Represented by such esteemed brands as Rampur, Amrut and John Distilleries, manufacturer of the famous Paul John single malts, the Indian whisky industry may be young, but it has been steadily growing in prominence. Whisky was introduced to the country in the 19th century, popularized in the late 20th century, and by the 21st century, achieved global renown with its entry into the single malt market.
In this article, we’re going to look at the specifics of this type of Whisky, as well as tell you what are the best Indian whisky brands and their most famous expressions.
Sipping this article
- What makes Indian Whisky Different from Other Whiskies?
- What are the best indian whisky brands and their top-notch expressions
What Makes Indian Whisky Different from Other Whiskies?
Whisky associations and connoisseurs in Europe have often found themselves at loggerheads with Indian whisky manufacturers due to the much looser definition of what exactly a whisky is that’s used in the country. Before 2004, almost all Indian whiskies sold were blends with more molasses than what is traditionally considered whisky in Europe and the West.
The first difference between Indian Whisky and other kinds of whisky is tha raw material which they are made from. Scotch whisky, for instance, is made of malted barley and is then combined to other grains. Indian Whisky, by its turn, is made from molasses – which is the by-product that is created by refining sugar. After fermenting molasses, they are boiled so alcohol can be extracted. When the neutral spirit appears, the blending begins. Some Scotch whisky expressions are added to the mixture and putted to age. This is what Indian Whisky is all about.
Sometimes referred to as “molasses whiskies” or simply “Indian whiskies” these traditional and perhaps the best Indian whisky blends differ to the point where not only do they not meet the European Union’s statutory definition of whisky, but they’re often considered by critics and some fans alike to be a type of rum. Perhaps poetically, rum itself has its origins in India, being a product of the country’s medieval sugar industry.
Indian Whisky in Europe
So how does this fall afoul of the European definition? The European Union is very clear on the topic. A “true” whisky needs to be made of mash from malted cereals, fermented by yeast, distilled at below 94.8% alcohol by volume (almost 190 proof) to maintain the taste and aroma of the raw materials, and matured in wooden casks for no less than three years.
While the laws of the European Union have no bearing on India, the country’s whisky industry nonetheless found itself suffering for it when it began to sell in European markets due to this discrepancy in definitions. The situation climaxed in the early 2010s, when the Scotch Whisky Association sought legal action against Indian whisky exporters, citing what they viewed as unfair competition from cheaper products.
Rise of Indian Single Malts
Not all whisky from India fits this niche of molasses kind, even if they are considered one of the best indian whisky. In 2004, Amrut Distilleries released what would become their flagship product, the single malt whisky brand known simply as Amrut. Its reception was warm, and this inspired other distilleries in India to follow suit, creating products closer to the European tradition and cracking a new market in Western countries with them.
What Are the Best Indian Whisky Brands and their Top-notch Expressions
Amrut Distilleries are responsible for perhaps the most important and the best indian whisky brand in this country, the eponymous Amrut. Translated from Sanskrit variously as “drink of the gods,” “nectar of life,” “elixir of life,” and “nectar of the gods,” this sentiment is held within and outside of India, with one of the brand’s expressions earning the stellar honor of third best in the world from renowned connoisseur Jim Murray.
Originally founded in Bangalore in 1948, two years before the country’s transition into a fully independent republic, the company manufactured a varied range of liquors, picking up rum in the 1960s, starting with brandy in the 1970s, and going into blended whiskies in the 1980s.
The first whiskies produced by Amrut Distilleries were not made with molasses like traditional Indian whiskies, but the final products were blends with alcohol made from sugarcane, sitting in a niche very similar to molasses whiskies.
In 2004, Amrut Distilleries launched India’s first single malt whisky. The success of this new product revolutionized the Indian whisky industry, but closer to home, it also put the company on a new path. Amrut has released many expressions of the brand since that first launch, including Amrut Fusion, the aforementioned whisky that was ranked third best in the world.
If one expression had to be chosen as the best Indian whisky, this would likely be it. Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky was launched in 2009, and it didn’t take it long at all to establish itself as an international giant, taking its global bronze medal only a year later, in 2010.
By 2012, Amrut Fusion was being sold in 21 countries across the planet, including major markets in North America and Europe. The company did not want to try to sneak in as a counterfeit Scotch whisky and has instead displayed its Indian origins proudly with its branding on the global market.
The aroma of Amrut Fusion is officially described as oaky with notes of barley-sugar, but you also may pick up hints of peat, a fruity twist, and a spicy air.
The manufacturers describe the taste as leaning heavily on peat, with a note of sherry trifle. Oaky vanilla, fruitiness and barley come together for a complex taste, with a strong middle of chocolate fudge. You may also pick up notes of coffee and oak on the palate.
Be prepared for an oaky and peaty finish, accentuated by a traditionally Indian molasses sweetness and an array of spices.
Amrut Peated Indian
The Amrut Peated Indian Single Malt Whisky is another expression in Amrut’s core range that has enjoyed great popularity the world over. A winner of both Jim Murray’s Liquid Gold Award and the Bronze Award at the 2009 Malt Maniacs Awards, this expression has established itself as an enduring force, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
On the nose, you’re going to get a very dry peat, which the manufacturer likens to that of an old leather armchair. Citrus will manifest as well. Additionally, you may pick up a lot of smoky elements and maybe even a bit of caramel.
In the true Indian tradition, the biggest note on the palate is going to be molasses, and it could go either way whether you’ll feel the peat notes with any degree of strength, but you might perceive this latter element as a spicier and drier feel. The sweetness can bring forth an incredibly fruity note with tasters.
For many, the finish wraps the process right back to the beginning, with a re-emergence of the dominance of the peat. A comfortable curtain drop, butterscotch vanilla manifests on the way down and out, making for a truly exotic experience for drinkers of otherwise European drinks.
Amrut Greedy Angels Chairman’s Reserve: 10 Years Old
Amrut also have a number of rolling expressions in the limited edition. One such is the Amrut Greedy Angels Chairman’s Reserve: 10 Years Old. Sitting at an eye-watering 110 proof, this whisky gets its mouthful of a name from what’s termed the “angel’s share,” referring to the portion of the whisky that’s lost to evaporation during the maturation process.
The aroma of this expression combines an uncharacteristic-for-the-brand saltiness with a much more traditional blood orange air. Vanilla and honey fight for dominance as the main spices, giving way to one another as the smell lingers.The whisky sits soft on the palate, starting off with a fusion of vanilla and barley before transitioning to a woodier feel as oak and spiced cocoa take center stage. The sweetness is brought to life by a note of ulmo honey, adding a Chilean twist to the South Asian whisky.
For the finish, expect a complex combination as a tarty orange and the barley oil make way for a hint of spice.
Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky
Even though it has been overshadowed by the Amrut Fusion, the very literally named Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky is the one that started it all. The original brand and in essence its first expression, this is the whisky that effectively marked the start of a new era in the Indian whisky industry with its launch in 2004, inspiring so many other distilleries in the country to follow suit. It sure is one of the best Indian whisky expressions.
On the nose, you’ll have to spend a lot of time asking yourself whether the aroma is sweet or bitter. The answer is an incredibly balanced fit for such a significant debut. The notes you’ll get include toffee, honeycomb, and a liquorice-bourbon for a truly unique and unforgettable experience.
Expect a rich palate with the return of the liquorice and molasses that Indian whisky is so famous for and an introduction of a strong barley for a distinct sweetness. This sweetness may give a fruity taste reminiscent of apricots, plums or apples to a more creative and adventurous taster.
Of the Amrut expressions, this one’s finish is possibly the most multifaceted, putting together an oaky note with some silky toffee for the grand finale.
John Distilleries is a very young company, founded by Paul P. John in 1992. Also headquartered in Bangalore, the distillery released the Original Choice brand of blended whiskies in 1996, which were a titanic local success, booking big name brand ambassadors and selling cases well into the millions as the years unfolded.
John Distilleries took on a much more global role, however, with its first manufacture and release of single malt whisky in 2012. This new brand was named for the founder of the company, Paul John, and launched in London with a clear eye on the international market.
Distilled away from the headquarters, in nearby Goa, these whiskies have a global aura, importing peat from Scotland and American oak for their casks to complement the local malted barley, so it’s entirely appropriate that their international appeal is as great as it is, being one of the best indian whisky brands in the market.
Paul John Brilliance
Collecting awards from competitions as varied and spread out as the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the International Wine & Spirit Competition, the Paul John Brilliance Indian Single Malt Whisky may not be the first expression of the brand, but it’s arguably the most popular worldwide and one of the best indian whisky expressions.
The nose on the Brilliance is predominantly sweet, no doubt a result of the sugars instrumental to its manufacture. The distillery suggests notes of cinnamon, honey and spices in the aroma, but others have dug deeper for hints of butter and barley, cinnamon and berries, and even a bit of tarty apple.
The taste is clear and unmistakable no matter whom you ask, attacking with both spiciness and sweetness. To add another layer of contrasting combination, prepare for a construction of the smoothness of honey, the chewiness of caramel, and the crispness of a chocolate bar.
The finish collapses the earlier orchestra into a single approach, distinctly smooth for a clear resolution. Depending on your focus, you may close this off with vanilla and spices, or a more nuanced combination of rye and orange.
Paul John Bold
The third and, for the moment, last of its current flagship expressions, the Paul John Bold Indian Single Malt Whisky combines the tastes of Goa with a more, in the European tradition, old school inclusion of Scottish peat from the island of Islay, itself making up the entirety of one of the five regions of Scotch whisky production recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association.
The peat gives the aroma of Paul John Bold a smoky air, with the distillery teasing with descriptions of spice, liquorice and honey as complements. Discerning connoisseurs may sense the manifestation of dried grasses and toasted barley in the smoke or even subtle notes of fruitiness.
On the palate, you will be served with the main course of the aroma’s elements. The honey will introduce you at first before transitioning into a spicy return. The third act makes full use of that famous Islay peat with its smoky, toasty notes, but of course, in true Indian tradition, punctuated by molasses.
A smoky, woody finish closes off the experience with the help of the ghosts of the copper used in the production. A peppery spice adds that edgy twist for the ultimate send off.
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Paul John Classic Select Cask
Paul John’s Select Cask expressions come in two incarnations, the appropriately named Peated Select Cask and its unpeated counterpart, the Classic Select Cask. With its rich amber color, at more than 55% alcohol by volume, this whisky has held its own on the global market, collecting fans from across the world.
Fruit and honey join forces for this solid nose. Connoisseurs may sense the manifestation of sponge cake, pears and apples combining with barley for the final product.
The palate marks the emergence of honey to center stage, dominating its colleagues from the aroma. Barley dances with chocolate, liquorice and cinnamon for a distinctly sweet taste, albeit with that famous spicy twist.
The soft finish makes no effort to deceive its tasters, closing off with a distinct honey sweetness, accentuated by subtle notes of oak or even a hint of fruit.
With bragging rights as the oldest distillery in India, Rampur Distillery is based in the city of the same name, at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Although not yet as renowned on the international stage as some other Indian brands of whisky, Rampur has a global outlook and has begun its journey to recognition across the continents with steady success following it along the way.
While the brand paved its successful path, Rampur has launched some of the best Indian whisky expressions ever made.
Rampur PX Sherry Finish
An international effort is made in the production of Rampur PX Sherry Finish Indian Single Malt Whisky, with American Oak used for the initial casks before being transferred into Sherry casks from Jerez, bringing in the influence of the Spanish fortified wine.
The nose will give you a combination of spicy and sweet, with initial notes of dried fruit, cinnamon and toffee. As the aroma evolves, honey and vanilla manifest to reinforce the sweetness.
The taste of the Rampur PX Sherry Finish lives up to its name, with the palate distinctly reminiscent of the Andalusian fortified wines, not just in taste but also in texture. This is accentuated by, once again, a combination of sweet and spicy, with notes of rich caramel emerging on the tongue.
The finish echoes the nose in many ways, evoking a distinctly sweet combination of honey, vanilla and dried fruits.
Rampur Indian Single Malt Whisky – Signature Reserve
This limited edition whisky is an ode to the distillery’s long and esteemed history. As with the PX Sherry Finish expression, the Rampur Indian Single Malt Whisky – Signature Reserve spends the latter portion of its maturation in casks from Jerez, Spain, famous for its fortified wine.
The nose opens, as one would expect, with the air of Spanish sherry, combined with toffee and vanilla for a sweet aroma. This progresses to a synthesis of woody and spicy notes, fusing oak with cinnamon, punctuated by a nutty twist to the fruity air.
The palate manifests in a very different way to the PX Sherry Finish in spite of the use of the same types of second casks. The taste you’ll pick up on with the Signature Reserve is much thicker and creamier, evoking cinnamon, toffees and sultanas.
The finish leaves you with a familiar combination of spice and sweetness, the luxurious liquid manifesting oak and dried fruits in its wake.
Rampur Asava Cabernet Sauvignon
Don’t let that part of the name confuse you; the Rampur Asava Cabernet Sauvignon is a single malt whisky, not the wine variety of the familiar name. This expression is rather experimental, using cabernet sauvignon casks to perfect its whisky, a practice not tried before. Naturally reflecting Rampur’s practice of using sherry casks for some of its products, the result here is an equally unique whisky and one of the best indian whisky expressions on the market.
The nose is exceptionally fruity, with a nod to India’s tropical flora along with blackberry, plum and apricot. The aroma is enforced by notes of tobacco and numerous spices.
The taste is where the influence from the cabernet sauvignon shines, expressing a clear dryness. Other notes that may manifest on the palate include sweet honey, vanilla and oak.
The medium finish exemplifies this truly special result of Indian ingenuity.
We’ve learned about the unique history of whisky in India. From its humble beginnings as a molasses-based blend, we’ve seen how it evolved, gained local popularity, and began to spread overseas in the latter half of the 20th century. We’ve also looked at the early conflict between Indian distilleries and their European counterparts, and the significance of India’s adoption of single malt whiskies in 2004.
We’re now aware of three of the best Indian whisky brands of whiskies as they break into the international market to establish a global reach. Both headquartered in Bangalore, we looked at Amrut as a trend setter in the industry, bottling the first Indian single malt whisky, and Paul John, distilled across the state border from its headquarters, in Goa. Finally, we learned about Rampur, the oldest distillery in India.