A platform that Hemanth Rao founded as a hobby in 2011, the Single Malt Amateur Club has mushroomed into a vibrant community of single-malt whisky lovers and there are ambitious plans to grow the platform into something a lot bigger.
It all started, as it often does, with four men in a room with a bottle. For Hemanth Rao, a techie by profession, it was a passion project. When he started exploring the world of single-malt whisky, especially in India, it wasn’t an easy job because the availability of single malts was very limited. “You had to really struggle to get hold of good quality single malts,” says Rao, “Price points were high. Worst of all there was no forum or collective, no social group that could handhold you or tell you something about the spirit and give you their experiences. So that was the rationale. Why not start something, get some friends together and create a platform where people can actually share information about single malts.”
So the Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) was founded in 2011 — Rao was 31 then — as a platform for amateurs, professionals and connoisseurs to share experiences and information on single-malt whisky. The ‘Amateur’ tag was added “to empower members to shed their inhibitions and speak”, because “SMAC believes whisky is for everyone”.
“I think I am still a thoroughbred amateur,” says Rao, “I still learn something new about whisky almost every single day. When I started exploring and asking questions to people, I sometimes got a very snooty response, and that’s usually associated with the groups that indulge in single-malt whiskies! There’s a suggestion that you are from a certain, for want of a better word, level in society. I didn’t want that to happen in this club. I wanted it to be very approachable where anyone could ask any questions without any hesitation of being shot down.”
The club started in Hyderabad, where Rao was based then for a job posting (he lives in Bengaluru now). It was a small affair; four-five people would get together and have a drink once in a while. “The usual practice followed all over the world is to get your own bottle, get together and try to dissect the spirit as much as possible. And generally have a good time,” says Rao.
The club currently has over 4,500 active members. Spread across the globe, a large part are, of course, from India but there are members in countries like Sweden, UK and the US as well. True to its inclusive spirit, membership is free — but a premium membership is in the works — and the rapidly growing club curates whisky tours, tasting sessions and master classes for members. As a leading whisky club it has managed to leverage its position for exclusive bottling from some of the most reputed distilleries. Amrut did a whisky trilogy specifically for the club called Amrut Amaze. Paul John’s first single-cask whisky in India was something done exclusively for the club.
“Now the brands are requesting us to leverage the platform in terms of doing events for them because they want to introduce new whiskies. They want our members to actually taste them because they have understood that it’s a curated market for them. We have been talking specifically about single malts for the last 10 years and have not deviated to wine, beer, gin, nothing. We’re very happy to work with them, showcasing their repertoire and their production to our members,” says Rao.
Rao’s own journey into the world of spirits was slightly atypical. “When you start consuming alcohol in college, etc, you mostly fall into one of these categories: beer, rum or clear spirits. You then progress to brown spirits like whisky or continue on the journey of beer, etc, but in an evolved way,” explains Rao, “But I was actually into wine. Okay, a bit of beer, but I think wine was my starting point in terms of serious alcobev indulgence. And then I moved on to whisky.”
According to Rao, drinkers turn towards brown spirits mostly out of curiosity or are introduced to them through social drinking. “And there’s an aura around single-malt whisky,” says Rao, “Curiosity more than anything else drives people to scratch the surface and explore single-malt whisky. Once you get into it, you are like, let’s try to see what the entire noise is about.”
I asked Rao about the whole gin revolution sweeping India and where single-malt whisky figures in all this. Rao is too polite to sneer but this was his response: “Single malt in India is considered the pinnacle of drinking. Worldwide, the only comparable spirits would be cognac or high-end wine, champagne, etc. Whisky in India will always be a mainstay, because India has been the largest consumer of whisky and a section of the population has been consuming it for a long time. Almost 45 percent of the distilled spirit market belongs to whisky. The rest is shared by all the others put together. Social media trends may suggest gin is in, tequila is next, etc. This doesn’t usually reflect sales. Gin sales may have gone up from 2-5 percent to 8 percent, so that’s a huge notional jump, but in terms of real numbers the needle hasn’t moved much. When it comes to single-malt whisky in India, it will always remain largely a celebratory drink or a showpiece on the mantle because of the price point. A few drinkers may substitute some of their daily whiskies with an entry-level single malt, but it will remain a niche drink at least for some time to come.”
Since the club’s inception, however, the availability of single malts in India has improved dramatically, not to mention the ones being produced in India itself. “That’s a big success story,” agrees Rao, “In fact, we did a recent survey with the club to identify how many variants of Indian single-malt whiskies were available in India. We came up with 28! If I had done the survey back in 2011, I would have probably ended up with a number like one or two. And that’s just the Indian manufactured ones. Add to that are the additional imports coming in from Diageo, Beam Suntory, Pernod Ricard, etc, and we have a portfolio that exceeds more than 100 single malt variants that are available in India right now.”
The pandemic did bring activities to a halt, although the club did some virtual meets. And, purely by chance, they also launched a new vertical. “In 2018, my partner [Harsha Thimmaiah] had Scotland on the radar and wanted to do some large-scale events,” says Rao, “One of the challenges that we face as a club is the lack of proper glassware when we go to a whisky tasting. To differentiate ourselves we decided to import speciality glassware exclusively for our members to enjoy at our events. It was an expensive proposition, because we are a small club, not an enterprise that makes a lot of money. Right after we imported the glassware the pandemic hit. We couldn’t do any events and were stuck with this huge inventory of glassware. So my partner and I decided to sell the glassware and let people enjoy their whisky at home in this fine glassware. It sold out in a jiffy. People had never seen those prices for that glassware in India because we weren’t really selling for profit. We had to order it multiple times to cater to the market in terms of glassware. So while we do events, etc, we also sell merchandise in terms of glassware. And that’s not something that was planned for. It happened by chance.”
Post-pandemic, the club made a trip to Singapore to check out some of the whisky bars there. “We had done whisky distillery visits in the past, but not a whisky trail. Singapore’s close by and I wanted to give members a different flavour that what is usually expected from a whisky tour. More than bar hopping, it was about visiting whisk haunts.” The bar owners in Singapore were (pleasantly) surprised to see a group from India coming all the way just to drink single-malt whisky.
In the short term, more distillery tours are in the offing, including some very exclusive distilleries and bars in Scotland. SMAC also wants to send a delegation to Whisky Live in Paris in September this year. At the beginning of 2023, a trip to Japan is on the cards.
In the long term, the club’s vision is to specifically grow the market in terms of the club membership (with a “preferential bias towards the fair sex”). “We also want to ensure quality production in India through limited releases for the club,” says Rao, “The road map in our minds would be to establish the process where we are able to offer products to members as well as ensure there is adequate feedback so we know we’re on the right path. We would like to make it a platform that is known for whisky throughout India and be able to provide this as a base for brands that want to showcase their products.”
Although the club has grown into such a large community, Rao still thinks of it as his passion project and isn’t giving up the techie life just yet. “At least at the moment,” clarifies Rao, “although it is converging very heavily on my time. I’m hoping somewhere in the future I’ll make that jump, but not at the moment.” Once an amateur, always an amateur perhaps. And with pride and a single malt in hand.