Our nation’s favourite liquor may be keeping some secrets.
Stepping into an alcohol store in India these days, you’re assaulted by hundreds of choices. From spirits to hard seltzers, craft beer to canned cocktails. Variety and innovation are the buzzwords of the hour for the liquor industry but when it comes to the sheer volume of approval, nothing can come close to whisky.
India’s love for whisky is no joke. It’s undeniably the country’s spirit of choice accounting for over half the world’s consumption. But there is a footnote to this staggering claim which all begins in the fields and India’s shortfall in grain production. While our lands are fertile and bear a wide variety of crops, unfortunately, malt just isn’t one of them. What we do have in its stead is a thriving sugarcane industry from which we’re also left with an army of by-products, one of them being molasses. The molasses can be distilled to a clear, flavourless spirit with high alcoholic strength. This spirit has many industrial uses in cleaning solutions, disinfectants, solvents, and preservatives, but the most profitable of the lot is within the alcohol manufacturing space.
With an average annual intake of 3 billion bottles of spirit, the Indian thirst for alcohol can seem unquenchable and innovative minds set to work on how to meet these growing needs at an affordable price point. And this led a lot of Indian-based whisky manufacturers to harness the magic of molasses. Though there are technically more distilleries here than in Scotland most of them specialise in a blend of neutral sugar cane spirit with either Foreign Made Liquor (FML), grain spirit, or some malt spirit added. What this means is a lot of India’s whisky can technically bear more resemblance to rum than the traditional grain alcohol we expect and classifies the blended product as an Indian-made foreign liquor or IMFL.
For many years this has impacted our ability to sell Indian-made whisky abroad but since it always smelled, looked and tastes like the real McCoy, there was no complaint from local consumers who appreciated the homemade product and its more agreeable price tag. These blended whiskies still make up a substantial part of the whisky market, but there are also a number of brands that in the last few decades have begun to distil true single malts in the country as well.
Today there are a number of homegrown Indian brands producing true Indian whisky that has also won the stamp of approval from international communities. Though many chose to launch their brands abroad before making them available here, the gamble has paid off and consumer tastes have risen to the occasion with people regularly choosing local brands over the more well-known and often better trusted foreign ones.
Thanks to the infusion of Indianised flavours like spices and distinctly different weather conditions, Indian whisky has a distinct flavour profile and texture which is quickly gaining fans across the world. So although there is still a thriving industry where “rum” is actually called whisky, India is fast becoming a major player in the global whisky market.