India’s single malts – rocking on the rocks

Whiskey on the rocks
Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash

Even as recently as the 90s, duty-free shops at airports were the first resort of Indians returning from the US and UK. Two bottles of liquor were permitted per person. And the requests would pour in from every friend and relative. They were prized more than chocolates – because they were ‘authentic’, unlike the booze that the local moonshine dealer home delivered. The running joke was that India drank more ‘Scotch’ every year than Scotland produced! And there was no shortage of people pretending to know what the hierarchy of single malt whiskeys was – even if they couldn’t differentiate between a fruity note or a dry one.

Whiskey makes a splash
Photo by Joost Crop on Unsplash

The single largest consideration was the price. If you could afford to serve the highest priced single malts at parties, you had arrived. Social mobility was guaranteed along with the secrets that gushed forth with every ’round’ that went down. The citadel of Scotch was a perennial aspiration – and one of the calling cards that signaled an entry into a coveted circle. Much like the luxury car or club membership that stamped the certificate of admission. And it looked like it would never be breached. IMFL (India Made Foreign Liquor) is the clumsy categorization that all Indian brands are lumped under.

India- the world’s 3rd largest liquor market

India is the world’s 3rd largest liquor market
Photo by Outcast India on Unsplash

In spite of the ban since 1995 on liquor advertising, brands have continued their growth steadily upwards. They have thrived in spite of steep taxes, distribution issues (total prohibition in one state and government taking over the distribution in some of the others) and the social stigma that accompanies both buying and consuming liquor. 

Social drinking is frowned upon and in spite of the restraints, there’s plenty happening in nameless bars that are licensed ‘dens’ to serve liquor. In hotels with a license, the price per peg is way above what the market price per bottle is – but drinking at home is socially permissible only within a sliver of urban households. However, given the sheer population numbers and the lure of ‘forbidden fruit’ downing the first peg with friends away from the watchful eye of parents is as much a social rite of passage and a coming of age ritual. 

It’s also a great excuse for behavior that crosses boundaries in Indian films – having a couple of pegs, dancing to a raunchy number and a slip in the high moral standards to be upheld in public are fig leaves used time and again. 

All-pervasive surrogate advertising

India understands euphemisms very well. Until kisses were allowed onscreen, it was perfectly ok to show two flowers bending towards each other. Fully clothed actors would go through all suggestive motions and censors would pass the films with a ‘U’ label (universal)

So, we’ve had everything from mineral water, club soda, playing cards, music CDs and party destinations which exist to fulfill minimum marketing requirements. No one sees them as anything except liquor advertising. And going by how the market has grown, the strategies have worked.

The retail market size in India is pegged at over $35 billion – and it’s growing in spite of every obstacle kept in the way of branding, advertising, and taxation. It also helps that social mores have changed and are no longer as restrictive as they were a couple of decades ago. But how did we go from being imitators to being pioneers?

Selling single malts to the Scots

A brand from Amrut Distilleries

Amrut Distilleries has done what was once considered impossible – sell Scotch to the Scots on their home turf. What began as a distillation experiment in the 1980s matured into the launch of Amrut Single Malt whiskey in Scotland in 2004. By 2010, Amrut Fusion was adjudged the 3rd Finest Whiskey in the world by the Whiskey Bible. And with the stamp of authority from the best in the business, it was launched in India in 2010. 

Single Malt Whiskey from Radico Khaitan
Pic from WalkThroughIndia

The branding lesson was that India’s audience would pooh-pooh a single malt that had not earned its spurs in the toughest competition of all – the birthplace of Scotch. And for Indians sipping imported liquor, it was a shot in the arm – an Indian brand had breached the biggest wall of all. Amrut has still not percolated down to the masses but then, it is a luxury product that moves in charmed circles – and there, its pedigree is now acknowledged with pride. An anecdote from a top executive in an Indian IT company shows how far we’ve come. At the end of an official visit, a client from the US  specifically asked where he could buy a few bottles of Amrut to take back and enjoy with his friends back home! How the tables have turned!

Goa is India’s Scotland.

A beach in Goa
Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

Indian soils have no peat, which is a pre-requisite for the unique flavor of Scotch. But Indian whiskey ages faster in casks in the tropical climate, speeding up the entire process. Six-year-old whiskeys from India can compete with 18-year-old whiskeys from Scotland and match them. Until Amrut started the process, it seemed like a distant dream. Now, there are several Indian brands stepping up and tapping into a global market. The quantities are still minuscule compared to what the big brands globally sell. But that’s simply a matter of time. 

Other Indian brands from John Distilleries, Khoday Group, Radico Khaitan, and Mohan Meakin have added their offerings to the list. Rampur from Radico Khaitan sold 50% of its domestic stock within a month of entry – showing that Indians are beginning to appreciate the finer aspects of a single malt. Indian manufacturers are now quite willing to take the world on with their expertise.  This time, nature is on their side. When the best whiskeys can be produced in 1/3rd of the time it takes in cold climates, it confers an enormous competitive advantage. And the Scots may not be too happy with that prospect.

Greedy Angels from Amrut
Pic: ExpressFoodie

Amrut’s brand Greedy Angels retails between Rs.90,000/- to Rs. 100,000/ a bottle (about $1250 – $1500) And some of the others are crafting their own premium offerings as well. India cannot call it Scotch – but that’s a poor consolation for the original Scotch brands who would never have seen it coming – the natives who are socking it to them. From ‘On the Rocks’ to ‘On the Ropes’ is not the position to be in.

Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started over 14 years ago. I have over 35 years of experience in the business building brands in sectors as different as fairness creams, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising