Some of the World's Best Whiskeys Are Coming From India

The country's new crop of single malts are racking up awards and becoming a force to be reckoned with.

<p>Food & Wine / Indri Whisky / Paul John / Amrut Distilleries / Distillery / Kamet Single Malt Whisky / Diageo</p>

Food & Wine / Indri Whisky / Paul John / Amrut Distilleries / Distillery / Kamet Single Malt Whisky / Diageo

Over the past decade, Asia has become a thriving hub for whiskey distilling, with Japanese whisky, in particular, earning global acclaim and captivating enthusiasts worldwide. This surge in popularity has led to soaring demand, making many bottlings difficult to find and cost-prohibitive.

Consequently, consumers are increasingly exploring new whiskeys to satiate their growing interest. Among these, Indian single malts are swiftly emerging as a force in the industry.

Madhu Kanna, head of international sales for Piccadily Distilleries, recognizes this trend. “This is a huge opportunity for Indian single malts and a big chance for us to get the liquid to the lips,” he says.

Related: Single Malt and Blended Whisky — What's the Difference?

“Indian single malts are providing the malt connoisseurs an opportunity to try something different and extremely palatable,” says Sanjeev Banga, president of international business at Radico Khaitan Ltd., the parent company of Rampur Distillery. “The growing acceptance of Indian single malts globally bodes well for the growth of this category.”

India’s first single malt expression

India’s love affair with whiskey spans generations. But, until about 15 years ago, the nation’s whiskey scene was dominated by imports, especially for single malts. A significant shift occurred when Indigenous single malt brands emerged and started to pick up accolades as well as awards.

The real watershed moment arrived with the debut of Amrut Indian Single Malt in 2010. Despite its pedigree (the Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948), the brand had never ventured into distilling a single malt whisky until then.

What set Amrut apart was its unconventional journey. Their single malt expression was first introduced in Scotland in 2004 before being released in its homeland and the United States six years later.

Amrut Single Malt became a symbol of Indian pride, with its name amrut meaning “drink of the gods” in Hindi. It’s reached global acclaim, taken home a staggering string of awards, and solidified its position among the world’s best whiskeys.

The category of the future

In the wake of Amrut's success, other distilleries followed suit. In 2012, John Distilleries introduced Goa-based Paul John Indian Single Malt to the international markets, while Rampur released its namesake single malt in 2016. In 2021, Kamet entered the fray with its first single malt release, and the next year saw the launch of global beverage conglomerate Diageo’s Indian single malt, Godawan. Indri, the single malt brand from Piccadily Distilleries, was made available in the U.S. market in 2022.

The Indian whisky category is steadily growing in America, with impressive new releases finding their way onto shelves regularly.

"With an increasing number of expressions making their way to U.S. shores, the stage is set for Indian single malts to become the new darlings of the whiskey community."

“We have introduced four expressions in the Rampur Jugalbandi series, with two more set to launch in the U.S. later this year. Each expression of Rampur is different,” says Banga.

Heemanshu Ashar, global brand ambassador of Paul John Whisky, also underscores the growth of this emerging category. “Paul John Single Malt is currently available in 40 states across the U.S., including control states,” he says. “While Nirvana is available [across the country], flagship expressions Brilliance and Bold, are available in most of the states, and the premium expressions, the Select Casks and the Zodiac series are available in a few selected states. Our Christmas Edition 2024 is slated for release soon.”

Looking ahead, Kanna hints at an exciting future for single malt enthusiasts. “Later this year, the house of Piccadily Distilleries will unveil newer expressions: Indri Founders Reserve wine cask 11-Year-Old, and the Diwali Collector’s Edition 2024,” he says.

<p>Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg / Getty Images</p>

Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Currently, Piccadily offers two core expressions of Indri in the U.S. Market: Indri Trini, India’s first triple cask single malt, clocking in at 46% ABV, available since August 2022, and Indri Dru, an ex-bourbon cask strength single malt with a 57.2% ABV, available since September 2023.

With an increasing number of expressions making their way to U.S. shores, the stage is set for Indian single malts to become the new darlings of the whiskey community.

Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC, notes an increase in guests looking for Indian whisky.

“The Jack Rose consumer tends to be very open to exploring what’s new in whiskey, seeking out emerging regions, producers and styles,” he says.

While winning fans overseas, these spirits are now also restructuring the Indian market. As per CIABC (Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies), out of the 675,000 cases of single malt whisky sold in India in 2023, 345,000 cases were Indian brands and the rest were from outside India. As per ISWR projection, Indian single malt is expected to have strong growth through 2027.

“[The] U.S. remains the biggest export market for Indian single malt for almost all the players,” says Kanna.

India’s unique terroir

How did Indian single malts come to win the hearts of whiskey lovers on another continent? Some of the answer lies in their distinct terroir, locally sourced ingredients, and provenance.

India's single malts derive their specific character from a combination of factors. One crucial element is the use of locally sourced ingredients. A six-row barley, known for its richer enzyme content, higher protein level, and stronger husk, is used by many Indian distillers. This results in additional filtration and a more concentrated flavor profile compared to the two-row variety favored in Japan and Scotland.

<p>SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP / Getty Images</p>

SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP / Getty Images

Indian distilleries also leverage the country’s diverse climate, which can range from bone-chilling winters to summers that hover around 100°F.

“The vast temperature variation helps in faster maturation — around four times faster than Scotland — as the malt is interacting aggressively with the casks,” says Banga.

“Since we are located in North India at the foothills of the Himalayas, the groundwater, air, soil, and tropical fruit plantations around our distillery lend a unique flavor and profile to Rampur Indian single malts,” he adds. “Everything that goes inside each bottle of Rampur is 100% Indian.”

“Indri single malt is matured in the subtropical climate of Northern India,” says Kanna. “This tropical maturation helps us get robust flavors naturally in a short span of time. The flip side of this is that we lose 10–12% of the liquid from the barrels as angels share. A cooler climate country has an angel's share of 2–2.5%.”

Ashar agrees. “Due to rapid interaction, the liquid tends to extract a lot of sugar from the oak during maturation and these get dissolved into the spirit adding coffee mocha, dark chocolate, honey, orange zest, caramel and toffee notes,” he says. “These notes are extracted in a condensed period to heat and humidity.”

<p>Hemant Mishra / Mint / Getty Images</p>

Hemant Mishra / Mint / Getty Images

Indian single malts boast a diverse spectrum of flavors, ranging from fruity and floral notes to bold and spicy undertones, much of which is the result of Indian distillers embracing innovation and experimentation.

Piccadily Distilleries has been exploring different wood barrels, including ex-bourbon casks, PX sherry casks, and former wine barrels, to infuse their single malts with distinctive flavors during the aging process.

Paul John has similarly pushed the envelope with their production techniques. “Apart from maturing our whiskies in various types of casks and warehouses having different micro-climatic conditions, Paul John Distilleries are also doing trials with various yeast strains,” says Ashar.

Challenges in the global market

In the ever-evolving world of whiskey production, age typically acts as a benchmark of distinction for Japanese and Scotch whiskies. Indian single malts diverge from this convention with their “no age statement” (NAS) tradition, reflecting a unique maturation process shaped by India's diverse climate.

"“The biggest challenge is to get the message to consumers that age is not an indicator of quality.” — Madhu Kanna, head of international sales for Piccadily Distilleries"

“The biggest challenge is to get the message to consumers that age is not an indicator of quality,” says Kanna.

Adding to this complexity is the hurdle of getting recognized as a category.

“Listing in control states is very challenging and it takes time and patience to get listed [getting specific allocation and presence in off-premise store shelves],” says Ashar. “The omnipresence of bourbon and rye defines the whiskey category to the consumer. Outside this, only scotch is recognized, so New World whiskies like Indian single malts have an uphill task of educating the consumer of this as a category, product, and brand.”

Banga echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that “[there is a] struggle to make consumers aware that India produces some world-class spirits and very fine single malts.”

Navigating the challenges

Thomas points out the crucial role of market education and awareness.

"There’s a need for a larger presence in the market, aided by distributors and importers,” he says. “At Jack Rose, we’ve been spotlighting Indian whisky and making it more approachable in ways like internationally-themed whisky flights and hosting tastings. It’s also about access — making sure there is a density and variety of Indian whisky available in the market.”

Kanna adds that category awareness is accomplished, “by educating and frequently communicating with consumers through tasting sessions, master classes, trade and consumer shows, influencers and media.”

""There’s a need for a larger presence in the market, aided by distributors and importers.” — Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC"

“In both India and the U.S., the single malt consumers are driven by recommendations,” he says. “These come [from] word of mouth — either from a friend or from their trusted retailers — reviews from whisky enthusiasts, awards, visibility and availability in marquee retail stores, bars and restaurants. The marketing strategy is the same for both the markets.”

“For our luxury brands, the marketing approach remains the same across geographies,” says Banga. “Generating awareness, inducing trials, and sharing the story behind the brand.”

“It is very important to have a compelling story with which consumers can relate and create a long-lasting emotional bond with the brand,” he adds.

The future outlook for Indian whisky

“Indian single malts have the potential to emulate the success of Japanese whisky on a global scale, but there’s still a long way to go,” says Ashar.

“Most of the single malt brands are relatively new. The oldest brand, Amrut, is just 20 years old. Paul John Whisky is 14 years old. When compared, the Japanese have a lot of years and experience in producing whisky,” he says. “For instance, Yamazaki was first launched in 1923 — 100 years ago. India can definitely produce, if not better, equally good quality whiskies as the quality of grain in India is very high.”

It just may take a little more time.

Must-try Indian single malt whiskies

Rampur Asava

Matured in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in Indian Cabernet Sauvignon casks, this easy-drinking spirit speaks of apricot, manuka honey and vanilla, complemented by nuances of pepper and baking spices. Asava won the Best World Whisky at the 2023 John Barleycorn Awards.

Paul John Oloroso Select Cask

This special edition expression finished in Oloroso sherry casks carries waves of peach, apricot, blood orange, and spiced fruit cake alongside coffee mocha and dark chocolate notes that linger on the long finish

Indri Dru

Named the Best Indian Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2024, this bourbon cask-matured dram is distinctly vibrant and fruit-forward, with a hint of chocolate and citrus.

Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky

This classic whisky is a fascinating fusion of malted Indian barley and peated Scottish barley, with each sip revealing a tantalizing medley of fruity and subtly smoky notes, culminating in a sweet-spicy finish.

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