Matters of the spirit: Luxury in a bottle

It’s still early days for luxury spirits in India, but the market is warming up. 
The indian market is seeing an appreciation for fine spirits in the affordable luxury category. Image: shutterstock.
The Indian market is seeing an appreciation for fine spirits in the affordable luxury category. Image: Shutterstock.

For a product or experience to be classified as luxury, it should be aspirational or exclusive, and represent the finer things of life. It should ideally have a strong legacy and/or story behind it. Also, it would be typically at a price point, that is unaffordable to the masses. 

In developed markets, with more sophisticated consumers they’re quite aware and also have a genuine liking for the product they are buying, an appreciation for the craftsmanship behind it and/or an affinity with the brand values. 

In a market like India, luxury is more often than not, a way to communicate status, especially with brands that are logo heavy, and is typically consumed by a customer set that could be characterised as new money, that see a logo statement as the best way to show they’ve arrived. The educated elite in India have largely a middle-class mindset that makes it difficult for them to perceive the value of a luxury product. 

India does, however, have a large and growing base that is capable of luxury consumption, whether it be serious luxury or affordable luxury via the odd indulgence. However, when it comes to luxury in the world of wine and spirits we are in very early days. The events of the last two years have also heightened the demand for luxury spirits the world over as consumers with the spending power are choosing to indulge in themselves more as also possibly drinking less but drinking better. 

There's a growing interest in single-cask whiskies. Image: shutterstock.
There’s a growing interest in single-cask whiskies. Image: Shutterstock.

The golden word in the wines and spirits industry is allocation and with demand for quality liquid growing the world over, brand managers in India have to fight for the right to get their fair share of liquid. This coupled with regulations relating to product certification, registration and labelling makes the brands’ journey into India even more arduous. A case in point being the launch some years ago of the SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) range of single-cask, single-malt whiskies, a product marked by exclusivity and unique taste, with each cask yielding a few hundred bottles to be allocated sparingly across the world. Given that the allocation from one cask to India might be 8-10 bottles at a maximum, it becomes onerous to amortise the fixed costs of registering the same across such a limited quantity. 

Small wonder that most multi-nationals in India have instead focused on “affordable luxury”, or bringing in products at a premium price point, and which do not necessarily demand a high level of connoisseurship to justify their pricing and consumption. They’re well aware that at least in pre-pandemic days, the sophisticated customer would typically search out the products they wanted when they travelled. As Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of London’s The Whisky Exchange told me some time back, “Most people who can afford to drink and collect single malts travel a lot, so they often come to us to pick up bottles. Some customers store with us, others use wine storage companies to store their whiskies.”

Remy martin is introducing the indian market to high-end cognac. Image: shutterstock.
Remy Martin is introducing the Indian market to high-end cognac. Image: Shutterstock.

And given that India is such a large whisky market, whisky is again the category that is most amenable to luxury, with at least a consumption class emerging that, to use a line made famous by a beer brand, are driven more by “knowing what they know” rather than “showing that they know”. The other category that has made some inroads into India, primarily due to the attempts of Louis XIII from Remy Martin (part of Remy Cointreau) is high-end Cognac. I am not going to go into high-end wines and champagne, as their supply chain has to be expertly managed end to end to ensure that the product is still drinkable by the time it reaches you, something that few companies, even if they have the inclination too, have much control over. 

The other challenge that luxury faces in India is hitherto at least the absence of channels in which the product can be sold and/or consumed. Five-star bars rank few and far between when it comes to being preferred watering holes, and India’s top cocktail bars are unlikely to see consumers in there paying top rupee for high-end whiskies. On the retail side, although we have had some green shoots via a few retailers such as Tonique (Hyderabad and Bangalore) or Guwahati’s The Whiskey Company, we still, by and large, lack a large sophisticated retailing environment for alcohol that apart from featuring high-quality merchandising also has expert staff to guide and advise you. Small wonder perhaps that most multi-national companies devote a lot of time and budgets to making sure that the shelves of the duty-free shops are well stocked, and that the staff working there are on their payrolls, and trained by them. 

A lot of indian consumers pick up their high-end spirits from duty free shops at airports. Image: shutterstock.
A lot of Indian consumers pick up their high-end spirits from duty free shops at airports. Image: Shutterstock.

Creating the proper environment for luxury spirits to bloom in India requires, of course, a substantial amount of evangelism and advocacy, and the path for brands is being eased by the emergence of whisky clubs across the country, from Kolkata’s Dram and Supper Club to Bangalore’s Single Malt Amateur Society (SMAC). Although not exclusive clubs, they have members who definitely have an appreciation for fine spirits, a desire to know more about them, and the capacity to back this up with spending power. 

Indian companies have spotted the gap in luxury in high-end whiskies, especially when it comes to limited-edition products, that by virtue of their exclusivity have a premium pricing. They were smart about their marketing also, by first focusing on international markets to build critical and commercial success, and then using the reverse snobbery of this to drive demand in the Indian market. Products such as Kanya and Mithuna from Paul John’s Zodiac Series are priced at an eye-popping INR 20,000 and Amrut too doesn’t lag behind with a series of limited-edition releases, one of the latest being Amrut Spectrum 004, finished in casks that feature staves from four different types of casks. John Distilleries has taken this premium pricing into other categories like brandy as well. 

Mithuna is from paul john's zodiac series.
Mithuna is from Paul John’s Zodiac series.

Diageo spotting the trend and success of these brands, has launched their Indian craft spirits journey with two separate editions of Epitome, one a single grain and the other a single malt, both priced in the regions of INR 10,000 and above. As Keshav Prakash of The Vault, an importer of fine and boutique spirits, says, “this is clearly connoisseur-class liquid that demands appreciation”. 

And with quality sales channels still a scarcity for luxury in India, multi-national companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard are creating separate sales verticals that are focused on Direct to Consumer initiatives and thereby creating a private sales channel. This channel will be marked by initiatives that help these brands directly interface with their customers, quite often in the comfort of their homes (after all, time is the biggest luxury for the rich!) with a retail vend just acting as a sales enabler rather than a medium of discovery.  

Luxury also has a connotation of products that are handcrafted and bespoke, and to meet this need of the consumer, companies like Paul John have also started a single-cask programme. This enables consumers to buy a cask, with peated or un-peated single malt, aged between 5-7 years, directly from their distillery in Goa. Each cask may yield up to 180 bottles, that can be personalised to a certain extent, marking a unique way for you to make a statement. Fittingly, the members of SMAC, Bangalore were the first customers, but I’m sure this is one offering that will do well, if aired more widely. 

Although still early days for luxury spirits in India, the fast-evolving Indian consumer, and not just in Tier-1 markets, is ready and eager for the right products. Hoping more brands take heed!

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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