When I was growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, the idea that the country would one day compete with Scotland’s finest export was unthinkable. And yet, a few weeks ago an Indian malt whisky, Indri Diwali Collectors Edition 2023, was named best in show at the Whiskies of the World Awards, beating out competition from better known brands of scotch — as well as American bourbon and single malts from several other countries.
And it’s not a one-off, either. In little over a decade, several brands from India have made their way onto the shelves of liquor stores all over the world, sharing counter space with whiskies of long renown that, only half a generation ago, were beyond the reach of most Indians.
During my childhood, strict import restrictions meant that Indian scotch drinkers like my father had to depend on smugglers. Demand far outstripped supply, which created a huge market for counterfeiters: Most of the “scotch” sold in India was fake.
There were plenty of Indian-made whiskies, of course, but these were known to be inferior to even the cheapest and most obscure brands from Scotland. (By the way, Indians spell whisky as they do in Scotland and most other countries, without the ‘e’. US and Ireland add the extra vowel.)When I attained drinking age, I took the safe course of avoiding whisky altogether, even the smuggled kind.
Since the early 1990s, when the restrictions were gradually lifted, Indians have taken enthusiastically to the real thing — what’s more, growing affluence and exposure to high quality whisky have encouraged many to explore more and more expensive brands. Last year, their country overtook France to become, by volume, Britain’s largest export market for scotch. Throw in the domestic production and India is also the world’s largest market for whisky. And since scotch accounts for just 2% of the whisky consumed in India, the scope for expansion has distillers in Scotland fairly smacking their lips in anticipation.
They would be especially excited about the potential to export more of their premium whisky, like single-malt scotch, made from malted barley. Malt whiskies are on an especially hot streak in India: Vikram Damodaran, chief innovation officer of Diageo India, reckons sales in this segment have grown sixfold to 300,000 cases a year in less than a decade.
But here’s the twist: The hottest brands in that category come not from Scotland but from much closer home. Indian brands, like Amrut, Paul John and Diageo’s own Godawan, command premium prices that until recently were the privilege of the likes of Macallan, Lagavulin and Talisker. And what’s more, the Indian brands are now traveling abroad, taking advantage of the growing international taste for fine whiskies from nontraditional sources. They are earning rave reviews from arbiters of whisky taste in Europe and beyond.
Damodaran reckons that Indian single malts are “at the same inflection point as Japanese whisky was a couple of decades ago.” If he’s right, the distillers in Scotland should worry about losing market share, not only in India but also in other traditional bastions.
In addition to taste and a big home market, Indian brands can also count on a large and affluent diaspora in Europe and the US. (American whiskey makers, already losing ground to agave spirits like tequila and mezcal, might want to watch their backs, too.) Another advantage is the growing trend toward high-end Indian restaurants in cities like New York and London: These serve as excellent showcases for Indian spirits and wine.
Meanwhile, fake booze remains a problem in India. As consumers show a willingness to pay more and more for their drink, there’s greater incentive for counterfeiters. And with Indian brands commanding premium prices, it won’t be long before they, too, are targeted by the fakers.