Focus on India: pandemic could usher in lasting change

15 September, 2020

India, one of the largest spirits consuming and producing countries in the world, has never had it easy when it comes to the matter of alcohol.

Social taboos, partial or full prohibitions in some states and the ever-changing state excise policies have always challenged liquor producers in the country. Over the years the trade and hospitality industry in general has learnt to survive and even thrive. However, with 28 states and nine Union Territories following their own sets of rules and regulations, running a liquor business in India poses many challenges. 

Unlike other countries, the culture of drinking alcohol hardly ever existed in the Indian society. There was a stark contrast between an era depicting aristocratic indulgences of the upper class flaunting expensive champagnes, scotch whiskies or cognac in private soirées and a time when alcohol was abused in the hands of the poor, with consumption of spurious country liquor often disrupting the rural fabric of the society, and that image has only begun to fade recently. Indians seem to have finally found a middle ground with drinking.

The term ‘premiumisation’ hit headlines when Indians travelling abroad discovered a certain lifestyle and wanted to bring the same experience home. They also brought demand for premium drinks, and in the past two decades consumers evolved enough to start treating liquor as a lifestyle product.

That helped the smooth transition from distilleries making molassesbased whiskies to malt and grain-based whiskies, producers experimenting with various blends and some successfully introducing world-class single malts made in India.

Vijay Rekhi, an industry stalwart and the current chairman of the advisory board of Unibev, a premium spirits company established in 2016, said: “I have seen the liquor industry being dominated by three major Indian players – namely Mohan Meakin, Shaw Wallace and Jagatjit Industries – to the rise of USL [United Spirits Ltd], Pernod Ricard, Radico Khaitan, ABD and a host of large and medium multinational companies offering near full ranges of products either bottled in India or imported. So to sum up, it has been a sea change in the product offering as well as the variety of products available in India now.”

Unibev has rolled out a range of made-in-India whiskies blended with aged imported scotch such as Governor’s Reserve and Oakton. Beam Suntory’s recent move to introduce the Oaksmith range of made-inIndia blended whiskies – produced by Japanese master distiller Shinji Fukuyo of Yamazaki, with an experimental blend of scotch, bourbon and Japanese whiskies – is a testament to these changing times. Paul John and Amrut single malts are touted as some of the best single malts in the world, which has helped the producers go the extra mile and experiment with new styles. Last year, Paul John introduced the first release in a range of expensive whiskies named after zodiac signs, the first being Kanya – Virgo in English – while Amrut Distilleries is rolling out India’s first triple-distilled whisky, Triparva, by the end of September 2020.

VOCAL FOR LOCAL

The slogan “vocal for local” gathered further momentum during lockdown. This is the pet project of the country’s ruling party, and it has offered direction and confidence to entrepreneurs. It has permeated the entire pyramid of products, from entry level to the premium sector, which is now buzzing with new and exciting locally made drinks.





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Nick Strangeway

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