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A taste of India

The market for whisky in India is huge. Tom Bruce-Gardyne examines its colourful, unconventional nature
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Thank God for Spain!” was a cry that echoed round the boardrooms of the great whisky corporations in the 1990s. With the American market in fullscale retreat, dropping by six million cases that decade alone, the surge in Spanish imports came at just the right time. Today it has become the most valuable market for Scotch whisky of all, though not as big as its neighbour, France, in terms of volume.Yet Europe is as nothing compared to India – the greatest whisky-drinking nation on earth. That is if you accept the Indian definition of the word ‘whisky’ – something the European Union refuses to recognise.As a drink it does at least share the same colour and strength as Scotch, even if the taste can be varied in the extreme. Indian whisky comes in a riot of styles, from the roughest rocket fuel imaginable to a number of well-respected brands. None of them offer carbon-copy Scotch, but one or two come pretty close, and as a general truism, the higher up the price ladder you climb, the closer to the real McCoy you’ll get.The fundamental difference is in the use of molasses rather than grain, which was banned by the old regime that ruled India in the years after independence.The regime, known as the license-permit Raj, decreed that grain was needed to feed the poor and could not be used to make spirits. The ban was lifted in 1995, and since then there have been indigenous grain whiskies made and even single malts.The vast majority of Indian whisky is still molasses-based however. As to how this affects quality – it all depends on the distiller. If the stills are worked too hard, the flavour of molasses tends to carry through into the spirit giving it a raw, unbalanced feel, literally buzzing with congeners.Like germs, these flavour inducing compounds are good in small doses, but downright toxic in higher concentrations. Whether poorly made Indian whisky will kill you any quicker than other spirits is anyone’s guess, but it can certainly give you a hangover you’ll never forget.Indian distilleries appear to have improved since the 1960s, when, according to the veteran BBC correspondent Mark Tully, “the Indian whisky most commonly served in Delhi was Black Night and was inevitably followed by a very black morning.”However, if cleanly distilled, you achieve a more neutral spirit than the barley bree of Scotland. So to give the whisky some character, Indian distillers use a wide variety of flavourings.With Scotch whisky, up to two-thirds of the character is said to derive from maturation. In India, only the most prestigious brands are given the benefit of a decent slumber in modern, air conditioned warehouses. Trying to recreate the cold, dank conditions of Scotland in a country as hot and humid as India is costly, but essential to avoid ending up with rows of half-empty casks and a warehouse full of paralytic angels. One compromise solution is to blend in a proportion of Scotch which will have had the statutory three years maturation in Scotland.While the ingredients and climate may be worlds apart, the image of Indian whisky is as Scottish as can be, with labels portraying chieftains, castles and misty lochs.It somehow puts you in mind of Brigadoon, Hollywood’s appalling pastiche of the Highlands filmed in the ‘50s. When its producer, Arthur Freed, went in search of a location, he famously concluded it would have to be shot in a studio for there was nowhere sufficiently Scottish in Scotland.It is almost the same scenario with Indian whisky, which appears to have been influenced by Compton MacKenzie’s Whisky Galore! more than today’s brands of Scotch which have long discarded any tattered tartan imagery. Thus in the West you have Johnnie Walker, the number one Scotch – a true global phenomenon promoted by the likes of Harvey Keitel – while in India you have the ever-popular Bagpiper, pursued by McDowell’s and a host of other clans.Given the number of Scots who helped run the country at the height of the British Empire, it would be tempting to date this love of Scotland from the time of the Raj.Yet, the drinks that sustained this huge ex-pat community were more often gin and tonic, favoured for its anti-malarial properties, and brandy and soda. The real pioneers of Indian whisky were the local distillers themselves who naturally wanted to position their whiskies within range of the great flagship brands of Scotch in the hope that some of the allure might rub off.As more Indians were able to afford international travel, they could see the gleaming rows of Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black in the duty-free shops.The number of whisky-drinkers in India who aspire to Scotch is many times the number who can afford to drink it. The cost of a bottle of The Famous Grouse in Bombay, for example, is equal to the city’s minimum monthly wage – around 1,500 rupees (£22 or US$33). A more affordable option is to drink Teacher’s or Vat 69 which are shipped out of Scotland in bulk to be diluted and bottled in India and cost roughly half the price. Even so, some 90 per cent of whisky drunk in India sells for less than £3 (US$4.50).Compared to the local brew, Scotch whisky is massively discriminated against. Every bottle is hit with an import tariff of 340 per cent the moment it arrives, after which an incredible cascade of taxes rains down on the journey from the port to the liquor store. It is said that for every dollar earned by an importer, nine more are made by the army of tax collectors.As a result, the amount of bootlegged Scotch in India is colossal. This seeps in through diplomatic missions, cabin crews on airlines and at all points along the country’s 4,000-mile coastline.However, for the many who get their hands on a cut-price case of Scotch, there is no guarantee it will be the real thing. According to a survey conducted in the mid-’90s, two out of three bottles of bootlegged Scotch were either adulterated or only Scottish by aspiration.The classic example was Johnnie Walker Black, of which more is drunk in India in a year than is produced in the whole of Scotland; or so it was said.And yet despite all that, India remains a tantalising prospect for the Scotch whisky industry, and not just because the population is now officially over a billion.It would be naive to dream of every Indian enjoying one dram of genuine Scotch a year – for most people it will remain beyond reach. But the middle classes are growing and the barriers to Scotch are slowly coming down.Above all, the country’s taste-buds are already halfway there. The flavour of local whisky and the icons used to sell it make Scotch the obvious contender among imported spirits.Most people seem to know the difference between the two, and see Scotch as the drink to aspire to. With some predicting a fair system of taxation as early as 2006, the distilleries of Scotland had better brace themselves just in case.