Indian Whisky: Country at a Crossroads

If you’re like me and find a blitz of statistics about the drinks industry a baffling confusion of litres, cases, bottles and percentages, then India is an X-rated horror film. India consumes 260 to 270 million cases of whisky a year, we’re told, only it doesn’t because not all the whisky is whisky, it’s ‘whisky’ – or in euro terms, rum, and made with sugar molasses. 

Very little Indian whisky is exported, demand for whisky is in double-digit growth, and in the tiny premium drinks sector single malt Scotch enjoys the biggest growth of all. 

India makes and consumes the biggest whisky brands on the planet, although you probably  haven’t ever seen them, even if you’ve heard about them, and unless you’ve been to India you more or less certainly haven’t tasted them. 

For the record, Officer’s Choice, from Allied Blenders & Distillers, has overtaken Bagpiper, from United Distillers, which Diageo has just bought controlling shares in. The two whiskies sell 18.1 million cases and 14.1million cases respectively. All of which begs the question: outside of India, who cares?

That’s being facetious. The question is actually, does any of this really matter? The answer is yes, and for two reasons: one, because the two extremes outlined above are not the only games in town and there are a number of other options in between. And two, because while the expression ‘sleeping giant’ doesn’t quite cut it as a descriptor for India, it’s certainly a huge tiger, somewhat detached now, but with the capability to pounce powerfully if and when the time is right.

It’s the sheer size of the market that interests the big drinks producers – and the fact that, without trying and with a series of obstacles in its way, India is still growing as a spirits market and can already lay claim to being the largest whisky market on the planet. 

Just think of the opportunities from this market if it ever resolved its differences with Europe and elsewhere, or simplified the bureaucratic nightmare of having so many individual autocratic states, or agreed to reduce the still astronomical levies on imported spirits.

Please indulge me for a minute while I throw in a few more statistics. The total population of India is a little over 1.2 billion, but of those only about a quarter – 300 million – are benefitting from the Indian Tiger economy and the subsequent boom. We say ‘only’, but 300 million people is roughly the size of the US.

And because information about the whisky market in India has been sketchy and vague, and because it’s virtually impossible to find out exactly what goes into many of the country’s whisky brands, we are only just now starting to appreciate that India is like no other whisky market in the world and is behaving like no other whisky market in the world. 

So, while the likes of China, South America and Africa may follow the standard path from domestic spirits to imported ones – and eventually premium imported ones such as Scotch whisky – India is in a totally different place, having embraced whisky at the time of the British Empire.