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Everything You Need To Know About McDowell’s No.1

McDowell’s No.1 is an Indian spirit brand, produced by United Spirits Limited, a subsidiary of the multinational beverage company, Diageo. Introduced in the 1960s, McDowell’s is amongst the largest umbrella spirits brands in the world, marketing varieties of whisky, brandy, and rum. Exploring the origins, brand development, and confrontation with the scotch whisky industry – here is everything you need to know about McDowell’s No.1.

The Origins of McDowell 

The McDowell’s No.1 brand name originates from Angus McDowell, a Scottish entrepreneur who emigrated to India. From 1826, McDowell built a warehouse at Fort St. George, close to Madras (now Chennai), to supply the British population in India with imports of cigars and tobacco, tea, groceries – and wine and spirits. 

In 1828, the trading company named, McDowell and Company, was founded to import consumer products. Whisky was no doubt amongst the products imported – but it would be almost another 150 years before whisky bottles were produced bearing the Scotsman’s name.

Creating the McDowell’s No. 1 Brand 

In 1951, McDowell and Company were acquired by Vittal Mallya’s United Breweries (UB Group). Mallya established the UB Group’s first distillery at Cherthala, Kerala on the banks of the Vembanad lake in 1959. 

Beginning distillation, Vittal Mallya pioneered the creation of the Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) category of alcohol – a blanket term for Indian-made versions of Western spirits categories produced using molasses-based spirit combined with flavoring, spices, or blended with imported spirits, such as scotch whisky.

Envisioning an Indian spirit brand, Mallya revived the McDowell name when the UB Group launched the first McDowell’s No.1 spirit, a brandy, in 1963-64. By 1968, McDowell’s No.1 whisky had joined the brand franchise, an IMFL blend that included imported scotch and Indian malt whiskies. 

Finally, McDowell’s No.1 light and dark rum variants joined the range, after launch in 1990-91.

Following the UB Group’s take over of competing distilling enterprises, the company was incorporated as McDowell Spirits Ltd in 1999, subsequently becoming McDowell & Company Ltd in 2000. A merger between McDowell & Company Ltd and several distilling companies resulted in the formation of United Spirits Ltd in 2006.

By 2014, McDowell’s was the biggest-selling spirits franchise in the world by volume, shipping an estimated 53 million cases – the whisky variant accounted for almost half. Whilst India’s IMFL brands cannot be marketed in the UK or EU, due to regulations that require products labeled as ‘whisky’ to be distilled from cereal grains, McDowell’s is sold in a variety of global markets, including Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East, and the UAE. McDowell’s growing exports contributed to a takeover in 2014, which saw United Spirits Ltd become a subsidiary of the British multinational beverage company, Diageo.

Impacting Scotch: The Concerns of the Scotch Whisky Association  

The SWA was concerned with protecting the integrity of scotch whisky.

Diageo’s takeover of United Spirits Ltd prompted the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to raise concerns and objections regarding IMFL ‘whisky’ brands – notably  No.1 and Bagpiper. The SWA has long fought to protect scotch whisky from ‘copycat’ and differently formulated products. 

The molasses spirit base of McDowell’s and Bagpiper meant neither could be called whisky in many countries – especially the UK and EU. Beyond the formulation of IMFL products, the elements of ‘Scottishness’ evoked by brand names and label illustrations, provoked the SWA’s ire, which saw the brands as unfairly capitalizing upon, and potentially harming the global reputation of scotch whisky.

The SWA feared the IMFL brands could be mistaken for scotch whisky within emerging export markets, stating ‘The SWA monitors carefully any use of Scottish names on spirit drinks that are not scotch whiskies in world markets’. 

The SWA and Diageo began negotiations regarding the future of the brands outside India, reaching an agreement in 2016. Diageo promptly suspended exports of Bagpiper in January 2016, replacing the Scottish piper depicted on the label in the Indian domestic market.

Unlike Bagpiper, the McDowell’s brand had a greater presence in export markets, approximately 2.6% of the McDowell’s No.1 whisky variant’s sales volumes came from outside India in 2014. This doesn’t sound like a significant figure until you consider 2.6% of 24.9 million cases of McDowell’s No.1 whisky sold in 2014 – approximately 650,000 cases.

Unwilling to remove McDowell’s from export markets, Diageo proposed a packaging change pledging to ‘remove Scottish references’ from the brand, during a transition period. In 2018, the brand’s rename was announced as Mr. Dowell’s No. 1 whisky in export markets, including the UAE and Nigeria.  

McDowell’s in India 

McDowell’s Indian Single Malt. Credit: McDowell’s

The SWA maintained that India was a ‘special case’, where both the McDowell’s and Bagpiper brands were reliant on India’s domestic alcohol market for sales. In a compromise, the SWA stated ‘In India, where these brands have been on sale for several decades, it is understood that McDowell’s and Bagpiper have a reputation locally as Indian brands.

In India, IMFL whisky brands, such as McDowell’s, account for approximately 60% of the domestic market, with widespread popularity amongst Indian consumers due to a combination of accessibility and affordability, whilst scotch whisky imports are subject to India’s high import taxes and complex state excise laws. In this context, it was evident McDowell’s and competing IMFL brands would continue to evoke and reference scotch whisky heritage and imagery to sell products domestically.

In April 2024, the debut release of McDowell’s and Co. Distiller’s Batch Indian Single Malt was announced, marking a new chapter for the brand. Distilled and matured at the Nashik distillery, amidst India’s Sahyadri mountains, the single malt is triple cask matured using a combination of first ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks, and then Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz casks. 

A limited-edition release of 6,000 bottles, initially only available in India’s Gurgaon, Haryana region, McDowell’s Distiller’s Batch represents a transformative era as Diageo’s ambition is to reposition the brand within the premium single malt category.            

 

Want to know more about Indian whisky? Find out about the biggest Indian whisky brands here, or check out Everything You Need To Know About Indian Whisky

Mark Bostock

Since joining Mark Littler LTD as a freelance article contributor in 2019, Mark Bostock has become an integral part of our UK content writing team. His enthusiasm for whisky, particularly independent bottlings, drives him to deepen his knowledge through frequent attendance at tasting events and the thoughtful expansion of his own whisky collection. This dedication not only fuels his passion but also enriches his contributions to our platform, blending expertise with a genuine love for the subject.

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