– Hemanth Rao
‘Grab that gorgeous bottle of Japanese single malt before it disappears from the shelf.’ Does the line sound familiar?
Japanese whiskies have attained a cult status over the last 10 years, true to the idiom; the land of the rising sun was among the first few nations hit by skyrocketing demand. But this has not always been the case – a closer look at the history of whisky production in Japan will reveal an erratic demand trend changing every five odd years until the turn of the century when the demand streak has been on the uptick. The ripple effect of the 80’s glut in Scotch weighed heavily on the fledgling industry in Japan, while the demand within the nation was still maturing, production primarily aimed at exports, which fell through during this time. Distilleries went bust, and production stopped, leaving some high-quality whisky maturing in shut warehouses.
On the other hand, the appreciation for whisky in Japan has been steady and positive ever since the late sixties, which is reflected in the whisky bars of the region. Exquisite whiskies and bespoke bottling of casks from a bygone era are commonplace in most bars. Experimentation beyond traditional European or American Oak led to the discovery of the Mizunara cask, which is synonymous with Japanese whisky. But the true catalyst that has spurred the worldwide demand for Japanese whisky has been the recognition across various whisky forums and through renowned whisky judges. The famed Yamazaki 18 used to cost $80-$100 around 5-6 years ago but now commands a price close to $1000 if you manage to get your hands on one!
Where does the Indian whisky category draw its parallel to this transition?
The semblance is apparent when the dots are connected; distilleries, having started malt whisky production in the early or late 90’s, created an international demand for the product category since the domestic market had not evolved. The walls of fame, peppered with citations and awards from various global whisky entities, and finally, experimentation with casks and craft. Sounds reasonably familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, the revolution is happening a couple of decades later, but some aspects are quite similar. Additionally, I remember the limited Amrut Greedy angels being very expensive at Rs 12,500 in 2013. The growing focus from global industry leaders is a significant departure from the strategy of India being a dumping ground for substandard whisky, which was passed off as Scotch.
As a founder of a whisky club in India, I can vouch firsthand that curiosity and glamour draw most enthusiasts even today. A policy of avoiding fallacies and being open are concepts still being accepted, but what is heartening is the increasing number of enthusiasts evolving to connoisseurs and aficionados.
The flip side or the antiverse!
The success of Japanese whisky is not devoid of new-age challenges. It does not need an expert to decipher the role of ‘Scotch Whisky Association’ popularly known as SWA, in the success of the Scottish whisky industry. Regulation and quality control have been a hallmark of success at the time when most of the whisky industry was illicit and bootlegging, with prohibition as the backdrop (more similarities?). The absence of such a governing body in Japan has led to more than a few operators whom I like to refer to as ‘instant whisky’ producers. Offices in a shanty, with imported malt and grain from different parts of the world that are white labelled in traditional Japanese calligraphy have flooded the market. For the enthusiast sitting at the opposite end of the world, it is still “Japanese Whisky” and worth a try – only to be disappointed thoroughly. Recent studies by industry specialists have revealed that more than 30 per cent of whiskies being marketed as Japanese have no relation to the geotag. The premium single malt category has not been spared either, and with no regulation governing the literature on the label, creativity has been at its very best. If you have been a victim of such spurious whisky, it is only bound to result in this category losing demand.
Do I even need to point to the voids in the Indian context? To make matters simple and stark, ‘I can bottle a whisky with an age statement of 50 Years Old’ and the present legality and governance have no rules or regulations to validate this. The origin of the spirit – be it malt or grain is not required to be disclosed. As long as I can pay the duty of a label and the FSSAI certifies the liquid safe for consumption, the rest is a canvas for the next artist. Quality governance has been largely at the discretion of the distillery, and there have been more than a few that have upheld high standards of transparency and quality, but then, of course, the ‘are bhai India hai’ takes over. The fear is palatable when I think of the number of creative manufacturers taking advantage of this situation; the wheels are already in motion.
If it took over 20 years for the Indian category of whisky to be recognized at the global table as a quality product and not colored ENA made from molasses, it would take less than two years to send us back to the dark ages if this is not resolved.
(Hemanth Rao is the Founder of the Single Malt Amateur Club)