Exploring India’s Rich Whisky Heritage: From Colonial Origins to Global Recognition

Featured & Cover Exploring India's Rich Whisky Heritage From Colonial Origins to Global Recognition

Whisky production in India traces its roots back to the 19th century, stemming from the era of British colonization. At that time, Scotch whisky was predominantly imported to India to fulfill the demands of British military personnel and officials stationed in the country.

During the late 1820s, Edward Abraham Dyer immigrated to India and established the Kasauli Brewery and Solan distillery in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. By importing distillation equipment from Scotland, Dyer recognized a lucrative opportunity to cater to the local demand for whisky by producing spirits domestically.

Dyer strategically chose the Solan district nestled deep within the Himalayas due to its abundant fresh spring water and a climate reminiscent of Scotland’s, stating his ambition to craft a malt whisky comparable to Scotch. Eventually, in 1835, Dyer transferred his brewery operations to the Solan site, driven by a shortage of spring water around Kasauli.

Consequently, the Kasauli brewery underwent a complete transformation for whisky production in 1835, marking the inception of Solan No. 1, India’s premier single malt whisky and the sole malt whisky distilled in the Himalayas. As the oldest distillery in India and the entire Asian continent, the Kasauli distillery maintains its heritage by employing the original copper pot still imported from Scotland in the 1820s and adhering to production techniques established by Dyer.

Utilizing locally sourced malted barley from the northern regions of India, the Kasauli distillery crafts Solan No. 1 whisky, which undergoes maturation in oak barrels for an undisclosed period.

Interestingly, Mohan Meakin Breweries, the current owner of the distillery, abstains from conventional advertising methods for Solan No. 1 whisky, relying instead on word-of-mouth recommendations to bolster sales.

While Indian whisky production shares similarities with Scotch whisky, such as the use of copper pot stills and oak cask maturation, there exist notable differences in ingredients and maturation techniques specific to India’s whisky-making process.

In India, a significant portion of distilled spirits labeled and marketed domestically as ‘whisky’ resemble rum more closely due to being distilled from molasses, falling under the category of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL). These IMFL brands, primarily blending sweet molasses-based spirits with flavorings or spices, face restrictions in markets like the UK and EU, where whisky must be distilled from cereal grains to be labeled as such.

IMFL whisky brands dominate approximately 60% of India’s domestic market, primarily due to their accessibility and affordability, whereas Scotch whisky imports encounter barriers such as high import taxes and complex state excise laws.

Historically, the production of malt and grain whisky in India remained limited due to controversies surrounding alcohol production from barley and cereal grains amid widespread poverty and grain shortages. Speculation persists regarding whether the original Solan No. 1 whisky blend incorporated malt whisky with sugarcane spirit, as was customary at the time.

Indian malt whisky distillers predominantly rely on indigenous six-row barley grown in northern states like Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan, favoring it for its perceived ability to impart a spicier flavor profile compared to the two-row barley varieties commonly used by whisky producers worldwide.

Exceptions to this norm include peated Indian whisky bottlings like Amrut Fusion and Paul John Bold, which utilize imported pre-peated Scottish barley for distillation.

Due to India’s hot tropical climate, the maturation period for Indian whiskies is notably shorter than that of Scottish malts. While UK and EU regulations mandate a minimum three-year aging period for malt whisky, Indian single malts are typically matured for four to five years, with each year of maturation in India deemed equivalent to three years in Scotland. Additionally, India’s warmer climate results in a higher ‘Angel’s Share,’ the portion lost to evaporation during maturation, estimated at 10-12% annually compared to Scotland’s approximately 2%.

In terms of flavor profile, Indian malt whiskies often exhibit fruity and sweet characteristics. Prior to the UK launch of Amrut’s single malt in 2004, blind tastings revealed similarities between Amrut’s whisky and Scotland’s Speyside malts, with tasters noting sweet vanilla and caramel notes. However, Indian malts are distinguished by tropical fruit flavors such as banana, pineapple, and mango, attributed partly to the use of copper pot stills with elongated necks to produce a fruitier spirit.

While the tropical climate generally results in lighter and fresher-bodied Indian whiskies, exceptions exist such as Rampur Distillery, situated in the Himalayan foothills, where colder winters and hot summers contribute to a richer and fuller-bodied malt.

Now, let’s delve into some of India’s prominent whisky brands:

Amrut Distilleries: A trailblazer in Indian whisky, Amrut introduced India’s first single malt bottling in 2004. Established as Amrut Laboratories in Bangalore in 1947, the company ventured into malt whisky distillation in 1982. Amrut made history on August 24, 2004, with the release of Amrut Single Malt, the first Indian single malt whisky available in the UK. Notably, Amrut Fusion, launched in 2009, achieved global recognition when it was ranked the 3rd Best Whisky in the World in 2010 by Jim Murray, scoring an impressive 97 points in his Whisky Bible.

John Distilleries: Founded by Paul P. John in 1996, John Distilleries commenced malt whisky distillation at its Goa distillery in 2008. In May 2013, the company launched its Paul John single malt Indian whisky core range for the international market, comprising ‘Brilliance’, ‘Edited’, and ‘Bold’ expressions, featuring both unpeated and peated variants. Paul John Distillery has since ventured into cask finishes, including Oloroso and PX sherry, alongside limited-edition releases like the annual Paul John Christmas Edition.

Rampur Distillery & Chemical Company Ltd: Established in 1943 at Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, and owned by Radico Khaitan Ltd since 1972, the Rampur Distillery launched its first Rampur Single Malt Indian Whisky in 2016.

Piccadily Distilleries Group: Originally founded as Kedar Nath and Sons by K.N. Sharma in 1953, the Piccadily Group expanded into alcohol manufacturing and distilling in 1993, culminating in the construction of one of India’s largest malt plants at the Indri distillery in 2010. The group’s first bottling, the Indri Trini expression, debuted internationally in 2021. Noteworthy is the limited-edition Indri Diwali Collectors Edition 2023, a peated Indian single malt aged in PX sherry casks, which received the prestigious ‘Best in Show Double Gold’ accolade at the Whiskies of the World Awards 2023.

By presenting India’s rich whisky heritage and diverse offerings, these brands contribute to the global whisky landscape, offering enthusiasts a taste of India’s unique flavors and craftsmanship.

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