To understand the market context of the country responsible for the largest amount of whisky drinkers on the planet, not to mention being the biggest producer of whisky too, you really have to visit the country itself, enjoy a few rounds in the bars where whisky is consumed in a varied amount of ways and spend time understanding the culture.
After a 16 hour journey, I am here to spend a few days getting to know the workings of the Piccadily Distillery, who I’m sure most of you will not have heard of until now, but that can wait.
Before I head four hours out of Delhi to the distillery, it is time for a full day of ‘cultural immersion’. By this I mean a day touring a plethora of different sized liquor stores to see just how whisky drinkers in India shop, the brands they are used to and what sort of prices they would be expecting. I was quite surprised by what I found. Johnnie Walker has a huge presence in the market, big, bright and beautiful store displays showed off all, or at least half of their range in all its glory in most stores, with Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky brands and Bacardi’s Dewar’s having some solid presence too.
Amongst these were a vast array of locally released brands of Scotch blended whisky and Scotch whisky blended with Indian grain whisky products. Flavour-wise these are very soft, smooth whiskies by and large which are super-easy drinking and very cheap.
After the store visits, I spent four hours walking around Old Delhi experiencing the different foods, the wonderful colours, the temples, the immense noise and busyness of the thousands of people walking in the streets and moving past each other. Then there were the brave, or possibly bonkers, Tuk-Tuk and rickshaw drivers who also managed to squeeze in where there really was no reasonable space to do so.
It seemed like chaos, or as Mr. Sharma of the Piccadilly Distillery described it a couple of days later, "synchronised chaos" as everything seemed to work, and everyone seemed to tesselate just perfectly so that all got to where they needed to be, I presume. This was Indian culture at its best.
In contrast, in the Indri area of India, four hours north of Delhi, the Piccadily Distillery emerges past the final village in the vast green countryside filled with field after field of sugarcane, amongst other crops being grown.
It is tranquil here, peaceful and calm despite the vast millions of litres of spirit made on the site for various domestic and soon-to-be internationally available products.
Now a third generation company, Piccadily Agro was founded in 1967. On the site is a pot still distillery, a 30 million litres per annum column still distillery and a sugar refinement plant that also uses the waste from the sugarcane to power the entire plant with enough excess energy to sell back to the Indian national grid.
Mr. Siddharth explains that, “with India opening up to the world audience The Piccadily Distillery, who have been passionate about making top quality alcohol for the last three generations, wanted to give the world a malt whisky experience unique to India and the subcontinent. The vision is to create a culture of quality spirits in India and to wean the population away from the flavoured and coloured and some time substandard spirits that people in India consume and to educate them about whisky's natural flavours and maturation techniques."
The site is truly impressive, it is vast and at peak times employs up to 900 people, but my focus is on the malt whisky distillery.
Six years ago Piccadily Agro expanded their operation by setting up The Piccadily Distillery, a traditional pot still distillery with around 2.5 million litres of spirit production capacity per year. The distillery was deliberately established near the banks of the River Yamuna to draw high quality and pure Himalayan Spring Water into the distilling process.
They spent the first couple of years experimenting with different barleys and yeast strains until they settled on local Indian Himalayan Six Row Malted Barley for its nutty and fruity character, with 4.3 tonnes used in each batch, which you can really taste in the new make spirit as it flows fresh from the stills. “This barley, due to its climatic and soil conditions, is drier and nuttier than most other species of barley. The flavour profile of this barley is rich and complements the hot summer of India,” Mr. Siddharth notes.
On the production side, they are 90 per cent unpeated, with one peat run every three months for use in their blends, and in the future their single malt production too, fermentation is around 72 hours with spirit coming off the stills at 66% ABV, with a pretty big cut of 35 – 40 per cent of the spirit. "The fruity sweet notes are almost tropical and find hints of rich pineapple and vanilla across the spirits though in varied concentrations."
Their beautiful copper pot stills, which were made in India by still designers Praj and were being polished when I visited, have a traditional onion head design for a lighter and fruitier spirit. On the design, Mr. Siddharth went to great lengths to explain that “the onion shape was deliberately chosen to help in the separation of heavier and lighter vapours, and this additional surface increases the heat emission to the outside and the reflux of condensed droplets into the pot. This way the remaining height of the still can be completely used for separating the lighter vapour.
"The height of the neck is combined with a constriction and a boil ball to achieve the best possible separation.”
In recent times they have been running at 75 per cent capacity, operating 24/25 days per month with each of the two pot stills having a 25 litre capacity and each spirit still having a 15,000 litre capacity producing 2.4 million litres of spirit per year, filling 12,000 barrels. Contrary to the two per cent Angels’ Share, or spirit evaporation, seen in Scotland, after just four and a half years Piccadily will see a near 50 per cent evaporation rate due to the climate in the region.
Mr. Siddharth proudly states that “the whisky and rum being produced at The Piccadily Distillery has no colour or flavour added to it at all, they are all 100 per cent natural products.”
He goes on to say that “the distillery has been importing a large variety of barrels for maturation, ex-Bourbon and ex-wine barrels and the results of the matured whisky are stunning, the colour and the complexity we are producing here is amazing."
The process and the quality standards followed at The Piccadily Distillery are in consonance with Scottish distillery standards which have been followed and developed during hundreds of years. Mr. Siddharth has hired and is grooming the most talented blenders and distillers for the future of the brands. Best in class specifications are the bed rock of the production philosophy personally over-seen by the chairman himself.
Mr. Siddharth, who’s vision for Piccadily is to become India’s whisky abroad, has grand plans for the 30,000 barrels of spirit being matured on site currently, in what happens to be the largest racked warehouse in India, with their blended malt entering the Indian market in the last few months, and a range of single malts planned for the export market, specifically the UK, in progress at the minute.