Queues of colourful trucks line the dusty dirt roads outside Rampur distillery, patiently awaiting their turn to deposit their cargo. Industrial column stills tower above the bustling city’s palm trees and lush green fields of sugar cane as the sticky, tropical scent of molasses fills the air for miles around.
This vast, 35-acre operation in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is home to several of the world’s best-selling spirits including Indian whisky 8pm, the 19th biggest brand in the world. Owned by Radico Khaitan, India’s second-largest liquor manufacturer, this sprawling compound produces an astounding 100 million litres of alcohol every year.
It’s a Goliath of a complex but right at its heart, tucked away in an unassuming stone building, are four hidden copper pot stills – a single malt distillery within a distillery – that represent an exciting new era for Indian whisky.
Indian single malt is an entirely different concept to mass-produced ‘whiskies’ like 8pm, which can be made from molasses, rice, grain and malt spirit – even imported Scotch. Taking their cues from Scotland’s playbook, Indian single malts are made from a fermented mash of 100% malted barley, which is distilled in copper pot stills and matured in casks. But that’s where the similarities end.
Rampur’s single malt distillery was built in 1996 to provide malt whisky for its blends but it wasn’t until 20 years later that it became a brand in its own right – Uttar Pradesh’s first single malt and, with barley sourced from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, the bottled essence of North India.
‘We use Indian six-row barley that contributes an oily richness and beautiful aromas of chocolate and caramel not found in any other malt in the world,’ says master blender Anup Barik. ‘We then conducted over 50 trials of different yeasts and distillations until we found the recipe that would make Rampur single malt.’
Barik settled on a combination of three yeast strains and a long fermentation to achieve a fruity, floral and oily spirit with signature – and typically Indian – notes of rose, lychee and tropical fruits. To retain the lighter floral elements, Rampur’s stills are run long and slow for eight to 10 hours – twice the distillation time of those in Scotland. Remarkably, Rampur has two condensers for its spirit still set at different heights to create both light and heavy styles of whisky.
Maturation takes place entirely on-site in cavernous racked warehouses, every corner filled with exotic casks from around the world. While its standout Double Cask release makes use of bourbon and sherry, its Asava expression is finished in fruity Cabernet Sauvignon barrels from Nashik, the ‘wine capital of India’. Rampur is even experimenting with Japanese Mizunara casks and is keen to explore other local Indian woods.
Here, in the warm, humid North Indian climate, maturation is fast and evaporation is high – every year 10 per cent of a cask’s contents is lost to the angels share, compared to Scotland’s 2 per cent. It’s partly this rapid maturation that makes Indian whisky bolder and more intense compared to its Speyside counterparts, even after just a couple of years.
But unlike Scotland, India has a vast geography with a climate that varies wildly from state to state. As such, whisky produced in the humid, subtropical north will have a different flavour profile to those made in the semi-arid south or on the tropical and wet west coast.
Today, India has around nine single malt distilleries, each making a style of whisky that’s reflective of their own climate, culture and heritage. Amrut in Bangalore became the first to release its own single malt in 2004, and today has a range made using peated malt and even orange wine-seasoned casks. Goa’s Paul John produces a fruity, robust style of whisky, some of which is matured underground in a cool bunker that escapes Goa’s tropical humidity. Up north in Haryana, Piccadily distillery produces full-bodied single malt, Indri, on huge copper pot stills that maximise the spirit’s fruity, floral flavours.
Just last year, Diageo, producer of the world’s biggest-selling Indian whisky, McDowell’s No.1, launched its first Indian single malt, Godawan. Produced at Alwar distillery in Rajasthan, it is uniquely and intriguingly finished in casks ‘curated with exotic Indian botanicals’.
Single malt might have been the hidden side of India’s whisky industry but it is stepping into the spotlight now
With global interest in world whisky and in particular Indian single malts, producers are naturally beginning to consider how to protect their burgeoning category. ‘The quality of Indian single malts are being appreciated the world over,’ says Vinod Giri, director general of the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC). ‘They’re being hailed as the next big thing after Japanese whiskies.
‘But given that India has a large number of distilleries, we must define standards clearly to ensure that no one sneaks in relatively inferior product. That would be disastrous for the category in this early phase.’
While Indian Food Safety regulations currently define single malt as being made from malted barley and distilled in a copper pot still at a single distillery, there are no other formal rules. Giri describes the existing regulations as ‘too broad’.
‘The industry’s own standards and definition needs to be much narrower and yet practical,’ he says. ‘That needs consultations and wide consensus, which will take some time.’ If Indian single malt is to truly become ‘the next Japanese whisky’ it needs consistency – ironically something its Asian cousins have historically lacked. Until recently, it might have been the hidden side of India’s Goliath whisky industry but single malt is certainly stepping into the spotlight now.
Three Indian single malt whiskies to try
Rampur Double Cask
This is the standout expression in Rampur’s range. Gentle maturation in a combination of ex-bourbon and sherry casks allows the spirit’s signature rose and lychee flavours to shine through. Juicy, fruity and fragrant, it’s a wonderful introduction to Indian single malt.
£60.94, Master of Malt, www.masterofmalt.com
For a true taste of India, you can’t get better than Rampur Asava. The first whisky finished in Indian Cabernet Sauvignon casks, it has all the distillery’s hallmark ripe tropical fruit flavours with a subtly dry edge of tobacco, dark chocolate and blackberries.
£67.25, The Whisky Exchange, www.thewhiskyexchange.com
Hailing from Haryana in northern India, Indri is a beautiful marriage of spirit and cask. Thanks to maturation in three different cask types – bourbon, PX sherry and wine – Indri offers a rich, complex experience, with flavours ranging from fragrant cherry blossom and tea to caramelised pineapple, vanilla, honey and blackcurrant.
£45, Berry Bros. & Rudd, www.bbr.com