors take time to warm up to exports as well. Khanna had primarily envisaged Kamet as an export whisky but the high-end retail experience in places like Goa and now Gurugram convinced him to let the Indian audiences sample his whisky as well. “Our team has background in distribution so it was easier for us but generally, foreign distributors shy away from taking on Indian whiskies apart from single malts,” he said.

The recognition

The evidence for Indian whisky’s high quality is laid bare by the number of awards won by brands like Amrut and Paul John. Both companies feature in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and Amrut Distillery’s Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky even won the World Whisky of the Year award at the 2019 Bartenders Spirits Awards. Paul John’s Brilliance won the top honours at World Whiskies Awards 2020, among many others from its portfolio of whiskies.

Michael John D’souza, Master Distiller at Paul John says that their Nirvana whisky is aged for three years in tropical India but if the climate is compared to the cold weather in Scotland, it’s almost a 12-year-old whisky. “According to Scotch whisky rules, only whisky that has been matured for three years can be called Scotch whisky. Imagine a regulation that said I need only one year to mature my whisky, will they follow Indian rules? It’s all debatable and also unfair to compare regulations from different countries,” he says.

Woodburns Whisky is another new Indian whisky company that has, in fact, used awards to promote itself amidst lack of any discernible benchmark for what constitutes as a great Indian whisky. Aman Thadani, owner of Woodburns Whisky, says that the brand value of their product shot up tremendously after receiving three awards from three different continents since it was launched in 2019. “You can’t get away with murder when you enroll yourself in an international competition,” Thadani says wryly.

D’souza says that in 2013 when Paul John started participating in international competitions, he had to send samples to the organisers. “Today, they pick up the bottles and list it themselves. There’s definitely a change in the attitude towards Indian whiskies over the past few years.”

The solution

“I’ve been in this industry for 29-30 years now and have seen how consumers began moving from country liquor and arrack to economy-segment liquors to semi-premium brands and premium brands in this period,” D’souza says. “Over 90% of whisky consumption even today is still in the IMFL (Indian-Made Foreign Liquor) category and it's too complex to put into rules something that all manufacturers will follow. Before 2016, we didn’t have any regulations for that matter.”

The solution might be to create separate rules for single malts and IMFL brands. The idea has enthusiastic support from Khanna who says IMFL whisky brands that don’t age all their malt and grain could be called “whisky-inspired spirit” while single malts and blended malts could be categorised as proper Indian whisky according to a set of regulations that every distiller would follow.

D’souza says that more than definitions, India needs to focus on regularising spirits. According to him, illegal activities such as spurious bottling in states like Bihar, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh among others needs to be stopped. “Once you stop these things, you can regularise other things,” he says.

Unfortunately, for us, Japanese efficiency doesn’t extend to Indian boundaries.

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.

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