The Indian spirit: How evolving tastes have brought sea change in the way Indians enjoy their drinks

October 17, 2021 6:30 AM

The evolving preferences of the younger generation and the expanding liquor market in the country have brought about a sea change in the way Indians enjoy their drinks

Today, the liquor palate of the average Indian can broadly be split into three categories—beer, whisky and country liquor—according to Vikram Damodaran, chief innovation officer, Diageo India.

By Reya Mehrotra

India’s relationship with alcohol has been a rather shy one. On some occasions, if we have drunk with a napkin covering our glasses, on others, the men of the house would be seen having a secret drink or being met with frowned brows if they decide to have it in the open.

The dynamics are, however, no longer the same. The evolving drinking preferences of the younger generation and the expanding liquor market in the Indian subcontinent have brought about a sea change in the way people are having their alcohol. Experiment is the key word here.

Today, the liquor palate of the average Indian can broadly be split into three categories—beer, whisky and country liquor—according to Vikram Damodaran, chief innovation officer, Diageo India.

“The remaining spirits do play a role and are finding their legs in an increasing number of occasions and demographies, but they are still small in comparison to whisky. The younger consumers are preferring beer and are ready to mix offerings,” he explains in a nutshell.

So, let’s find out what exactly is the taste of the Indian drinkers and how the country’s liquor industry is flourishing globally. Then, there is also the story of another India, a lesser privileged one, that is surviving on cheaper options.

The pandemic push

The Indian liquor market has been undergoing a transformation in the past three to four years as the demand for quality products is growing, especially around the urban areas—the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the process. Sophia Sinha, marketing head of Moët Hennessy India, a subsidiary of Moet Hennessy, a leading luxury group, points out, “Everyone turned into a quarantine chef last year and wanted to experiment with flavours.” With the extra income due to the lockdown (as travel cost was saved), people gravitated towards improving the quality of the products they bought, including upgrading the drinks they consumed, she adds.

This was widely witnessed during the lockdown as people lined up to buy liquor even as most shops remained shut. This even prompted the home delivery of liquor as many states permitted the same. According to market research firm YouGov’s 2021 report titled ‘International FMCG/CPG Report 2021: Consumer Goods in a Crisis’ based on more than 18,000 interviews across 17 global markets, consumption of alcohol in India has increased for three in 10 urban Indians (29%). In fact, India (29%) and China (27%) are the leading markets where people said that they have consumed more alcohol during the pandemic than elsewhere in the world.

“As the consumers are now better connected virtually and are aware, the quality of consumption is going up. The flavour profiles are changing as the younger consumers are preferring healthier and sustainable options and are willing to pay more for quality. India has a lot of potential now,” Sinha says.

However, gone are the days when liquor experiments were centred around metropolitan cities. Brands agree that even in the tier 2 cities, the demand for quality has risen sharply over the last two years and this shift must be credited to social media and the Covid-19 pandemic.

A country of browns

The fact that the Indian market for liquor is highly regulated and the sale of alcohol is a state subject with highly controlled distribution has not in any way affected India’s growing love for liquor. According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR), which provides data, analysis and insights on the global beverage alcohol market, India is the sixth biggest global destination for Scotch whisky and 93% of all whisky traded in India falls into the ‘value’ segment, leaving plenty of scope to develop the higher-end segments. This establishes that out of all types of liquor, whisky remains India’s top preference and brands are innovating and tapping into this demand.

When it comes to single malt whiskies, Bengaluru-based Amrut Distilleries has established its mark globally. In 2010, its flagship single malt was named the third best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Rakshit Jagdale, MD of Amrut Distilleries, points out their uniqueness in the barley grown in India. “We source it from states like Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, malt it in Delhi and then bring it to Bengaluru, where we double distill our whiskies. Bengaluru has a different altitude and climate than any part of the world,” he says.

Jagdale agrees that consumers are willing to try out something new in the market as they are well travelled now and are exposed to consuming quality alcohol. Amrut’s most popular brands remain Amrut Fusion Single Malt Whisky, Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky, Amrut Indian Peated Single Malt Whisky, Amrut Portonova Single Malt Whisky and Amrut Intermediate Sherry, which are available globally. The brand now plans to tap into the wine segment and introduce a brandy on the lines of cognac.

Although the taste of Amrut’s whisky remains uniform globally, the difference lies in the strength of alcohol. While it is 46-50% globally, Indian states permit 42.8% due to the liquor policies in place, explains Jagdale. Amrut is likely to expand to 100 countries, from the 60 at present, in the next two years.

Tapping into the demand, India’s oldest and largest distilleries—UP-based Radico Khaitan—entered the single malt whisky segment in 2016. Today, it exports globally.

Scotch whiskies are also India’s favourites. Arun Kumar, co-founder, Aspri Spirits, explains that Scotch whiskies are produced in a distillery in Scotland and aged for a minimum of three years, while blended Scotch whisky is a blend of whiskies from one or multiple distilleries in Scotland. Currently, the top performing markets for its Scottish Leader brand are Taiwan, South Africa, China, Central Europe, the UK and the Baltics—Lithuania and Latvia, where it consistently features in the top 10 whiskies.

As for popular whisky brands, Vikram Damodaran, chief innovation officer of Diageo India, shares that McDowell’s No 1 is the world’s largest selling whisky. Other brands like Royal Challenge, Signature and Antiquity, too, are popular in India and abroad, according to Abhishek Shahabadi, VP and portfolio head for luxury and premium brands, Diageo India.

When Grant’s India’s global brand ambassador Daniel Dyer was asked during a Masterclass about how Indians like to drink their whiskies, he had said: “Indians like it better with soda or water.” And it is only true. The way people drink their whiskies too has got to do with where they come from. “I feel it has got to do with the weather. Here, it is hot and humid, so people drink whisky with soda. In Europe, liquor is consumed in winters and in autumns, neat or with a splash of water,” adds Jagdale of Amrut Distilleries.

According to Jagdale, the liquor preferences change as we travel across geographies. South India is a brandy and rum market and the north, central, west and to a certain extent east India is a whisky market and, during winters, a brandy favourite. Arun Kumar of Aspri Spirits agrees that Westerners consume mostly neat or on the rocks as Indians generally water it down or add soda. Payal Nijhawan, head of marketing for William Grant & Sons, the parent company for global premium spirits brands like Monkey Shoulder, The Balvenie, Hendrick’s, Grant’s and Glenfiddich, says that their target audience prefers their whiskies neat or on the rocks. As for The Balvenie, Gemma Paterson, global brand ambassador, says that having it with a splash of water opens the nose and the palate and reveals additional layers of flavour.

Apart from the way people have their whiskies, India also finds its uniqueness in its taste. Scottish Leader’s crisp combination of honey sweetness and citrus freshness is sweetly spiced with black peppercorns and has been designed for the Indian palate. The Balvenie’s signature honeyed note, spicy and warm, rich flavour profile pairs well with Indian cuisine.

Not just whiskies, the country of browns also loves all types of brown liquor and that includes rum as well. Rum brand Old Monk has remained one of the most popular rum brands in India for decades. But with the changing consumption behaviour and the willingness to experiment, newer brands are emerging. Take for instance, homegrown Maka Zai, a premium fine-tasting craft rum, which contrasts with the widely sold entry-level dark rum popular in India.

Maka Zai is distilled in Goa by banker-turned-blender Kasturi Banerjee’s Stilldistilling Spirit. “This is a time for rum. Globally, rum is evolving as an aspirational drink and people are talking about it more,” she says. Launched in January 2021 in Goa, the liquor maker, which has a white rum and India’s first gold rum, has sold over 1,300-1,400 cases in Goa and has raised Rs 3.4 crore to date.

Wine is fine

The country that loves the browns is gradually but steadily developing a taste in reds and whites, even though Indians are occasional wine drinkers.

Delhi-based sommelier Magandeep Singh defines the wine taste of India as “getting there”. “We are still aping the West and trying to emulate popular wine styles of the world. We don’t really have an innate style as such,” he shares.

However, with the pandemic and the erratic monsoons, the wine industry has not shown signs of growth. In October 2020, consulting firm Avalon Global Research traced Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and Himachal Pradesh as key wine producing states and stated that in the Indian market, Sula holds a 60% market share.

The firm stated that wine tourism, the young population and exposure to western cultures were driving the growth in the industry but attributed the slow growth to economic slowdown and government policies.

Gaurav Sekhri, director, Fratelli Wines, says that red wines are largely preferred over white wines in the Indian subcontinent and that ratio is around 70:30, whereas globally it is more evenly spread. In the reds, Fratelli Wines’ Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are widely planted and well adapted and Chenin and Sauvignon blanc in the white. The liking for rosè and sparkling is also catching up in India, he says.

As for wine likings as per age groups, he shares that the 35+ age group tends to take a liking towards super premium offerings like Sette, J’NOON and the youngsters tend to gravitate towards single varietal range. Sekhri says that not just metros, even tier 2 towns are catching up on wine. “Especially with the pandemic and many folks migrating to their hometowns, we have seen a rise in the consumption of some of our premium wines in tier 2 towns. For us, the urban and educated population is the biggest consumer base,” he says.

Being a less popular option among all the drinks, Indians are yet to find out their exact palate in wine. Sumit Jaiswal, AVP-marketing and exim, Grover Zampa Vineyards, shares that the taste of any wine is the result of four crucial factors—a winery’s viticulture or grape growing practice, the quality of grape used, the winemaker’s skills, and lastly the different techniques and equipment used for winemaking.

“Terroir and microclimate in different regions play a big role on the quality of grapes that it produces. The taste and style of the wine depend on these two influences. In terms of overall styles of Indian wines, it has elegance and finesse of old-world wines and freshness and boldness of the new world,” he explains. “As our climate isn’t the same as Europe, we get different wines. This is what makes every wine region unique,” Magandeep Singh adds.

Since Indian cuisine is very tannic and with a lot of spices, Fratelli wines are made slightly dry to cleanse the palate and make it approachable and drinkable.

Grin and beer it

Market research store Research and Markets’ 2021 report titled ‘Beer Market in India 2021’ predicts that in terms of volume, the beer market, which was valued at 5,533.73 million litres in 2020, is expected to reach 9,004.74 million litres by 2025, expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.89% during the 2021–2025 period. It credits urbanisation and change in societal perspective, along with the launch of new low- and no-alcohol variants of beer and technological advancements as significant factors propelling growth.

What makes beer a favourite alcoholic beverage among Indians across genders and age groups is the hot climate, while cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are the best consumers of beer and experimental as they are more aligned to global trends. Avneet Singh, founder of the mid-segment beer (not too strong, not too mild) Medusa Beverages that was started in 2017, shares that they made a turnover of Rs 70 crore in 2018 and Rs 150 crore in the upcoming years, clearly showcasing that there was a huge demand for craft beer across the country. “People have started preferring beer to hard liquor because there’s nothing like sipping a cold, fizzy beer on a hot day,” he adds.

However, Indians are still exploring the beer culture and with several microbreweries sprouting in metro cities, the change is coming faster than expected. Rahul Singh, founder and CEO of The Beer Café chain of restaurants, says that though most people in India drink beer to get a high, in urban cities, that is changing. “People are becoming experimental and now moving to ales. The Belgium style Tripel that has sweet, sour and spicy notes and coriander and orange tinge is becoming quite popular.” Avneet Singh of Medusa Beverages agrees with Singh that only a third of the country’s billion people drink regularly and when they do, it is to get buzzed. This exactly explains why strong beer outsells its low-alcohol counterparts, he adds.

Another reason why beers are becoming the favourite is that they are lighter than alcoholic drinks and less harmful. Singh believes that consumers are realising that the benefits of beer outweigh other alcoholic drinks.

Observing the growing interest in experimenting with types of beers, brands are more confident about introducing newer varieties into the Indian market. Over the last decade, the wheat beer segment has developed wide acceptance in India with a loyal base of consumers. Carlsberg India launched the Tuborg White, a European styled wheat-malt brew, and entered the premium wheat beer segment with a cloudy drink with a smooth refreshing taste and a subtle fruity twist.

Singh believes that consumers are realising that the benefits of beer outweigh other alcoholic drinks.

The recipe for this brew was developed specifically to appeal to Indians. Partha Jha, vice president marketing, Carlsberg India, terms it as a European style brew specially customised for the Indian consumer. “With the easy-to-drink refreshing liquid layered under a delicate fruity twist, we are sure it will be loved not only by lager drinkers but all consumers looking for a change from the regular,” he says. Tuborg White is currently available in Maharashtra and will soon be launched in other states in the coming months.

Rahul Singh of The Beer Café says that the beer taste in India is similar to our palate for cuisines. “In India, we don’t like anything bland. Everything has to be flavourful and that’s why brands customise to suit the Indian taste.” As for microbreweries, he says, they play safe by providing what people like to drink. “They always have lager, strong beers and at times experiment with beers like mango beer,” he adds. As for The Beer Café, he says they are planning to venture into tap room brewery soon, where they would brew in one location and sell in another.

White spirits

While browns may be a favourite, India is an emerging market for white spirits as well. According to the 2021 ‘White Spirits Market Research Report: Information by Product Type (Rum, Vodka, Gin, Tequila, and Others), Distribution Channel (Food Retail, and Food Service), and Region—Global Forecast till 2027’ released by market analysis company Market Research Future, Asia Pacific is the third largest consumer of white spirits after North America and Europe. Vodkas, gins, white rums and tequilas classify as white spirits.

William Grant & Sons’ Payal Nijhawan says that while whisky is widely consumed across the country, gin has increasingly become a favourite in the urban areas over the past few years.

Rahul Singh of The Beer Café says that the beer taste in India is similar to our palate for cuisines.

Moet Hennessy India’s brand ambassador Shehan Minocher agrees that we are now witnessing a renaissance of white spirits, namely, gin, vodka and agave-based spirits.

The flavour preferences of white spirits are transforming too. Anand Virmani, CEO and distiller at Nao Spirits, says that the modern Indian doesn’t always prefer any strong spices or flavours in their drinks such as sandalwood, saffron, etc. “Our Greater Than gin is crisp and Hapusa is bolder and earthy. Hence, they have become quite popular in the Indian market. Both Greater Than and Hapusa are our top two selling categories in the country. The freshness of fennel and ginger as main ingredients in Greater Than has captivated the Indian audience. For Hapusa, it is the unique and locally sourced botanicals like Himalayan Juniper and Gondhraj which gives it a bold flavour profile,” he says.

Moet Hennessy India’s Shehan Minocher says that while Indian consumers prefer spirits with a lighter body and floral, fruity characteristics, spicier spirits, especially juniper led gins, have also seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years. However, heavier bodied, oily spirits are yet to see a spike in popularity in India—some of that being attributed to the climate along with the desire to choose spirits that can easily be incorporated into cocktails, Minocher adds.

Ready-to-mix cocktails

The demand for at-home services during the pandemic has acted as an eye-opener for brands apprehensive to enter this segment previously. From Dalgona coffees to street foods like golgappas and samosas, everything was made at home during the lockdowns. This was true for cocktails as well, with whatever ingredients were available at home as bars and restaurants remained shut. This proved to be a golden opportunity for brands to bring out cocktail mixes for consumers to prepare at home.

To make the whisky category more accessible and recruit new consumers, alco-beverage companies have been promoting whisky cocktail kits, though the phenomena remain restricted to metros.

Moet Hennessy India launched a limited-edition craft mixer in collaboration with Svami, a non-alcoholic beverage brand in September this year to be paired with Belvedere, Glenmorangie and Hennessy. While launching, Moet Hennessy India played on India’s favourite flavour during the pandemic—‘ginger’. “Indian consumers love adrak, so we expanded the spice element with cinnamon and black pepper as well—all very Indian flavours,” explains Sinha of Moet Hennessy India. “The ready-to-mix market is booming in the country now, especially in the metropolitan cities, and so are single malt cocktails,” she adds.

Another Indian cocktail kit brand Swizzle is currently manufacturing and selling more than 20 varieties of cocktails and covering beer, bourbon, rum, tequila, vodka and whisky. Vrinda Singhal, founder and director of Swizzle, says that the kit includes Swizzle Mix, Fresh Garnish, Ice, Measurer and a Prep Card. “Add your preferred spirit (rum, vodka, whisky) and follow the prep card to enjoy delicious cocktails at home,” she says.

Along with cocktail mixes, non-alcoholic beverages too have become the flavour of the post-pandemic world. Globally, the 0% alcohol drink space is dominated by 0.0% beer and followed by 0% RTDs (Ready to Drink) wines and spirits. In India, the categories are beginning to be accepted as well, says water sommelier and managing partner at Zero Percent India, Ganesh Iyer.

“Globally, no and low alcohol drinks are projected to increase 31% by 2024,” he says. Zero Percent India offers 0% alternatives to spirits, beer and chardonnay. Iyer says that though the 0% alternatives are better, most brands lace them with high doses of sugar and synthetic additives which could be as harmful as liquor. Zero Percent comes with low sugar, low calories, natural, organic and vegan ingredients too.

He says it is important to understand the difference between non-alcoholic beverages (which has some amount of alcohol that is negligible) and alcohol-free beverages (which has absolutely no alcohol whatsoever).

Local favourites

as much as the established liquor industry is flourishing in India, there’s another India that thrives on the local and cheap countrymade liquor that compromises on quality but gives a quick high. Hooch, moonshine, narangi or mahua come at extremely low prices but are unsafe—some of them can even be fatal.

Rohit Gautam, sommelier and former operatiemons head at Tonique, Asia’s biggest wine and liquor boutique in Bengaluru, says that for liquor stores like theirs, there’s an apprehension that the prices might be too high and so the middle-class sections keep away and instead prefer the local ones. However, that changed during the pandemic. “We saw the middle-income group come to Tonique without hesitation. The 45-50 years’ age group was the most common as they are more travelled and experienced,” he adds.

He adds that there’s a curiosity around local drinks and consumers are always inquisitive about the availability of Goa’s feni, Tamil Nadu’s toddy or UP’s mahua. “However, they support the locals financially and are a big preference among the tourists,” he adds.

As the Indian liquor market booms and flourishes globally with huge contributions to the economy, it is also important to address the concerns of the hooch mafia. Education, by far, remains the strongest tool.

TASTE OF THE TIMES

With experimentations and acceptance of newer varieties and flavours, the taste profile of liquor has transformed in India. While the Indian genes have strong taste buds, not all flavours are preferred. Till about a decade ago, the sweet and fruity cocktails full of sugar and artificial syrups could be found in bars, but today, consumers are taking chances with their drinks and are being more experimental in their flavour choices and drinks styles, according to Moet Hennessy India’s brand ambassador Shehan Minocher. Youngsters prefer the low sugar content and more refined flavours with a good presentation.

Anand Virmani, CEO and distiller at Nao Spirits, seconds Minocher on how fruity flavours are no longer the taste.

“What Indians generally prefer is a clean drink and not something that is too heavy or overtly spiced. The classic combination of gin and tonic was initially invented in India and has now been universally accepted. People prefer to keep it classic with this combination and experiment with the garnishing of cucumber, lime, orange, etc,” he adds.

 

With inputs from Rajesh Ravi in Kochi

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