“Catch this gorgeous bottle of Japanese single malt before it disappears from the shelf.” Does the line look familiar?
Japanese whiskeys have achieved cult status over the past 10 years, true to the idiom; the land of the rising sun was among the first countries affected by soaring demand. But that hasn’t always been the case – a closer look at the history of whiskey production in Japan will reveal an erratic pattern of demand changing every five odd years until the turn of the century, when demand increase. The ripple effect of the 1980s glut of scotch took a heavy toll on Japan’s nascent industry, as demand within the country was still maturing, with production mostly for export plummeting. during this period. Distilleries went bankrupt and production stopped, leaving high-quality whiskey to mature in closed warehouses.
On the other hand, the appreciation of whiskey in Japan has been steady and positive since the late sixties, which is reflected in the region’s whiskey bars. Exquisite whiskeys and bespoke bottling from barrels of a bygone era are commonplace in most bars. Experimentation beyond traditional European or American oak led to the discovery of the Mizunara cask, synonymous with Japanese whisky. But the real catalyst that has driven global demand for Japanese whiskey has been recognition in various whiskey forums and by renowned whiskey judges. The famous Yamazaki 18 cost between $80 and $100 about 5-6 years ago, but now costs almost $1,000 if you manage to get your hands on it!
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Where does the Indian whiskey category draw its parallel with this transition?
The resemblance is apparent when the dots are connected; the distilleries, having started producing malt whiskey in the early or late 1990s, created international demand for the product category since the domestic market had not evolved. The Walls of Fame, dotted with citations and awards from various global whiskey entities, and finally, experimenting with casks and craftsmanship. Sounds reasonably familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, the revolution happens a few decades later, but some aspects are quite similar. Also, I remember Amrut Greedy Angels Limited was very expensive at Rs 12,500 in 2013. The growing attention from global industry leaders is a significant departure from the strategy that India is a dumping ground for low-grade whiskey, which was passed off as Scotch.
As the founder of a whiskey club in India, I can testify firsthand that curiosity and glamor attract most enthusiasts even today. A policy of error avoidance and openness are still accepted concepts, but what is encouraging is the growing number of enthusiasts evolving into connoisseurs and aficionados.
Reverse or vice versa!
The success of Japanese whiskey is not devoid of new-age challenges. You don’t have to be an expert to decipher the role of the “Scotch Whiskey Association”, known as the SWA, in the success of the Scottish whiskey industry. Regulation and quality control was a hallmark of success back when most of the whiskey industry was illicit and counterfeit, with Prohibition as the backdrop (more similarities?). The lack of such a governing body in Japan has led to more than a small number of operators that I like to call “instant whiskey” producers. Offices in a slum, with malt and grain imported from different parts of the world that are labeled white in traditional Japanese calligraphy, flooded the market. For the enthusiast sitting halfway around the world, it’s still “Japanese whiskey” and worth a try – only to be completely disappointed. Recent studies by industry experts have revealed that more than 30% of whiskeys marketed as Japanese have nothing to do with geolocation. The premium single malt category has not been spared either, and with no regulations governing literature on the label, creativity has been at its best. If you have been a victim of such a fake whiskey, it will only lose demand for this category.
Do I even need to point out the voids in the Indian context? To make it simple and clear, “I can bottle a whiskey with a 50 year age statement” and current legality and governance have no rules or regulations to validate that. The origin of the spirit – whether malt or grain does not have to be disclosed. As long as I can afford a label fee and the FSSAI certifies the liquid safe for consumption, the rest is a canvas for the next artist. Governance of quality has been largely at the discretion of the distillery, and there have been more than a few that have held to high standards of transparency and quality, but then, of course, the “are bhai India hai” takes over. Fear is acceptable when I think of how many creative makers are taking advantage of this situation; the wheels are already in motion.
If it took more than 20 years for the Indian category of whiskey to be recognized at the world table as a quality product and not a colored ENA based on molasses, it would take less than two years to send us back to the age darkness if this is not the case resolved.
(Hemanth Rao is the founder of the Single Malt Amateur Club)