When Bengaluru-based Hemant Rao started the Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) 10 years ago, fine whiskies were not as readily available in the country as they are today. Neither was there much to choose from. “Today, in the Karnataka market alone, you have 25 different expressions of Indian single malt,” says Rao, 41. SMAC, which was started by Rao, a telecom professional, after a revelatory experience with a bottle of Lagavulin, now has over 4,000 members across the world. The maturing of both the Indian market and the whisky drinker has meant that clubs such as SMAC have the opportunity to do way more interesting things than just sitting around a table and nosing and waxing eloquent about whiskies.

 Hemanth RaoLast year, the club introduced the final release of the limited-edition Amrut Amaze Trilogy bottled exclusively for club members. Work on the trilogy began in 2016, and the first edition was released in 2018. In early 2020, SMAC worked with Goa-based whisky maker Paul John to bring out its first-ever single cask release—limited to 224 bottles—for members. “The process began over a year ago and a bunch of us travelled to Goa for the launch,” says Rao.

Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC)

SMAC is the first whisky club in India to get distilleries to cater to a specific group of people, says Rao. “With exclusive bottling and single cask releases, it’s about understanding what our members prefer and working with the distilleries to create something that will probably match those taste profiles.” There’s also the rather tedious task of ensuring that the legal aspects are taken care of. For example, for exclusive bottling, a label needs to be registered specifically for the club and SMAC must ensure that the whisky is only sold to members. “It’s a lot of work,” says Rao, “but there’s also a sense of accomplishment.”

Exclusive bottling and single cask releases are not the only marked changes Rao has witnessed— and catalysed—over the years. Single malt whisky enthusiasts are seen in a much younger age group now. He explains, “Whisky is no longer a middle-aged man’s passion. Whisky lovers start early, at, say, 25, and soon get exposed to different kinds of whiskies. A lot of our members are between 28 and 40. These are people who are tenacious about their passion.” He continues, “They are not the sort who would go into a store and say, “Okay, if the whisky I’m looking for is not available, let me settle for something else”. If they’ve read about a whisky and it’s been discussed in the forum, they will go all out to track the whisky down. I see people going down to Gurgaon just to buy whiskies!”Paul John

During our conversation, he makes several references to ‘sherry casks’ and ‘bourbon casks, which leads me to ask him about whether the Indian whisky drinker still prefers a sweetish taste profile. He points out that sweet profiles are usually preferred by whisky enthusiasts in India, but their palate is rapidly evolving: “They are discovering that whisky evolves on the palate, and we are eventually going to see bifurcations and a marked inclination for different profiles. I mean, I discovered Springbank just a few years ago and its funky, oily notes have changed the way I view whisky.”

To a large extent, the old rules don’t apply when it comes to the trajectory of the Indian whisky enthusiast’s journey. The initiation into the world of single malt is no longer with entry expressions such as Glenfiddich 12 YO or a Glenmorangie 10 YO. Rao points out that the sudden influx of Indian whiskies has meant that some folks have started off with a Paul John or an Amrut. “Or, they might have travelled abroad and sampled something out of the ordinary. Experimentation is big all around,” he adds. “People are trying new expressions—they are not taking the traditional route, or necessarily aiming for the recognised brands.”

The launch of the limited-edition Amrut Amaze

In Rao’s opinion, the next five to ten years will be an exciting one for the whisky lover. “Companies like Diageo are getting into craft whisky and that’s a great thing. But there also are a lot of other players working on fine whiskies, both single malt and blended. It’s going to get crowded very soon.”