A new dawn for whisky in India – and Indian whisky

A new dawn for whisky in India – and Indian whisky

Whisky, particularly Scotch, has been favoured in India for decades – as the country’s whisky drinkers get more informed and trade up in their choices, there is a growing array of options, both homegrown and international

News | 09 Jun 2023 | By Sandeep Arora

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For those in the business of making spirits, India is certainly a place to have a foot in the door and bottles on the shelves. Its population is fast approaching 1.5 billion, with upward mobility and disposable household incomes climbing in tandem. According to Statista, the country’s total consumption of alcoholic beverages is expected to surpass 6 billion litres in 2024, and last year, it generated the fourth-largest revenue from spirits (just over US$33 billion), behind Japan, the United States, and China. Of the spirits consumed in India, roughly 95 per cent are brown. While rum and locally produced sugarcane spirits account for a fair chunk of this, the real king is whisky, most notably Scotch.

Whisky’s history in the country dates back to British colonial rule in the 19th century, when local grain spirits in a style akin to whisky started to be produced to cater to the demand of British soldiers. Given the target market, it was fittingly a Brit, entrepreneur Richard Dyer, who established India’s first whisky distillery in the late 1820s. In this period, whiskies were produced with indigenous ingredients and distillation methods and were typically lighter in body and flavour compared with Scotch whisky.

The modern era of whisky production in India began in the 1940s with the establishment of large distilleries including Rampur and Amrut. Their spirits differed from the single malts of Scotland, typically made from a blend of molasses and grain spirits and enhanced with spices and other flavourings to suit local tastes. But as single malt came back into favour globally in the 1990s, the distilleries started to change their focus, shifting into single malt production. John Distilleries, opened in 1996, launched its now-world-renowned Paul John Single Malt Whisky in 2012. Amrut introduced its first single malt in 2004, followed by Rampur (now Radico Khaitan) in 2016. New distilleries are also jostling for position, such as Kamet in Goa, which released its first single malt in 2021, and Diageo-owned Godawan, Rajasthan’s first ‘luxury’ single malt, which launched the same year.

Oaksmith Gold international blended whisky

In 2023, India remains a lucrative market for whisky sales. According to Statista, the Indian whisky market is project to hit almost $18.4 billion (£14.8 billion) in value this year – bested in size only by the US. Meanwhile, figures released by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) in February revealed that India overtook France as the top export market by volume for Scotch whisky in 2022, with the volume of exports growing by more than 200 per cent in total over the past decade. Excitingly, stats quoted by the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies show that homemade Indian single malts now account for one third (33 per cent) of the local market, up from 15 per cent in 2017.

A trend towards premiumisation is also emerging, partly driven by upward social mobility. Research from Bain & Company, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, estimates that almost 80 per cent of Indian households will be middle-income by 2030, with 45 per cent expected to be in upper-middle- and high-income groups. The research also found that technology is bridging gaps in information and income between rural and urban geographies, bringing higher lifestyle aspirations out of the major conurbations.

Siddhartha Sharma, founder and promoter at Piccadily Distilleries, the producer of Indri single malt and Whistler blended malt whiskies, believes the whiskies being offered by global brands to drinkers in India demonstrates the trend toward higher-end products. “India is among the top three consumers of alcoholic beverages, and we cater to a large population within our country itself. Consumers are spoilt for choice with the introduction, experimentation, and reinvention of various flavours and forms, particularly in the premium segment with superior blends and packaging that compare with international standards.”

Indri single malt whisky from Piccadily Distillery. Credit: Piccadily Distillery

As Sharma alludes to, this push toward premiumisation doesn’t just stop at the liquid. Scotch distillery Glenmorangie dedicated a lot of artistic effort to support its highly celebrated It’s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful campaign in India. It partnered with local artist Aniruddh Mehta – better known as the Big Fat Minimalist – to create a localised limited-edition festival pack exclusively for the Indian market. The distillery also collaborated with Indian-American artist Karsh Kale to develop the Delicious Design Project, a digital art and music experience. The project is said to have evoked the vibrancy of India, celebrating the culture and marking the brand’s next steps in luxury experiences – and the choice of location points strongly to where Glenmorangie expects a prime customer base for this type of luxury experience, not to mention its distinctive and daring creative campaign, to be.

The growing preference for ‘drinking better’ comes in tandem with changing consumer behaviours noted by drinks retailers after the Covid-19 pandemic, including increases in at-home consumption, online shopping, and experimentation with new brands and products. Diageo is appealing to these more experimental tastes – and a base of drinkers that is growing ever-more gender-diverse – with releases such as Royal Challenge American Pride, a blend of bourbon and Indian grain spirit, and Johnnie Walker Blonde, a golden blend of wheat and malt whiskies that is ‘made for mixing’.


Hina Nagarajan, CEO and managing director of Diageo India, said, “The larger consumption story anchored in premiumisation continues strongly for our consumers. Premiumisation and aspiration-driven choices continue to be key drivers of demand with greater growth coming from middle and upper-income segments in India.” She added that the “craft phenomenon” was having an impact, with drinkers “celebrating local pride and exceptional Indian craftsmanship”.


Neeraj Kumar, managing director at Beam Suntory India, said the global group – which offers whiskies from its portfolio including Jim Beam, Laphroaig, and Hibiki in India – saw premiumisation as a key trend among the growing legal-drinking-age demographic in India. “Whisky is going young in India. It used to be the drink you graduate to but that has changed,” he said. “The inertia towards a ‘favourite’ brand is now fading, as the pandemic forced choice due to availability constraints opening and widening repertoire, making the country a very attractive market for global majors and local start-ups alike.”

Neeraj Kumar, Beam Suntory India managing director

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Although big-name international (primarily Scotch) whiskies are likely to be a primary driver to the category of whisky in India, Indian-made whisky is a natural next step. Burdensome tax rates on imported goods (150 per cent, in the case of spirits) and current price sensitivities are making Indian-made foreign liquid (IMFL) an increasingly attractive choice.

Vatted malts such as Amrut Amalgam – a blend of malts from Asia and Scotland with locally produced spirit – have attracted great affinity from Indian consumers, and multinational Bacardi also made a move in this direction in 2022 with the launch of its first Indian-made whisky, Legacy. The increasing prevalence of single malts produced in India could tempt a switch from foreign alternatives in this category, too. Some distilleries are also offering cask finishes that would not look out of place in a Scotch line-up, for example the Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish employed in Rampur Asava, or the Madeira Cask Finish and port-pipe finished Portnova from Amrut. The latter distillery pushed cask finishing to its limit with Spectrum 004, which was finished in a custom cask incorporating French Limousin and American oak, and ex-PX and ex-oloroso cask staves.

Serving Johnnie Walker Blonde. Credit: Diageo

Thiruvikram Nikam, joint managing director of Amrut Distilleries, said, “Traditional Indian whisky companies will need to continue to innovate and adapt to changing consumer preferences in order to stay competitive. This may involve creating new products, improving quality, and investing in marketing and distribution. New-age whisky companies are likely to continue to focus on niche markets and unique products. They may also invest in sustainable and socially responsible production practices to appeal to a younger and more socially conscious consumer base.”

“New-age whisky companies are revolutionising the industry by challenging traditional production methods and creating innovative, premium products that cater to the changing tastes and expectations of consumers.” So says Paul John, chairman of John Distilleries. Once itself the new kid on an established whisky block, its Original Choice whisky remains one of the best-selling spirits in India and the Paul John single malts have won plaudits not just in their home country but around the world. John said India’s younger whisky companies are generating new – and renewed – interest in the category by breaking new ground, experimenting with ingredients and flavours and trialling experimental technologies and ageing methods. He added: “As long as quality is ensured, new-age whisky companies are poised to continue making an impact on the industry and shaping the future of whisky production.”

While some emerging players have the resources to start their own distilleries, a number of new brands are collaborating with external distilleries or distilling companies to help source liquid and scale up – or, indeed, have been founded by them. Peak Spirits created Kamet whisky through contract distilling and bottling. Goa-based Fullarton Distilleries released Woodburns in 2019, its first whisky for the Indian market, which is a blend made with 100 per cent Indian malted barley. Diageo has launched two craft whiskies, Godawan ‘artisanal single malt’ and Epitome Reserve, both produced at its Alwar distillery; the multinational has also set up a state-of-the-art innovation hub called The Good Craft Co in Ponda, Goa (at a cost of roughly £4.5 million) to nurture drinks start-ups in India and strengthen its craft and premium portfolio.

Amrut Amalgam malt whisky

“Diageo is a multinational company with strong Indian roots through USL [United Spirits Limited], which has a rich history and with some of its distilleries dating back over a hundred years,” explains Diageo India’s Nagarajan. “Its community of blenders, distillers, and creative liquid artists are potentially some of the oldest and most experienced in the country – bringing with them artisanal knowledge, decades of expertise, and the connection with the local communities to bring the art of distilling bespoke spirits alive. Given its leading position in whisky and its Indian roots, the time is therefore right for Diageo to play a pivotal role in amplifying the role of Indian craft spirits not only in India but also globally.”

Many of these younger whisky makers are appealing to the desire for brand ‘story’ that has become more prevalent in the craft distilling movement, through the use of locally sourced ingredients and local and digital brand activations. For its premium whisky Roulette, launched in 2021, John Distilleries has used new media to reach younger consumers outside India’s core 35-and-over whisky-drinking demographic. The company ran an influencer-led campaign on social media last year to promote its range of peated and unpeated single malts. Influencers including Ami Shroff and CocktailsInIndia were videoed conducting elaborate ‘unboxings’ of Roulette whiskies, then suggested cocktail recipes to try with the expressions. Godawan, meanwhile, is investing in its environmental credentials – another quality that rates highly among younger generations – and helping out its home region of Rajasthan by supporting conservation initiatives for the endangered great Indian bustard.

Alongside a shift in their expectations for whisky brands’ operations and actions, whisky drinkers’ palates in India are changing, too – and generally changing up. As in other countries where the whisky industry is becoming more diverse, enthusiasts are becoming better informed, and their palates are evolving accordingly. Paul John said he had noted an increasing openness to “new and innovative experiences and products” among consumers, while their more well-versed palates seem to be in the market for more “personalised” whiskies to suit their tastes.

Kumar at Beam Suntory India has an interesting take on this palate evolution, claiming that Indian cuisine has played a large part in the determining the kind of flavours that the country’s whisky drinkers seek. “[The] Indian palate is one of the friendliest to spice and flavours, conditioned by our local food over the years, which then also reflects in cocktail and overall drink choices. The kind of profile that works then is rarely unsubtle, but now more so since experimentation is a driving need in much of purchase decision,” he said.

The still house at the Paul John Distillery. Credit: Paul John Indian Single Malt Whisky

Linked to this development of local palates is the development and use of local ingredients, and the impact they have on flavour profiles. One major distinction between Scotch and Indian whiskies is the type of barley used: in the former, malting barley varieties are almost exclusively two-row; in the latter, six-row is far more common. Although its yields are lower than two-row varieties, six-row barley has higher levels of protein which can aid flavour development (and which make it a favourite for speciality malts). Paul John, Rampur, and Kamet all use varieties of six-row barley for their malts. With more homegrown whiskies on the horizon using higher proportions of locally grown grain, Indian whisky fans can expect more exciting flavour profiles to emerge.

“India is a consumption-driven market with very distinct roles for indigenous and global offerings,” Nagarajan at Diageo India offered. “The diverse agrarian demography of India enables the creation of exceptional spirits that are made by local communities with locally sourced ingredients. While the aspirational motivations of whisky for consumers in India have been built using global spirits such as Scotch, over the last two decades, Indian whisky has garnered tremendous recognition for what it stands to deliver.”

The dynamism of the Indian whisky scene in 2023 – not just in terms of the makers but also those drinking it – sets the stage for exciting developments. Consumers are willing to pay more for premium products, and this trend is expected to continue. As these premium choices lead to more experimentation, the demand for product innovation is likely to increase, and Indian whisky producers are likely to respond by introducing new and unique flavours and varieties. Take Piccadily Distilleries, for example – its inaugural single malt, Indri Trini, is the first to have been matured using three different casks. As the pioneers of Indian single malt whisky did a decade ago, this new generation will be forging a path that whisky fans would do well to follow.

Hina Nagarajan, managing director and CEO of Diageo India
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