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. Andyet, 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 andsingle malts from several other countries.
And it’s not a one-off, either. In little over a decade, several brands from Indiahave made their way onto the shelves of liquor stores all over the world, sharingcounter space with whiskies of long renown that, only half a generation ago, werebeyond the reach of most Indians.
During my childhood, strict import restrictions meant that Indian scotchdrinkers like my father had to depend on smugglers. Demand far outstripped supply, which created a huge market for counterfeiters: Most of the “scotch” sold inIndia was fake.
were plenty of Indian-made whiskies, of course, but these were knownto be inferior to even the cheapest and most obscure brands from Scotland. (Bythe 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,Itook the safe course of avoiding whisky altogether, even the smuggled kind.
Since the early 1990s, when the restrictions were gradually lifted, Indians havetaken enthusiastically to the real thing-what’s more,growing affluence and exposurehigh qualitywhisky have encouraged many to explore more andmore expensive brands. Last year, their country overtook France to become, by volume, Britain’s largestexport market for scotch. Throw in the domestic production and India is also the world’s largest marketfor whisky. And since scotch accounts for just 2% ofthe whisky consumed in India, the scope for expansion has distillers in Scotland fairly smacking theirlips in anticipation.They would be especially excited about the poten
tial to export more of their premium whisky, like single-malt scotch, made from malted barley. Maltwhiskies 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 yearin 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’sown Godawan, command premium prices that until recently were the privilege ofthe likes of Macallan, Lagavulin and Talisker.And what’s more, the Indian brandsare now traveling abroad, taking advantage of the growing international taste forfine whiskies from nontraditional sources. They are earning rave reviews fromarbiters of whisky taste in Europe and beyond.
Damodaran reckons that Indian single malts are”at the same inflection pointas Japanese whiskywas 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 othertraditional bastions.
In addition to taste and a big home market, Indian brands can also count on alarge and affluent diaspora in Europe and the US. (American whiskey makers,already losing ground to agave spirits like tequila and mezcal, might want to watchtheir backs, too.) Anotheradvantage is the growing trend toward high-end Indianrestaurants in cities like New York and London: These serve as excellent showcasesfor 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 longbefore they, too, are targeted by the fakers.