Jamie, Diago’s Reserve Whisky Ambassador for India shares some enlightening stories about his love of the contry, People, Culture and how Whisky is drank viewed in the world’s 8th largest market for blended Scotch.
Sitting here in yet another Indian airport watching the people go by as I sip the lovely amber coloured liquid in my glass, I wonder what is happening back in Glasgow, and if it’s raining… Probably. And I shouldn’t complain, I could be stuck in Indian traffic, minus dram, with a dead laptop, mobile and only some crazy Hindi music for company.
Home for me is currently Bangalore in South India which is pretty different to everywhere in the world I have ever been, with the exceptions of the other 8 Indian cities I have seen over the past six months. I am incredibly lucky that I get to travel such a vast and diverse country chatting about whisky and absorbing the colours, languages, smells (not always good ones) and sights of this magical country… I have friends who are teaching maths to kids in Cumbernauld…
As I said watching people is a great pass time in India. People are everywhere. The sheer number of folk here is still mindboggling to me. The Indian Middle and upper classes total over 350 million. So more than Europe or the US, inclusive of legal/non-legal immigration. With this comes tremendous opportunities for many industries, whisky being one of them. Indian “whiskies” are hugely popular and extremely affordable (some under two quid a bottle). Most are made from grain/molasses/god knows what, and matured for about 15 minutes in the sub-tropical sunshine. The closest they will see to oak is the cardboard box that they are packed in. Purists will shake their heads and say it is not whisky, a point I’ll save for another day, but some of these brands are selling 30 million 9 litre cases a year. That is 10 million cases more than Johnnie Walker does globally, so as you can see the demand is here.
On top of these basement price whisky, there are some delightful blended scotches bottled in India (BII) by the large international spirits companies, with the main players being Diageo USL and Pernod Ricard. Blends like Buchanan’s Black and White, a beautiful young Highland blend that at the price range would do really well in the UK market. Black Dog, blended by Richard Patterson. 100 Pipers and Vat 69 make up the segment of the market that are priced below brands such as Johnnie Red Label and Dewar’s White Label. When you take into account the luxury import tax that is placed on imported bottled Scotches, 150%, these blends are great value for money. On top of that different states in India levy their own alcohol tax which makes for huge swings in prices between states. A perfect example of this is Johnnie Black which you can get for about 20 pounds in Gurgaon while the same bottle will cost you nearly 80 pounds in Karnataka. This means lots of people buy bottles when they travel and also leads to mass counterfeiting on popular imported brands, but that’s also a story is for another time.
Indian Single Malts
One also can’t talk about the Indian whisky market without touching on the two major Indian Single Malt whiskies produced in India, being Amrut & Paul John.
Amrut is distilled just outside Bangalore and has had quite a bit of international acclaim recently after being named in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible over the past few years. It was ironically launched in Glasgow about a decade ago and has a few very tasty variations on sale. The peated would be my pick of the bunch but they have a sherry cask and just released a ten yo “greedy Angel’s” edition that will be on sale internationally very soon. This is somewhat of a landmark for Indian whisky as ageing at this humidity and temperature will be more akin to the ageing of Caribbean rums as opposed to Scottish Single Malts, and anyone waiting ten years for anything in India is almost unheard of. (Although when waiting for cocktail ingredients in hotels can feel just as long when setting up for a large event!) This 10yo variant will not come cheap but could be a lovely addition to a serious global whisky collector.
Paul John whiskies are distilled in Goa and are a bit newer to the market. Honestly, I do not know how easy it is to get your hands on outside India, but it has definitely made a few waves in the markets I am most involved with down South. With three main variants on offer, “Classic, Brilliance and Peated”, all bottled up around the 46% mark, they pack a lot of flavour into their malts. The Brilliance would be my pick, but I would recommend a few ml’s of water to open them up a tad. The guys at Paul John are also releasing single cask editions. When I have had a taste, I will be more than happy to pass on my opinions, if anyone is interested.
Whisky is a deeply aspirational product in India. I speak to many single malt drinkers who tell me with sincerity of the day they could afford to buy their first bottle of imported Scotch, usually a Black Label, and say that was the day that they had made a leap up the social ladder. Blended whisky is a huge market in India, with people tending to drink spirits straight off the bat as opposed to the warm up lagers or white wines you will see in the UK or Australia. Both females and males love their whisky, and to be honest, I see more ladies with single malts in their glasses here than anywhere else my travels have taken me. Smoky Malts are hugely popular in India and match well with food coming from the tandoors you find in most restaurants and many street corners. Try pairing a Lagavulin or similar smoky Islay with your tandoori chicken and naan bread next time you are having a Sunday night Ruby Murry, it’s fantastic!
Apart from using whisky to avoid the dreaded Delhi-belly, which it does surprisingly well, good at killing those pesky bacteria, Indians drink whisky throughout the year. It doesn’t matter what season it will be flowing. On top of this with days off occurring throughout the year for religious, festive and State holidays, it seems like there is a long weekend happening every week in one of the states. This is ideal for Indians who love to party, but terrible when you are trying to claim expenses, and banks are shut about 30 Mondays out the year.
Whisky is consumed in traditional and rather untraditional manners. There is a love for mixing whisky with ½ soda or coke and 1/2 water with a solitary tiny ice cube bobbing in the top of the glass. This leads to a drink tasting like it has been sitting on a table for an hour and thus the soda or coke is diluted. Something I can’t quite get my head round but goes down a storm here, especially in South India. Another love is for whisky with room temperature fruit juice. One gentleman who I have met on numerous occasions swears by Blue Label with room temperature lychee juice, 50:50 ratio. I had to try it just in case he had stumbled on Ambrosia, and it was me who was being small minded, but unfortunately my palate is not quite developed enough for such a beverage quite yet.
However in the 13 months I have spent in this wild and constantly moving country, dodging cows and eating the occasional unknown animal, I have seen a definite rise in the willingness of people to try broadening their horizons. Whisky cocktails are most certainly on the rise, and people are starting to branch out from their original core brands and dabble in more obscure single malts and blends. The number of imported brands is constantly on the rise, and we are starting to see more bottles entering smaller markets rather than the historical key bases of Delhi and Mumbai. It is not unusual to walk into a luxury hotel in smaller cities in states like Pondicherry or Kerala and find a bottle of John Walker behind the bar sitting beside 3 or 4 bottles of Single Malt aged 30 years and above. I even stumbled upon a bottle of 1974 Girvan grain whisky on a visit to Hyderabad recently. Granted it had had about 60 ml poured from it and may well have been there for a few years but just having this kind of whiskies behind bars is raising the interest in Scotch.
For anyone looking to travel to India I could not recommend it enough. Of course, there will be the risk of a dicky tummy for a day or two, and it is not the most sterile or clean country that you will ever see, but the friendliness of the people and the diverse range of cultures and landscapes is quite simply staggering. Just walking around a local spice market or wandering along a beach watching fisherman selling their catches and local curries is a joy, and will awaken your senses and transport you to a place that could have been 200 years ago, until some guy with a gold Rolex the size of your face drives by in a Hummer blasting Bollywood tunes. But this just proves the amazing juxtaposition of old and new worlds in this country. One thing you will never be able to say is India is a dull or quiet place to be!!
If you are ever in India, please connect with me through twitter @walkingonwalker and we will have a dram or three.