Indian Whisky: Country at a Crossroads

Its educational needs when it comes to the finest single malt are out of sight when compared to the likes of China.

For a big drinks company such as Diageo, the route to servicing such a huge country’s growing spirits-drinking needs isn’t necessarily to encourage more single malt whisky consumption – it simply hasn’t got the stocks – and it may not be to grow its Scotch blends much further. 

After all, Johnnie Walker’s Indian sales are so important as part of gifting and at celebratory festivals such as Diwali that, when an illegal fake batch resulted in several deaths a few years back, Diageo put ads in the British drinks trade press, written in a number of Indian languages, to reassure Indian customers that the official blend was safe.

Perhaps a clue to the future lies in the launch of Diageo’s latest spirit release, Rowson’s Reserve. Described as a new brand of Indian grain whisky, it contains Scotch whisky and is aged locally in American oak barrels. The company has also talked of launching other premium spirit drinks, designed specifically for the Indian middle classes. There has even been talk of innovatory new spirits – so could this be a case of ‘when in Rome’ as the big producers go into unknown terrain which is forbidden to them in Europe? 

Diageo’s latest investment in the Indian market could well be a game changer. On the early evidence it would seem that the likes of Indian single malt whisky companies such as Amrut or Paul John are nothing more than a sideshow as the big drink companies wrestle to win the hearts and palates of the emerging middle classes. 

If you want to extrapolate, we could be witnessing the start of a new and distinctly Indian drinks category, which might not be about cheap and bad blends made with molasses, nor about expensive Scottish single malt consumed for prestige. And not even about fine quality Indian single malt competing head to head with the world’s finest whiskies.

The future of the Indian whisky  market could actually be about large-scale, but premium, production of a type that is currently no more than a twinkle in some drinks strategist’s eye.

But only time will tell. Watch this space.