How do you recognise the smart set in India? By the car they drive or by the elegant suits they wear?
An early indicator is by the drink they order at a bar or serve in their homes.
If it's a Johnnie Walker Black Label or a Chivas Regal that is being served then they are probably just on the fringes, but if it is a Cutty Sark (25 years old), or for that matter a Laphroaig or Lagavulin, then they are certainly ahead of the pack.
According to industry estimates around 1,60,000 cases are sold legally but in actuality more than 4,00,000 cases are brought into the country mostly through dubious sources.
India is one of the biggest whisky markets in the world and liquor companies are watching it closely and can't wait to get more and more of their brands into the country.
Some companies like Brown-Forman, Highland Distillers, Allied Domecq, UDV and Seagram's have already made inroads into the Indian market.
Whisky bottled in origin (BIO) such as Cutty Sark, Dewars, Famous Grouse and Jack Daniel's and those bottled in India such as Teacher's and 100 Pipers are now freely available.
Amit Oberoi, food and beverage director of Imperial Hotel, Delhi says, "Indian consumers are now very aware about different liquor brands but it is whisky that continues to reign supreme -- 45 per cent of our guests prefer whisky compared to other alcoholic beverages".
With the markets opening up and duties coming down it has certainly become easier to procure liquor locally and cheaper to order your favourite drink at a bar.
"Soon there will be Royal Challenge pricing for a good Scotch. That's a big change," says Ramesh Mani, director, business development, Cutty Sark.
Mani has been in the Scotch business for more than nine years and has seen the Indian market grow from 1,00,000 cases of Scotch to more that 4,00,000 cases today.
With more and more brands featuring in the Indian bars and retails shops, the Scotch market is growing at a clip of 10 to 15 per cent per annum, and this despite high duties.
Says Amrit Kiran Singh, area director for Brown-Forman, promoters of Jack Daniel's whisky: " Bringing duties down is a good beginning, although they are still on the high side. In the shops, the duty is about 250 per cent on the upper range, but hopefully by next year or so it should come down to 150 per cent."
In the last five years he says Jack Daniel's has grown 220 per cent. Jack Daniel's top brand Silver Select sells for Rs 6,000, the vanilla version for Rs 2,800 and Glenmorangie, a single malt (10 years old) for Rs 4,200 in the Indian market. These are available in retail stores in Goa, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Kolkata.
Paramjit Singh, Indian operations head for Highland Distillers promoters of Famous Grouse and Highland, too says, "After WTO guidelines were implemented in 2001- 02 the Scotch market has picked up. BIO Scotch was allowed to be sold legally from the retail shops. Besides hotels, clubs, restaurants who earlier needed to have an import license were allowed to buy directly from the bonders. These factors have improved the sales of BIO Scotch to some extent."
The company's Famous Grouse retails for Rs 1,400 in Goa to Rs 1,700 in other parts of the country while the Macallan Single Malt (12 years old), Highland Park Single Malt (12 years old) and the Famous Grouse are available at bars and restaurants throughout India.
Its not only liquor companies that are brimming with optimism, hoteliers in India are over the moon too. They can now import liquor with zero duty and serve drinks at more realistic prices.
Says Rattan Keswani, general manager, The Oberoi in Delhi, "Although it's too early to say, but inventory turnover has so far shown a growth of about 10 per cent and our prices have come down by come down 25 30 per cent."
A 30 ml peg of the most expensive whisky such as Johnny Walker Blue label at The Oberoi is now priced at Rs 700 inclusive of all levies and taxes.
The same brand is available for Rs 1,095 plus taxes for a 30 ml shot at the Hyatt Regency bar, while the Imperial Hotel in Delhi which is still using its old stocks which were procured paying higher duties is selling it for Rs 1,575 plus taxes.
"These prices will come down by 30 per cent once new stocks are in place," assures Amit Oberoi of the Imperial. The hotels two top brands are Johnnie Walker Black Label at Rs 500 plus taxes per shot and Chivas Regal at Rs 550 plus taxes per shot.
"With the restaurants getting into better business we expect Scotch consumption to go up by 60 per cent," says Oberoi.
Both Mani and Singh say that the Scotch market is maturing very fast. Mani admits that India is a price sensitive market but he says that it won't be long before Scotch bottled in India too becomes passe and consumers shift to Scotch bottled in origin when reduced duties will make the price difference almost marginal or notional.
Singh says that even within Scotch brands, consumers are moving to more expensive brands. He says that Jack Daniel's has become popular because it is an American product and closely linked to the aspirations, especially of younger people while the older set is moving to single malts.
According to Mani even markets in small towns such as Kolhapur in Maharashtra have grown from 100 cases to 2,000 cases being sold in just five years.
Of course Kolkata remains the most discerning market with its club culture and traditional Scotch drinkers. But it is the upwardly mobile consumers of Scotch in Mumbai and Delhi that are running ahead of the pack, while Bangalore and Hyderabad are not far behind.
While Indian consumers may not have access to the 2,500 whisky brands that are available across the world, they can make a recce of the Indian market and stock up on many good Scotch whisky brands that have become available in the market.