The renowned writer Haruki Murakami once said, “Whisky, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink.” And in India, it looks like more people are appreciating whisky, particularly single malts, like never before. Today, India consumes about 48% of the world’s whisky and luxury malts are slowly increasing their market share here.
So why are single malts suddenly becoming the toast of the town? According to celebrity chef Manu Chandra, chef and partner of Olive Bar and Kitchen (which owns brands like Toast and Tonic, Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao) the well-travelled Indian is making a sea change to the liquor landscape across India. “The exposure to new spirits has been a lot greater than the availability here (which has for years been dismal). Secondly, the entry of many brands into a classically whisky and browns spirits driven market has made access easier. The whisky drinker wanted to move up the brown spirits chain, and the complexity and finesse that malts provided, fit perfectly into the newly wealthy and aspirational drinkers profile,” he explains.
However, many in the liquor business do feel that India is still about 15 years behind the West in terms of single malt consumption. This is perhaps why there are small groups of single malt enthusiasts getting together in every city to share experiences and information on single malts to understand and enjoy them better. In Bengaluru, the Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC), for instance, was launched in 2011. Hemanth Adapa of the SMAC asserts that the ‘snob appeal’ associated with single malts doesn’t exist at SMAC and they facilitate sharing of tasting notes, experiences, and recent releases. “Most of the information on single malt whisky, available on the net and books, were tuned to the western taste buds and expressions; we hope to change that concept and add the typical Indian flavour to it,” he adds.
But the important question here is—do Indians understand what the single malt is all about? The single malt (made from malted barley) is considered the end result of a fusion of science and art and was always associated as a drink for the wealthy and elite. With Indians in their 20s and 30s looking for the “wow experience” and higher disposable incomes, the single malt is no longer an older and wealthier man’s drink particularly in India.
“Whisky cocktails have become a gateway for all sexes and age groups to familiarise themselves with again with brown spirits – after nearly a decade of white spirit dominance. So that’s a big help in selling malts too. Basically, there’s a palate that’s beginning to enjoy this, and it’s not necessarily gender biased,” elucidates Manu Chandra.
Though Scottish single malts are considered the best in the world, in 2010, whisky connoisseur Jim Murray announced, Amrut Fusion, the Bangalore single malt from Amrut Distilleries Limited, as the world’s third-best whisky in that year’s edition of Whisky Bible. As people were talking about the best of Scottish brands like Glenmorangie, Glen Livet, Glenfiddich, The Dalmore, Jura, The Macallan, Dalwhinnie, GlenKinchie, Lagavulin, Talisker and Balvenie, one Indian brand quietly made it to this list.
Ashok Chokalingam, GM, Amrut Distilleries elaborates about Amrut saying, “All single malts are unique and possess a character that is distinct to the distillery. Amrut is unique because it is made in Bengaluru at an altitude of 900m above sea level and has a distinct character because of the climatic conditions prevailing here.” Paul John, meanwhile, also came up with their Indian single malts in 2012 and now has about seven variants.
Acquiring a taste for the single malt though is no mean feat. If you are just starting to savour the single malt, the learning curve can be steep. Hemant Adapa explains that the very essence of every single malt whisky is the story that is weaved around it related to its production, maturation, blending and tasting; and one has to understand this process to enjoy the drink.
“Any complex food or beverage has a learning curve, and telling Islay from Speyside isn’t an easy task. Much like wine drinking took a long time before it gained larger acceptance and a discerning audience, so will single malts. But by virtue of being brown Scottish spirits, they have a greater advantage,” opines Manu Chandra.
What is also an interesting trend in India is that women seem to enjoy single malts more than men. “The olfactory senses of the fairer sex have always been publicised as better and this is experienced very evidently and commonly during the tasting of malts; women are not only able to pick up the subtle aromas and flavours of the whiskies but are also able to reminisce similar bouquets and tastes from other sources. I found a preference among them for Islay malts and Lagavulin,” adds Hemanth.
Those who are whisky connoisseurs say there are some strict no-nos for single malts. Just add some ice and a splash of water but no mixing with sodas and other elements they advise strictly. “Education and orientation to whisky appreciation, masterclasses and interesting concepts like whisky and food pairing have completely transformed the concept of whisky drinking in India. A newer audience which is women who enjoy whisky has further added a lot of excitement to the category, as it is not just increasing the number of whisky drinkers but also ensuring that a varied style of whiskies are finding their way to the Indian palate,” concludes Sandeep Arora, Director, Spiritual Luxury Living Pvt. Ltd. and co-founder and Managing Partner, Cask Spirit Marketing LLP.