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Few people associate India with drinking culture, but the country has been producing wine, beer, and spirits since ancient times. Wine production dates as far back as nearly 500 BC, though most of the wine was consumed for ceremonial and healing purposes. The oldest wine in India is an Ayurvedic concoction called Draksharishtha, the name literally meaning grape wine in Sanskrit. This is made from fermented grape juice with sweet and savory herbs. The Indian courtesans and tribal groups also consumed wine socially and ceremonially. Indian royalty planted vineyards at the palaces, using wine to welcome visiting dignitaries. But until the 19th century, not much of it ever left Indian soil.
Portuguese settlers in the 16th century planted vineyards in Goa. The wine was consumed on its own as well as used for cooking, mixed with garlic and spices for Vin d’Ail. Around the same time, the Persians planted Syrah (Shiraz), which enticed the British into entering the viticultural scene there. Under the British Raj starting in the 1850s, more Indian wines were produced, and even showcased at international competitions. But Phylloxera hit India as it did elsewhere and destroyed most of the vineyards. It wasn’t till the 1980s that modern viticultural innovations, expansion of the local middle class, the global demand for wine, and international investments created a surge in the Indian wine industry. Today, India is well poised to become a significant figure on the global wine scene, with one of the highest rates of wine industry growth.
Throughout much of India, the conditions are too tropical for quality wine production. However, the south-western part of the country, where the main regions of Maharashtra (including the capital city of Mumbai) and Karnataka are located, is elevated and mild enough to produce good wine. Other hilly areas such as Nadu, Tamil, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, and Kashmir are also up and coming viticultural sites. International consultants have worked with local wine-makers to ensure quality control measures such as trellising methods, lower yields, and to combat disease and rot. Many international varieties are grown alongside indigenous ones such as Anabeshahi, Arkavati, Arkashyam, Bangalore Blue (Isabella), Gulabi (Black Muscat). The Turkish grape Sultana is the most common varietal planted. Styles range from dry to pink to sparkling to sweet and fortified.
Aside from wine, India is also known for beers produced in a range of styles. The earliest beers were rice beers, still produced in some areas. The style known as India Pale Ale, I.P.A., became a lasting international favorite, first made to withstand the long voyage between India and Great Britain.
Indian whiskey is also evolving into a global success. With the British occupation came a local appreciation of whisk(e)y, and demand for spirits produced within the country. Much of it is produced from molasses, or a blend of molasses and grains, which brings some consternation from whisky purists, who would consider this to be rum. For this reason, whiskies from India must be labelled as “Indian Whisky” to avoid confusion with Scotch, Irish, Bourbon or other grain whiskies. Amrut is a brand that uses malted barley in the Scotch tradition, and the first to earn E.U. approval for import as whisky. Brands such as Bagpiper and McDowell No. 1 are also gaining international attention.
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