Bagpiper From Bombay

Dev was secured to the rotating chair and flanked on either side by bald goons wearing a tight t-shirt and flamboyantly colored scarf. The man standing behind the vast desk was wearing a silver Nehru jacket accented with ribbons and golden cords of a vaguely military style. Behind the desk was a Plexiglass window looking out into the deep blue of an aquarium filled with sharks, and on the desk was the oval shaped viewscreen the fiend sometimes used to randomly call up and taunt officials in Mumbai. Dev’s own lime green shirt with a playfully clashing tie that seemed to contain more colors than exist in the known universe was a splash of sharp contrast amid the austere modern decor of the room. The man behind the desk smiled at his captive.

“I have been waiting a long time to kill you,” he said as he opened a desk drawer and withdrew from it a Walther PPK pistol and a half-full bottle of VAT 69. “But before that, may I offer you a drink?”

India drinks more whiskey per year than anywhere else in the world. True, having roughly 1/6 of the world’s population helps tip the scales a little. But that’s neither here nor there. Sales are sales. The popularity of whiskey int he sub-continent is a reflection of several things: the growing prosperity of India and the emergence of a middle class with disposable income, over half the population being under the age of 25, the slow move away from a very conservative and traditional society to a more open and liberal one, and savvy professionals with an eye toward the West and European and American trends. It also has to do with the influence of generations of Indians who have become Canadians, Americans, Brits — to say nothing of whiskey itself being a familiar member of the community since it was first imported during the days of the British Raj.

Some people describe it as a market with a huge potential. But that’s not right — there is nothing potential about it It’s already there, thriving and growing. If it’s still regarded as “potential,” it’s because of the tens of millions of cases of whiskey India drinks each year, less than 2% comes from anywhere other than India. An ongoing war between India and Scotland (and to a lesser degree, the United States) over tariffs and terms has kept many Scottish and American whiskies from denting the Indian market, just as it has kept Indian whiskies out of US and European markets. The potential, then, isn’t to get Indians drinking whiskey. It’s to get Indians drinking Scotch or bourbon. And for Indian distillers, the potential is to get their whiskies consumed somewhere other than India.

Previously, imported blends were the go-to whiskey for Indians who could afford them. Vat 69 was the standard for years, and it was common to see the hero or villain of a popular Bollywood film reclining in a den with a prominently displayed bottle. Eventually, VAT 69 was replaced by Johnny Walker. So popular did that brand prove, that one of India’s most famous comedic actors took the name as his own. Even in its glamorous heyday, though, whiskey remained the domain of the wealthy. It was a status symbol. Those who couldn’t afford it were left to drink vicariously through the stars on screen. And that’s where the Indian distillers stepped in. With rise of a whiskey drinking population, it made sense that India would seek to develop a domestic Indian market. here had been one in the country for over a 160 years, dating back to the era of British colonialism. As interest in whiskey grew, the market became ripe for the Indian distillers to make cheaper, local products available for a wider audience. Eventually, the consumption of domestic whiskey overtook imports, partially because of a steep tax on imported spirits. In an effort to promote the home-grown market, India levied some of the most exorbitant taxes in the world on imported spirits, often resorting in a mark up of over 500%. Scottish and American whiskey makers cried foul and took the matter up with the World Trade Organization. India countered by flaunting international trademark agreements regarding the use of certain words protected by the Scottish Whisky Association. The war was on.

Scotland claims that Indian whiskey can’t be called whiskey, as it is not a grain alcohol. Homegrown Indian whiskey is distilled mainly from molasses. Scottish single malts are purchased and blended with the Indian product, similar to the way Canadians are blended neutral spirits. According to many, this makes Indian “whiskey” something more akin to rum. This is part of the reason so few Indian whiskies can be found in the United States and Britain. If it’s not grain-based it can’t be imported and sold as a whiskey. India, in turn, claims that Scotland has created an atmosphere aimed at suppressing the burgeoning Indian whiskey market by making up laws about what can be called whiskey and by claiming ownership of certain words (the Thai “whiskey” Mekhong successfully circumnavigated this thorny issue by dropping the word “whiskey” from their label and being perfectly at home shelved among the liqueurs and cordials).

As a counter, Indian whiskey makers started flirting with more and more “taboo words,” either in an effort to make the domestic product seem more “Scottish” or as a way to thumb their nose at the SWA. This erupted into a battle over the use of certain words — most notably “Scotch,” “Scots,” and “Glen,” all of which the SWA considers no-fly territory for whiskey produced anywhere other than Scotland (even Canada’s Glenora distillery has to call its whiskey Cape Breton after feeling the sting of the SWA’s covetous protection of the word “Glen”). The battle over the word “Scotch” was a foregone conclusion. But when India decided to sidestep regulations over use of the word “Scotch” by calling certain domestic products “Scot Whisky,” the matter became hazier and more heated.

Exasperating trademark disputes is the tax issue. European and American whiskey makers argue that the tax on imported spirits is protectionist and a flagrant violation of international trade agreements. Scottish and American products can have a tax of 212 to 525% levied against them, pricing them well outside the range of the average Indian consumer. This not only promotes the growth of domestically produced whiskey, it also result is a huge counterfeit whiskey market. India consumes more Johnny black than is actually made. “India makes 55m cases of whisky every year and half of that is counterfeit,” claimed SWA spokesperson David Williamson.

In 2007, the WTO ruled in favor of the SWA. Curbing of the import tariffs went into effect in 2008, though there have been further complaints regarding the alleged lackadaisical rate at which the change is being phased in. It remains to be seen how this will change the drinking landscape in India. Obviously, international spirits conglomerates are eyeing the Indian market. But they are also finding someone in India, staring back at them.

Vijay Mallya is the head of United Breweries — sort of an Indian version of Diageo mixed with Virgin (since UB also has it’s own airline, named after their flagship beer, Kingfisher). Charismatic, controversial, and confrontational, Mallya and his UB juggernaut have been at the forefront of the dust-up between India and Scotland. Many of the most popular Indian brands are under the umbrella of United Breweries. If anyone stands to lose something by having imported spirits become affordable, it’s Mallya. But if anyone stands to gain by prying open markets outside of India, it’s also Mallya, and if nothing, he’s proven himself not shy about taking on a challenge.

Most Indian whiskey is virtually unknown in the other whiskey markets. If India represents a huge opportunity for European and American whiskey makers, then the US and Europe could be the same for UB. The reputation of Indian whiskey outside of India is not high, where it has any sort of reputation at all, but this isn’t an unsolvable problem. For years, Japanese whiskies were regarded as an amusing novelty, and among the casual drinking community, they still are. Within the community of whiskey enthusiasts, however, Japanese whiskey has become recognized as some of the best in the world (even though only a tiny fraction of what’s made is available in the United States). The quality of the Indian product may not be substantial enough to make it a potential “next Japan,” but it could certainly punch at the weight of the once-great Canadian whiskey market. Indian whisky has taken its lumps in the global market, drawing the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association over shady marketing techniques and naming conventions, as well as drawing ridicule from sophisticated whisky nerds for not actually being whisky (it’s made from molasses, which means it’s technically much more a rum than it is a whisky). That hasn’t stopped Indian whisky from becoming some of the most popular whisky in the world — thanks largely to the fact that non-Indian brands are heavily taxed in India, meaning that all but the richer Indians tend to stick with the local brands. And when you have a population that tops a billion, you don’t really need your product to succeed with the rest of the global market in order to become one of the most popular brands in the world.

And regardless of tussles over deceptive names or ingredients, a lot of India’s molasses based “whisky” is imminently drinkable, especially if you have a taste for rum or sweeter Speyside whiskies. Pour me a dram of Bagpipers, and I will be perfectly content. But someone who wasn’t content with the state and reputation of Indian whisky is Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, current chairman of Amrut Distilleries. He took over the business after the death of his father, Radhakrishna Jagdale, who founded Amrut as a blending and bottling business in 1948. In 2004, Amrut introduced the world — well, Europe — to something it had never had before: an Indian-made single malt whisky, made to the strict specifications that govern the production of scotch whisky. Amrut can’t call itself scotch, of course; the use of that term is protected by international trade agreements and has been a source of much contention in the past between the SWA and Indian whisky makers — but it is a true single malt whisky, unique among its Indian brethren. So unique, in fact, that’s it not yet available on the Indian market.

Although Amrut has an uphill battle to wage for its reputation — people outside of the sub-continent who know of Indian whisky automatically associate it with lower quality blends — it didn’t need to wage that battle with me. I’m always happy to try something out of the ordinary, and I rarely go in with any sort of preconceptions regarding quality or my level of enjoyment. Plus, by the time I had my bottle open, more and more writers and tasters were singing the praises of this Indian phenom. It lived up to the lofty praise it was receiving. We did our best to spread the word after that, hoping that eventually a deal would be hammered out by which Amrut would find its way onto American shelves. Deals and dates were announced, then passed without Amrut appearing at the local whisky shop. At Whisky Fest 2009, Amrut announced a January 2010 arrival date in the United States.

January became March, and March became April, but then the word finally went out: Amrut had arrived. Five of their six expressions — the regular single malt, the cask strength, the peated single malt, peated cask strength, and Fusion — were officially for sale. Forget what you know or think you know about Indian whisky — like I said, this one bears no resemblance at all to that (admittedly enjoyable) lot of rabble. Like Japanese whisky years ago, Amrut has to overcome the misconception that it’s a novelty act. Today no one who knows whisky thinks of Japanese contributions as novel, and they have earned the respect and admiration of whisky drinkers around the world. With the baggage of India’s larger, more suspect whisky market hanging around its neck like a dead albatross, Amrut has an even harder row to hoe. But it also has the stuff to succeed in that endeavor.

Amrut Single Malt

This is where you should begin. It’s distilled from barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan, put into American oak barrels, and aged in the tropical climate of Bangalore (which makes for a quicker aging process). The nose is intense and very pleasant — lots of grain, cereal, a very pronounced floral aspect. Oak and apricot. A little nuttiness. The taste lets you know immediately that Amrut is ready to match the best and brightest from Scotland, the United States, and Japan punch for punch. Light and fruity, honey sweetness, cereal, chocolate, maybe even a little rye spiciness. Very complex, with a whole host of flavors working in perfect harmony with one another. The finish is a wonderful combination of fruit and malt, with a hint of rising rye-like spiciness. An absolutely wonderful dram.

Amrut Peated Single Malt

So take the whisky above, and malt it over peat you’ve imported from Scotland. I can’t see any way that could go wrong. If the regular single malt is a very Speyside sort of whisky, then this one is…well, not quite as in-your-face as the boldest Islay has to offer, but it’s certainly something of a decidedly more muscular nature than the regular Amrut. The nose is wood and vanilla, with definite peat and smoke on hand. The citrus fruity aspect of the unpeated version is present as well, as is a little bit of BBQ. In the taste, peat makes itself well known, but it’s not overpowering. Less Ardbeg, more Ardmore. It quickly fades, leaving room for spice, apricot, honey, and rich chewy malt. The finish introduces a bit of saltiness to the equation, maybe similar to what you’d get from Highland Park, and something to do with nuts.

Amrut Fusion

And then we come to Fusion. Unpeated barley from the Himalayas mixed with peated barley imported from Scotland. Fusion really is a combination in it’s way of the peated and unpeated Amrut expressions, with a little bit higher proof adding some fire. Nose is flowery, with lots of vanilla, pears, and a faint whiff of peat. Coffee with almond syrup added to it. And yet that sweetness is never thick or cloying. It’s a very fresh, spring day sort of thing. The taste is a great mix of pepper spiciness and tropical fruit — coconut, banana, and something that gives it a slightly bitter edge. Orange rind, maybe. The peat lurks very quietly in the background, adding a much welcome note but never becoming a defining characteristic. A little chocolate, maybe a hint of the bacon wrapped figs. The finish highlights that bitter orange flavor, with some oaky dryness. A near perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and smokey that seems to have been crafted to appeal specifically to my palate.