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Brown Forman to purchase Gin Mare brands

Brown‑Forman Corporation recently announced that it has reached an agreement to purchase the Gin Mare brands from Vantguard and MG Destilerías. Upon completion of the transaction, Brown‑Forman will add Gin Mare and Gin Mare Capri to its growing portfolio. Gin Mare ultra-premium gin, is a Spanish gin with a Mediterranean-inspired recipe of botanicals, including Arbequina olives, thyme, rosemary, and basil. Gin Mare Capri, introduced last year, is made with Italian bergamot and lemons, along with Gin Mare’s four principal botanicals.

“Gin Mare and Gin Mare Capri are unique gin brands with impressive sales growth and strong distribution in important European markets. They are excellent complements to Brown‑Forman’s super-premium portfolio,” said Lawson Whiting, President and CEO, Brown‑Forman Corporation. “We believe this exciting acquisition enhances our capacity to deliver meaningful global growth for the long term.”

Gin Mare was founded in 2010 by the Giró Family of MG Destilerías and Alfonso Morodo and Antonio Pardo of Vantguard. Today, it is sold in more than 70 countries and is the largest ultra-premium gin brand in the world according to IWSR.

“Brown‑Forman is the perfect partner to bring Gin Mare to more consumers and bartenders around the world while keeping the brand’s commitment to producing a unique, high quality, Mediterranean gin,” said Manu Giró, CEO, and Marc Giró, Master Distiller, MG Destilerías.

“Our motto at Vantguard is to create brands that are alive with soul and aim to put a sparkle in our customers’ eyes. It’s been a thrill to watch consumers embrace our brand, and we are excited about the future for Gin Mare with Brown‑Forman’s resources and capabilities behind it,” added Antonio Pardo and Alfonso Morodo, Vantguard Co-CEOs.  

Gin Mare will continue to be produced at MG Destilerías in Vilanova i la Geltrú, a fishing village between the Costa Brava and the Costa Dorada. The transaction, subject to customary closing conditions, is expected to close within 60 business days.

Indian liquor trends pre and post COVID

The Covid-19 pandemic has continued to impact India since its arrival in spring last year. The government initially reacted by imposing a national lockdown from 23rd March to 4th May last year. The on-trade was completely closed, as were most liquor shops in every state. Places of work shut down, so many young office workers left the urban centres. With the on-trade stifled, retail purchases and consumption of beverage alcohol at home became the norm in most mainstream categories. In India, however, women and younger consumers still feel uncomfortable drinking in front of more conservative parents and family members at home. Limitations on space and refrigeration favoured spirits over beer, RTDs and – especially for young urban women – wine, all of which are usually consumed cold.

The implications of the pandemic response for India’s status as a federal republic soon became clear. The importance of excise duty income from alcohol, tobacco and fuel was brought into sharp relief as revenue streams dried up and the diminishing income from national taxes, such as GST, were used to offset fiscal shortfalls at state level. Most states responded by increasing excise duties – often suddenly and steeply – as well as charging taxpayers one-off cess payments, commonly levied by central governments for a specific purpose. Unusually, this cess (tax on tax), commonly levied by central government for a specific and clearly defined purpose (and not shared with state governments), has been applied in a number of instances at state level as a Corona-cess. Some states have been more reluctant than others to review, reduce or cancel such supposedly temporary measures. For instance, Andhra Pradesh – where the government had tried to enforce prohibition before the pandemic – imposed a 75% excise duty incre for two days just as the national lockdown ended last May; and on the same day, Delhi imposed a 70% cess on the maximum retail price (MRP) of all liquor, which remained until 7th June.

The timing of the lockdown could not have been worse, especially for beer. The category relies on young urban drinkers and after-work occasions and its peak season for consumption was about to start. When lockdown ended, bars and restaurants re-opened in most states, but were limited to 50% occupancy, and workers were slower to return to offices. Many are still working from home or – during Q1 2021 – have returned to it.

Compared to some countries, where citizens often remained risk-averse and pessimistic after the first lockdown, Indian consumer confidence seemed to bounce back quickly. Many Indians assumed – wrongly – that their everyday hygiene challenges afforded them a high degree of natural immunity to the coronavirus.

The past year has confirmed that India is squarely a brown spirits market. Whisky absorbs two-thirds of consumption in this market; brandy – with a strong presence in the south – takes 20%; and rum takes around half of that. In a total market that has shrunk by around one-fifth, whisky declined only slightly less than brandy and rum, which fell around one-quarter. Beer and RTDs suffered precipitous falls, deprived of many of the venues and occasions that had driven consumption forward. All clear spirits witnessed steeper declines in consumption than dark spirits: in each category, sales of domestically produced brands bottled in India (BII) fell away faster. Even allowing for the experimentation evident in categories such as Irish whiskey, consumers sought out brands that they knew, had earned equity and had consistent quality. In short, they sought out certainties.

Two other fundamental shifts have also occurred. Firstly, the premiumisation trend – evident before the pandemic – saw some importers shift their focus to retail, increasing its offering of high-end brands, which were previously targetted at Duty-Free and at the on-trade. Disposable income spent on going out to eat and drink before the pandemic was instead often redirected to premium-and-above products for at-home consumption. Secondly, as a corollary to this and confirming the pressure on the mainstream, was down-trading out of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL), either bottled in origin (BIO) or BII.

Budget-conscious consumers instead chose either country liquor or illicit alternatives, having long been deprived of licensed outlets in which to purchase their nips.

The on-trade closure has also impacted routes to market and the supply chain and it increasingly determines choice. When all outlets closed, some states permitted home delivery, which many thought heralded the long-expected rise of the e-commerce channel. In reality, this was an expedient option for retail outlets: e-commerce has not seen a consequent increase in regulation or investment since. On the contrary, drinks ordering apps, such as Hipbar, appear to have been actively discouraged.

The effects of a six-week shutdown of alcohol supply lasted long after it ended: restocking and logistics issues extended out-of-stock occurrences well into the summer months. Importers often found it difficult to source supplies as exporters were reluctant to ship to trading partners in an uncertain economy, not least because they wanted to avoid passing on rising logistics costs to consumers.

One of the responses, driven by leading country liquor suppliers, has been the emergence of intermediate or medium liquor produced locally: this refers to a price band of distilled liquor sold under licensed quota in certain states – presently Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh only – competitively priced between country liquor/IMIL (Indian-made Indian liquor) and IMFL. Commonly the price, set by the state, is at a 25% premium to the country liquor price, a similar proportion lower than IMFL pricing.

This system has the additional benefits of almost guaranteeing state excise income and reducing the occurrence of country liquor-related health issues through better-quality product. In theory, this model should be attractive to many more states. In practice, its implementation may be limited by the relative scarcity of country liquor distillers able to produce medium liquor of the requisite quality. Nevertheless, with investment and a little covert encouragement from the states, that provision will doubtless evolve over time.

In a decentralised India, the domestic beverage alcohol industry relies on a relatively small number of states for its success. The top three states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal – account for one-third of India’s population. The top six states account for half of the population. West Bengal is the only corporate state: the beverage alcohol industry is regulated directly through a state body. By contrast, the five largest states in the south are each home to beverage alcohol corporations.

This complexity and large size of India means that there are very few companies that are truly national. Even those that are considered national – thanks to a contract bottling network – still retain large regional brands in their portfolios. There is a small number of multinationals twinning domestic production with imports that are focussed on urban distribution shared among importers and wholesalers. India has a larger number of local distillers aspiring to convert their regional origins into a multi-region or national presence; and there are many smaller distillers, the majority of whom supply locally. Most distillers, therefore, will only be trading in one or two jurisdictions and navigating one or two bureaucracies. For the larger players, these challenges are manifold.

The second half of 2020 saw the Indian beverage alcohol market emerging quickly and largely unscathed from Covid-19 and lockdown. Leading spirits companies in particular were reporting quarterly revenues and volumes that had recovered to pre-pandemic levels. This was in spite of the on-trade remaining stifled, e-commerce failing to expand and the regulation and excise duty rises imposed by most states. However, by the second quarter of this year – the beginning of the new financial year for most corporations – this initial optimism about rapid recovery has somewhat evaporated.

The picture, though, is mixed. India’s federal state model shows up the inconsistencies between states: decisions can often be arbitrary, poorly thought through and political rather than practical, but a successful model in one state can be swiftly adopted in another. On the one hand, the Delhi state government’s legislation lowering the legal drinking age from 25 to 21 is positive for the industry. On the other, Andhra Pradesh will join Bihar, Gujarat and some other smaller states and territories to prohibit alcohol for around 250m people, which is nearly one-fifth of the population.

It cannot be overstated how the pandemic and its effects demonstrated the importance of beverage alcohol revenues to individual states’ budgets. Some state governments recognise this and are approaching their beverage alcohol policy with pragmatism by listening to the industry more attentively.

The key issues revolve around the temporary and permanent changes brought about by the pandemic. Office work may have changed permanently, calling into question whether or not urban on-trade lighthouse accounts will recover. It is uncertain when occupancy rates in on-trade venues rise above the current 50% constraint. The medium liquor system may see expansion into further states. It is also questionable whether premiumisation will persist or the second Covid-19 wave will dent consumer confidence fundamentally.

The wider economy, of course, is a determining factor. Declining disposable income has particular relevance for beverage alcohol spend. The industry is circumscribed by its investment in advertising and promotion. The pandemic has sharpened the senses of many executives and players, but left others close to collapse, unable to survive further uncertain events. States have pursued short-term solutions throughout the pandemic and it is unknown if this approach will persist. However, it is likely that the distilling capacity of the domestic industry will not grow. This has implications for all, given the contract-bottling model that has enabled the largest players to become truly national.

General Forecast Assumptions

On-Trade – In some states, the on-trade had re-opened up to 85% of its former capacity by Q1 2021. However, the occupancy restriction to 50% remains, so the real throughput is also likely to be at 50%. This will continue to affect beer and RTDs. Furthermore, on-trade sub-channels are re-opening at different rates.

Restaurants opened faster than bars; and bars faster than night venues. Whilst this appears to affect wine and premium spirits in higher-end outlets, the impact will be mitigated by the flexibility of suppliers, many of whom have switched attention to retail and targetting wealthier consumers.

Medium Liquor – Consumers in some states are now being offered a wider choice. Those who had traded down to country liquor may choose medium liquor instead of IMFL. Currently this is available in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, but more states may institute this. A significant number of consumers may prefer the taste and the brands on offer in the category to IMFL.

E-commerce – When three of the larger eastern states – West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkand – permitted home delivery of alcohol, it was thought e-commerce would, at last, be stimulated by the lockdown conditions. They were soon joined by Orissa and Maharashtra. However, steep delivery charges, regulatory uncertainty, a reluctance to invest and a poor delivery-logistics framework continue to hamper growth, as well as the nature of Indian e-commerce defined on the invitation issued by the West Bengal authorities as “handling the electronic ordering, purchase, sale and home delivery of alcoholic liquors from licensed food [and liquor] outlets”. Retail competitors required to pay for annual licences have lobbied against the channel as well. Some significant platforms – Amazon, Flipkart (Walmart), Big Basket, Swiggy, Zomato and the mobile app Hipbar, reportedly backed by Diageo and, in Mumbai, Living Liquidz – responded to state-level invitations to get involved after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of home delivery from licensed retail. However, it has become clear that any bureaucratic encouragement of home delivery has primarily been one of a range of responses to the crowds that gathered outside liquor shops last year and, while recurring lockdowns may help to accelerate e-commerce, the channel will not significantly impact the industry for the foreseeable future. Informal delivery, where customers call up the liquor store and get an order dropped off by moped, already existed and will continue.

Regulation – Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, had previously imposed a cess of 20 per bottle of beer. West Bengal, the fourth most populous state, increased consumer tax by 30%. Rajasthan, the sixth most populous, enacted both, adding20 per bottle and imposing a 10% increase in consumer tax. Their approach is unlikely to change. Additionally, the election in Bihar state did not return a government willing to reverse prohibition. Andhra Pradesh’s government was unable to enact prohibition but has discouraged some national players by making trading there problematic. However, it is assumed there is no foreseeable regulatory movement throughout the forecast period.

Consumer Base Expansion – India’s population is approaching 1.4bn, with less than half being of legal drinking age. The actual number of alcohol consumers is believed to be closer to 160m, only 7.5% of whom are women. Per capita rates for beer and RTDs remain low at around 1.2 litres for men and 150ml for women, re-calculated at 10 litres and 1.25 litres on estimated drinking population numbers. Wine has similar rates to RTDs, spirits are 1.8 litres per capita and nearly 15 litres on a re-calculated basis. There are more younger consumers joining the potential drinking population every year. Uptake by women reportedly increased during the pandemic.

At-Home Consumption – This trend is likely to persist beyond the pandemic. Wealthier consumers of premium spirits and imports spend for indulging at home and for gifts. The wedding industry will revive: most wine suppliers are focussing on higher-end offerings, educating consumers about its accessibility and suitability during meals, as well as drinking before and after. Beer and RTDs will find difficulty switching as their core message is based on going out and socialising rather than at-home consumption, and most consumers have insufficient refrigeration space at home.

Key Market Factors

Cultural – The legal drinking age varies from state to state. In most states it is 21, but 25 in the populous states of Haryana and the Punjab. In Maharashtra it is 21 for beer and wine, and 25 for liquor. Bigger states with a drinking age of 18 include Rajasthan in the north and Kerala in the south. Delhi is about to lower its LDA from 25 to 21.

Three states with larger populations prohibit alcohol. Gujarat has been dry for the longest, with Bihar and now Andhra Pradesh having imposed prohibition more recently. Outcomes are mixed, with Bihar and Andhra Pradesh reportedly having some of the highest per capita consumption rates for beverage alcohol nationally once illicit alcohol is factored in.

Demographic – A key driver of consumption has been urbanisation, particularly among younger LDA drinkers. The lockdown appears to have reversed this, with young office workers returning to their parents’ houses in smaller cities, towns and the countryside.

The overall population is nearly 1.4bn and grows by 15–20m or more every year. The drinking population is considerably smaller: at least half can only afford very cheap country liquor, which is largely unbranded alcohol with an estimated market of 250–285m cases.

The rapidly growing middle classes, who can afford premium-and-above, may number more than 150m. However, 98% of middle-class women and more than 20% of men are said not to drink for philosophical, religious or cultural reasons.

Some 49% of the population is aged under 19, and few drink, although younger consumers are generally more willing to consume alcohol than many of their parents. This leaves a market of between 25m and 30m people with the inclination and resources to drink IMFL.

Economic – There is little state support in India and wellbeing is the individual’s responsibility. With livelihoods uncertain but a young population inclined to optimism, the second Covid-19 wave may hit confidence hard and a volatile economy will see more cautious expenditure. Excise rates vary substantially from state to state even before the pandemic, which exacerbated the difference when states imposed cess payments to make up fiscal shortfalls.

A number of observers mention a shift to modern retail. This is consistent with state governments looking to secure the revenues they can expect from beverage alcohol and also with consumer expectations around improving retail venues.

Trade – Difficulties with the supply of stock have been widespread. It is reported that lack of supply inhibited sales, especially of premium products. The pandemic hindered logistics and rendered delivery more expensive. Brand-owner allocations have also reduced the agility to respond to demand.

A further element is that the phenomenon of medium liquor in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh offers more settled revenue for states and gives consumers an alternative to IMFL. One leading country liquor supplier reports now selling twice as much medium liquor as it does country liquor per month. India is unusual in that spirits demand is significantly more developed than demand for beer. While there is some interplay between the two with bang-for-buck consumers keen to maximise alcohol content per rupee delivery, there were some signs that demand for beer was beginning to develop separately.

However, strong beers of 8.5% ABV still represent more than 82% of demand. The first lockdown also affected trade, and was both severe and ill-timed – six weeks without sales, just before peak season for beer and RTDs. The on-trade revived in the second half of 2020 with near full re-opening in some states, but night and weekend curfews, combined with 50% capacity limits, continue to constrain this channel. The uncertainty of lockdown and the unavailability of liquor drove some consumers back down to country liquor, although not in the south where it is banned in five large states.

There was more limited up-trading by wealthier consumers. However, mainstream products, brands and players have been affected with some of the less financially secure domestic players closing for some months. In some of the larger states, competition in the beverage alcohol category is relatively open. In more there are state corporations set up as wholesalers and frequently as retailers too. In all states, beverage alcohol participants must navigate a web of licences, quotas and taxes, and sometimes incentives.

In certain key states, the regulatory authorities that control pricing have rationalised their price lists. In Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana the correction has been downwards for higher-priced imports.

It is reported that there is shift to modern retail. This is consistent with state governments looking to secure revenues from beverage alcohol and also with consumer expectations around improving retail venues.

Political – Breweries have been investigated by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) which has now resulted in fines for collusion and operating a cartel. The reputational impact is more serious than the financial cost.

Bombay Sapphire launches bar quality ready-to-drink Gin & Tonic

Bombay Sapphire recently announced the launch of Bombay Sapphire & Tonic Ready-to-Drink (RTD), enabling its consumers to now enjoy the world’s number one premium gin as a bar-quality Gin & Tonic serve, no matter where they are. The much-anticipated offering combines the brand’s heralded, vapour-infused London Dry Gin with the perfect balance of tonic water, for a superior taste experience.

Bombay Sapphire has been disrupting the category ever since its iconic blue bottle landed on shelves within a sea of green glass. Now, consumers can prepare themselves for a drink that stays true to the brand’s long-standing commitment to only the finest ingredients with a bar-quality taste.

Bombay Sapphire & Tonic is best enjoyed cold, straight from the fridge and poured over ice with a refreshing squeeze of lime. Whatever the occasion, whether it’s al-fresco events, to intimate gatherings at home, or being on the move, the pre-mix is meticulously crafted to showcase the signature juniper and citrus notes of Bombay Sapphire gin. Aside from its versatility and convenience factor, Bombay Sapphire & TONIC ensures it does not compromise on quality and taste. The perfectly balanced gin’s amalgamation with tonic offers a premium quality cocktail to-go with no artificial flavours or colours added to the final product. The ready-to-drink cocktail cans are sure to become a widely demanded product that is ideal for outdoor gatherings, festivals, beach days, and more.

Adtnu Tiwari, Senior Brand Manager, Premium White Spirits, Bacardi India Private Ltd., expresses his views on the launch, “Bombay Sapphire is known for stirring creativity in various capacities and disrupting the market with its innovative vision. Besides versatility and convenience, one of the key focuses while launching the Bombay Sapphire RTD was to emphasise and ensure that the quality of the drink remained intact. While the product enables its consumers the ease of portability and storing the drink, what sets it apart is its taste that’s at par with that of a premium bar cocktail. Bombay Sapphire’s RTD is going to fit all occasions, anytime and anywhere; it is going to grow into becoming the next most demanded product under the RTD category.”

The sleek, matte finish packaging has been carefully designed to preserve the standard of the serve, both on-shelf and once purchased. The material helps protect the liquid from sunlight keeping the G&T fresher and colder for longer. Available individually or in a pack of four, the can is 100% recyclable. Bombay Sapphire & Tonic will soon be on the shelves of all top retailers for gin fans to pick up.

Roku Gin Review

In this video we review Roku Gin from Beam Suntory which comes from Japan. Roku stands for the word 6 in Japanese and it pays tribute to the 6 special botanicals that come from Japan.

The gin is available in Mumbai for Rs. 6,500 making it one of the most expensive gins in the market. We have reviewed and tasted the gin which contains the ABV value of 43%.

This video is for entertainment purpose only and the magazine, channel and the host do not promote alcohol consumption.

Click here to watch the full video.

Greater Than Gin, yes, what can be?

In the last couple of years, there has been a count of nearly 15 new gins entering the market, reviving the gin spirit, so to say. Of that 11 are from Goa. “It started off as a fluke as we decided that Goa had the best bottling partners for us. Since then, it seems quite a few others have taken that to be the precedent set and got to work,” that is Anand Virmani, the founder of Nao Spirits, manufacturers of Greater Than and Hapusa – premium crafted gins that are making waves in the markets available.

Virmani has his own take on how the crafted gin segment is evolving. He believes that Goa is not any more liberal than many other states in the country when it comes to excise policies. He dismisses it as a factor for launching Greater Than in Goa. Similarly, for the availability of botanicals, he states that the main ingredient for gin has to be either imported our sourced from the Himalayas in the north and that Goa is no different than any other part of the country when it comes to sourcing botanicals. As regards to water quality which Goa touts about, he is of the view that since all water in the production process has to be demineralised, the oriGinal water quality should not really matter.

But when it comes to Goa as the watering hole, he believes so that it is a great marketing tool. “The spirit of trying out new things is certainly important, especially since so many tourists come to Goa and take back gin bottles with them.”

Ambrosia: What is the reason for resurgence of gin which had taken a beating when vodka entered the Indian market?

Virmani: Vodka did this to gin in the 1950s globally. Gin has come back primarily because of the resurgence of cocktail bars which propagate classic cocktails, many of which just happen to use gin as their base. Ambrosia: There is a talk about uniqueness of the botanicals that goes into gin making. From a consumer perspective, what does botanicals signify?Virmani: Botanicals are what separate one gin from another. They are the main flavour components in any gin. Also, only high quality gins like ours use actual botanicals as opposed to artificial flavouring used by the cheaper, cold-compounded gins.

Ambrosia: What kind of growth are you seeing in the overall Gin market in India?

Virmani: The premium+ gin market in India (which excludes the low-end mass produced gins) are growing phenomenally well; easily around 30%+ CAGR. Ambrosia: We see a lot of premium brands being launched, is it because they are not meant for the masses?Virmani: Craft gin can only ever be premium. A low-priced gin, will not ever be a craft product. Even so, we aim to make our gins as accessible as possible.

Ambrosia: Could you tell us about the spark that led to the creation of Greater Than?

Virmani: The spark was quite simply the growing disbelief that India was not able to produce a single brand of gin that we could proudly call our own. It did not make sense to us, especially since India was the birthplace of the Gin & Tonic as well as the heart of the world spice trade.

Ambrosia: Which are the markets it is presently available now and what are your expansion plans?

Virmani: Our gins are present in seven different states across India currently as well as in over 15 countries outside India. We continue to grow as far and wide as we can without over-stretching ourselves. Assam has been our newest addition within India while New Zealand has become our most recent export market to come online.

Ambrosia: How is Hapusa different from Greater Than?

Virmani: Hapusa is a very small batch produced gin. It is primarily made with Himalayan juniper along with other botanicals found and sourced from across the country.

Ambrosia: Which are the markets it is present in – how do the two compete with each other – what is the USP of both?

Virmani: Greater Than is a classic London Dry Gin and is ideal for making cocktails or Gin & Tonics. Hapusa however, is far more characteristic and best enjoyed as a sipping gin or included in stirred cocktails like the Negroni or Martini.

Ambrosia: What next from ‘Nao Spirits’?

Virmani: Lots more

Stranger & Sons eyeing top bars of the world

Craft brands in India are currently redefining the perception of premiumness. It is now much more about authenticity, craftsmanship and embracing innovation to produce something uniquely groundbreaking. Today, we see a lot of Indian consumers are excited to try a good homegrown product without it being a compromise and brands like ours are able to communicate and ensure our high quality standards. Moreover, with India’s growing cocktail culture, we see that a lot of Indian consumers are open to trying new, atypical cocktails as well as local, homegrown products which have indeed contributed to the rise of craft producers in the country. That is Sakshi Saigal, the co-founder and director of Stranger & Sons. In an email interview, she maps the journey of crafted gin which has just embarked upon an exciting phase of spirits in India.

Ambrosia: Could you tell us about the spark that led to the creation of Stranger & Sons?

Saigal: It goes without saying that we individually are not just cocktail enthusiasts, but also had access to observe the beGinnings of the Gin Revolution first hand. I was working towards my MBA in Barcelona, while Vidur was studying in the UK and Rahul had just set up his craft brewery in Mumbai. While we were tasting and drinking a variety of gins every day – whether in London’s cocktail bars or the Gin Tonics of Barcelona, we were getting well acquainted with the gin landscape. That’s when it piqued our interest as to why India wasn’t up to speed with gin although gin manufacturers all over the world looked to India when it came to sourcing botanicals and we kept encountering brands based on a vision of India that we knew very well had never been a reality. This made us question why products with these botanicals are made everywhere but here. To add to this, there wasn’t any other quality homegrown product then that was conveying the story from our perspective; so we decided to change that and embarked into a lot of research before setting up Third Eye Distillery.

Ambrosia: Could you give us insights into the growth journey of Stranger & Sons?

Saigal: It’s honestly been a phenomenal experience so far! Right from the start, we wanted to build a truly Indian gin that would stand out on the shelves of top bars in the world but fit in just as well in the colourful and vibrant bars in Panjim. Made from inherently Indian botanicals, Stranger & Sons Gin captures the essence of contemporary India in every bottle for a curious and discerning consumer. What makes Stranger & Sons interesting is how we celebrate our diverse, unique and complicated history while recognising India in its current context instead of the stereotypical version with just palaces, elephants, and so on. Embracing this wonderful strangeness inherent in the contemporary India we live in today through our gin allows consumers to connect with the story and the brand in a very organic manner. Creating this emotional connection with our audience has always been at the core of our thought process and that’s where we believe that it’s not just what our gin is made of that matters, but what it represents.

Starting out as a home-grown gin brand from Goa to being declared one of the 8 best gins in the world by the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2020, to winning the highest honours at The Asian Spirit Masters 2021, we’ve managed to put Indian gin on the world map and continue to work towards showcasing India’s diversity to the rest of the world! We’ve had an action-packed and eventful journey so far and the terrific response we get from our consumers at our international and domestic events is backed by an exciting, entrepreneurial team, all of whom feel very strongly about the brand. With regard to sales, we sold 25,000 nine litre cases in our first full year of operations, which was extremely exciting for us and was mainly attributed to being available in just two Indian cities and one international market. This year, despite the pandemic, we will be focussing on domestic and international expansion.

Ambrosia: How much has the pandemic hit production?

Saigal: Being absolutely aware that it has been an extremely tough phase for the hospitality industry and brands including ours, thanks to our team’s sheer creativity and persistence, we never lost sight of our consumers, favourite bars and bartenders. During the pandemic, we launched ‘Strange Times’ bottled cocktails in Singapore as an initiative to support the trade, made in collaboration with some of the best bars there to help keep the spirits up amidst the pandemic. We also got selected as the first Indian brand for the Craft Gin Club and shipped bottles to over 70,000 homes across the UK. During the lockdown, we launched India’s first distilled cocktail with local, seasonal pink guavas – Perry Road Peru, in collaboration with The Bombay Canteen, a high-end Indian restaurant which was a massive success in the market! Regardless of the digital shift, we continue to prioritise innovation, crafting immersive experiences and strengthening our relationships with consumers and trade alike.

Ambrosia: Which markets are you present in and what are your expansion plans?

Saigal: We launched Stranger & Sons from the shores of Goa and expanded to Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka and Rajasthan within India and UK, Singapore, Thailand and the UAE, internationally. We will indeed be exploring various domestic markets including Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and more. In terms of international expansion, we look forward to increasing our global footprint through our upcoming launches in Australia, Mauritius and more, very soon. Each new market brings a unique, diverse consumer base which makes the experience, well, let’s just say thrilling!

Ambrosia: What are the challenges – regulatory and distribution network – faced in India?

Saigal: In the spirits world, India has always been known for the sheer volume of alcohol we produce over anything else. The distilleries here are mostly large-scale, daunting structures and it’s difficult to contract distill small quantities here which is often a great way for craft distillers to beGin their journey. Adding to the challenge, India follows a federal system of laws and when it comes to alcohol and so, the guidelines and regulations vary across states in India. Access to good quality equipment and adequate space also pose a challenge, particularly once companies start expanding.

Ambrosia: Tell us about the botanicals that make your gin unique?

Saigal: Indian botanicals and spices that are indispensable to every Indian household and form the backbone of India’s culinary heritage. Among India’s most fertile states, Goa was a natural choice for us for its lush expanse of spice farms. The mace, cassia bark, licorice, black pepper and nutmeg that perfume our gin are sourced from spice farms surrounding our distillery making Goa the beating heart of our narrative. Our unique citrus peel mix of Indian Bergamot, Nimbu (Indian Limes), Nagpur Oranges & Gondhoraj have also been put together to represent different parts of our country and each of these citrus’ are extremely integral to the region they represent and make their way into local cuisine, juices, pickles, jams, preserves and more. By making use of all the wonderful spices available to us, we built a three-dimensional Gin that is proudly Indian and true to its oriGin. Our signature serves include fresh, flavourful Gimlets & aromatic, layered Gibsons which are also homage to India’s pickling and cordialling culture.

Ambrosia: What next?

Saigal: Third Eye Distillery was never built as a one-product-company right from the get go. There doesn’t go a day when someone from the team isn’t trying to answer this same question and one up the other. There are so many things that we’re working on at the moment when it comes to innovation and new product releases, no thought goes untested and no idea wins without a fight! We are also constantly trying to do our bit to make our distillery more responsible and sustainable while exploring new extensions and experimenting with various ideas. The one thing we know for sure, whichever product we release next, it won’t just be another bottle on the shelf, but will truly be adding to the conversation and be integral to taking our cocktail culture to the next step.

‘Black Jewel’, Goa’s first Craft Gin

One common thread among all the craft gin makers is that they are kind of globe trotters and well-heeled. And these journeys make them richer (I am not talking financially here). Take for instance, Cedric Vaz, Director of Global Spirits and Foods and the creator of the arguably the first craft gin from Goa – the Black Jewel.

It was on one of his trips to Europe between 2010 and 2012 that he noticed that gin was becoming popular and blooming in some of the European markets. “I could see it coming to India very soon which motivated me to work on creating a brand of premium yet value for money, which will appease those customers who really have a craving for a good Gin and are ready to pay a reasonable price for it. After a lot of work, research and sleepless nights, we zeroed down on the concept and creation of our gin brand which we named ‘Black Jewel’. Our first batch was manufactured on December 18, 2018. Our gin was first amongst the gins produced in Goa as well as first amongst crafted Gins.”

Hand-picked Junipers

Black Jewel Gin is meticulously hand crafted from hand-picked juniper berries that are grown in the highlands of Italy. These berries along with other botanicals such as Cilantro, Wild Celery, Carum Carvi etc. are infused into the premium grain spirit through a double copper pot distillation. The result is a gin with distinct and remarkable zesty citrus flavour.

For gin to be called gin it needs the juniper as one of its ingredients that is what makes gin unique from vodka. From the perspective of a consumer, herbs other than juniper are a personal preference and palate-friendly. A manufacturer is compelled to compulsorily add Juniper to call it gin, but is free to add the herbs and flavours of their wish, making gin a diverse drink; and this allows the customers to be choosy about their taste and style of gin.

Superior quality of water in Goa

Mac Vaz of Global Spirits and Foods which manufactures Black Jewel Gin states that, besides friendly excise policy, Goa has the perfect water quality for spirit manufacture. “Coming under the Dharwad super group, largely dominated by the laterite rock as its soil which is highly porous and permeable, the quality of ground water is clean and sweet. This, with the heavy rains of nearly 330cm, makes Goa a region with good amount of potable water. We believe water of Goa has its own brand equity.”

On Black Jewel’s reasonable pricing, Sanath Bharne of Sales says, “While there is a general perception that premium pricing has a pull factor with certain Indian consumers, we resisted that suggestion from the trade and came up with an MRP of `675 for 750 ml as we were clear that we wanted Black Jewel to be within the reach of the consumers who are accustomed to regular molasses-based flavoured Gins.”

Goa, the Gin Capital of India

No, we are not saying move on Feni which is unique to Goa and mind you growing in its own way. Suddenly, in the last two years, despite the pandemic, about 15 brands of Gin have been crafted and launched across the country and 11 of them, yes a full team of brands, have their oriGin s in Goa. What is brewing over here in this beautiful coastal state? A lot ! And what warms the cockles of the heart is that young entrepreneurs, in their 20s and 30s, are the craftspeople. Cheers to this young brigade.

And it was a Goan – Cedric Vaz, it’s in his genes, right, to launch the first truly crafted Indian Gin by the name ‘Black Jewel’ and believe you me crafted Gin has turned out to be a connoisseur’s delight, irrespective of the brand.

There has been a resurgence of sorts for Gin . No, the pandemic has got nothing to do with it. Though the British East India company created the drink in the 1700s, it was a military cocktail, devoured by the troops to stay healthy. The British residents in India added Gin , sugar, ice and citrus and thus was born the Gin and Tonic. The witty statesman Winston Churchill words remain for eternity “The Gin and tonic drink has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” Somewhere along the way, Gin lost favour and it was perceived as a ‘ladies drink’ and everyone with some knowledge has some reasoning for that. Around the same time, vodka and tequila captured the imaGin ation of the world and these spirits kind of drowned Gin. It was circa 2016 that in the United Kingdom there was growing interest in Gin which reportedly grew 44% year on year with about 100 home grown brands hitting the market. India is the fifth largest consumer of Gin after the UK, USA, Germany and Spain, but within the country Gin accounts for just about 1% of spirits consumed.

Young entrepreneurs driving craft Gin segment

But it is growing. In the recent past, it has caught the attention of the Indian spirit maker and consumer. The young co-founder and director of Stranger & Sons, Sakshi Saigal says “Though its presence in its current form is limited to the main metro cities, Gin is going through an extremely exciting phase and still transcending into the mainstream. There aren’t just new consumers every day but new Gin s too! As people travel, they have slowly started to understand India’s rich history when it comes to Gin and agricultural bounty when it comes to ingredients, so it has become an obvious choice for Gin makers alike.”

There are several reasons for this resurgence, one of which certainly is the drinking culture which is getting nuanced, thanks to the new generation which likes to explore, experiment and be expressive. The Chief Operating Officer of Radico Khaitan, Amar Sinha states “The Gin market appears very promising in the country as over the years people have been open to move beyond the regular brown spirits. They have started developing and appreciating the fine taste of the white spirit for the botanical infusions. There are many factors behind the popularity of this category such as increased exposure to global culture, the growing trend of cocktail culture, and Generation Z’s inclination towards experimentation with white spirits.”

Craft Gin comes with a price and why not?

If one looks at the drinking profile, these crafted Gin s seemingly are not for the hoi polloi. Almost all of them (Stranger & Sons, Greater Than, Hapusa, Samsara, Jin Jiji, Pumori, Jaisalmer and a few others) are priced in a way attracting the upwardly mobile. This is the segment that these manufacturers are looking at and not for nothing most of them are produced in small batches. “Craft Gin can only ever be premium. A low-priced Gin , will not ever be a craft product. Even so, we aim to make our Gin s as accessible as possible,” states Anand Virmani, Founder and CEO of Nao Spirits and Beverages (creators of Greater Than and Hapusa).

However, Mac Vaz of Madame Rosa distillery and the founder president of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, has another take on it. The first craft Gin , Black Jewel, from Madame Rosa stable is reasonably priced as to make Gin drinking accessible and affordable. All of them in some way or the other are working in that direction, coming up with a distinct touch of their own. It makes sense in a market which is slowly opening up, thanks to the many bartenders who are peppered across the country and ever open to experimentation.

Botanicals are at the core of this revolution

Botanicals are coming into that experimentation while Juniper is the predominant botanical ingredient in Gin , there are other accompaniments, most of them sourced locally. States Sakshi Saigal “Our botanicals are crafted together, taking inspiration from India’s culinary heritage which is centred around spices. Spice boxes are commonly found in almost all Indian kitchens and for centuries, they have been manipulated in different ways to create flavour in food, liquid, sweets and scents. Our Gin goes beyond the customary juniper and highlights inherently Indian botanicals and spices that are indispensable to every Indian household and form the backbone of India’s culinary heritage.”

In an article in The Hindu, Anoothi Vishal cites Dr. Anne Brock, master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, “I believe it is important that juniper remains the core, but we may need to relax and encourage difference. Gin is a global spirit with different botanicals and styles, and consumers are interested in the people who make their Gin , its provenance and story.”

Goa, India’s watering hole has friendly policies

And it is all happening in Goa, India’s watering hole. That is good enough a reason for many of the distillers to descend upon Goa, an investment-friendly state in the hospitality industry. Mac Vaz emphasizes “Goa being the apex tourist destination of the country gives smaller players a cost-effective advantage due to the consumer watering hole ! Also unlike in most other parts of the country, in Goa there is no hypocrisy and taboo quotient connected to liquor consumption in moderation. Lastly, Goa has a brand, has a natural USP in perception. Everything that is produced within Goa has its exotic positioning – Feni is a classic example of this.”

Why Goa? And Sakshi Saigal has the perfect answer for that going beyond the friendly excise policies of the state which has been eulogized at various forums. “We often hear a lot being said about Goa having more liberal excise laws and so on, making it easier to start brands there but honestly, that undermines what Goa truly has to offer. A former colony, Goa adopted a lot of the Portugese way of life which adds to its own unique charm. The roads wind through green fields, the people speak Konkani with as much ease as they do Portuguese; colonial bungalows and local spice markets all co-exist with some of the most progressive hospitality and restaurant establishments. Further, the Goan way of living life to the fullest inspires us every day to strive for innovation and keep experimenting with various spirits and expressions of our Gin .”

She adds “A truly special place for most Indians where you’ll find the cuisine, architecture and culture of India & Portugal come together, Goa is home to Stranger & Sons. Tucked away in a corner of South Goa, you’ll find us, hunched over our still, throwing iconic Indian botanicals into our Gin , while the local women peel fragrant Indian citrus outside. Goa indeed has its own strange ties to Gin , having been the heart of spice trade for centuries. Our wonderfully strange roots in Goa where cultures, societies and spiritual beliefs stand united under a liberal approach to life translates into the invisible essence in our bottle. When we aren’t distilling, you’ll find us sitting on a porch sipping on some Gibsons made with our pickles! “

Strange it may sound, can you believe it, there are over 3,000 registered micro distilleries in the coastal state and they have enough capacity and more to allow for manufacturing of any spirit. If you have an idea, some capital and a good recipe, just head to Goa.

ASCI bans surrogate advertising in IPL

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) banned surrogate advertising of liquor during India’s showstopper event – Indian Premier League 2021 which however, got truncated, due to some players and franchise staff testing positive. Talks are on to hold the unfinished spectacle in the United Arab Emirates, like it did in 2020 without crowd attendance, to be viewed on a broadcast platform.

It was during 2020 IPL that surrogate advertising was active on television and digital medium, particularly OTT (over the top), the latter in the absence of clear guidelines. “The IPL broadcaster for TV has confirmed to the ASCI that all advertisements are checked for CBFC clearance so that they are not in violation of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 (CTNR). Keeping that in mind, the ASCI processed complaints on advertisements appearing in OTT, digital and print media,” ASCI said. The association suo motu took up 14 complaints and some of the advertisers withdrew the ads.

Brand extensions have some leeway

The CTNR rules prohibited the direct or indirect advertising of cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants in 2009. The Information & Broadcasting Ministry, however, allowed advertisements of products even if they shared a brand name with a liquor or tobacco product so long as it wasn’t a manifestation of the prohibited product. Advertisement of brand extensions of liquor and tobacco products is permitted under CTNR, provided the product sold under the brand extension does not make direct or indirect references to the prohibited product, it is distributed in reasonable quantity and is available in a substantial number of outlets, and the proposed expenditure on the advertisement of the brand extension product is not disproportionate to the actual sales turnover of that product.

ASCI guidelines for brand extensions

The Advertising Standards Council has ‘Guidelines for qualification of brand extension product or service’ wherein for an advertisement to qualify as a genuine brand extension advertisement (by implication, not surrogate), the in-store availability of the product sold must be at least 10% of the leading brand in the product category or sales turnover of the product must exceed `5 crores annually or `1 crore in the state where the product is distributed.

Age-old question, whether to allow liquor advertising or not?

However, the question that keeps raking up is an age-old issue – whether to allow liquor advertising / surrogate advertising or not? And the topic is universal leading to unending debates. Across continents, there are countries where liquor advertising is allowed and then there are as many countries that have banned / restricted advertising of alcoholic beverages. In the United States, spirits advertising has self-regulatory bodies that create standards for the ethical advertising of alcohol. In the UK, advertising for alcoholic drinks follows a code enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, while the packaging and branding of the products is subject to self-regulation. In Thailand, alcohol advertisements are allowed but with a warning message. In South Korea, public advertising is allowed only after 10 p.m. In the Philippines, alcohol advertising comes with a disclaimer ‘Drink Responsibly’. In India, liquor advertising was banned after the Ministry of Health found that cigarettes and liquor had adverse effects on a person’s health. However, advertisements for liquor brand extensions can run on television only if they have a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification. That led to the companies (manufacturers and also advertising agencies) becoming innovative with ‘surrogate advertising’ wherein unrelated products with the same brand name is manufactured / advertised and sold, only to ensure that the liquor brand name stays right on top of consumers’ minds. Unrelated products include mineral water, music CDs, soda, sports accessories and anything that can be advertised.

Active on digital media

The question here is when liquor companies are active on social media which is a major influencer, an indisputable force and not to mention its enormous reach, the whole idea of banning on OTT and television smacks of hypocrisy. It is indeed paradoxical that excise which is one of the top revenue earners for most states, going up to 15 % of the overall revenues, is not allowed to be promoted. There is a school of thought that believes if a product is allowed to be manufactured and sold, it should be allowed to be advertised, but that is over simplification as it will certainly be like opening up the Pandora’s Box.Gokul Krishnamoorthy who worked with an agency that handled United Breweries in an opinionated article in the Financial Express says “While ASCI banning surrogate ads by liquor brands during the curtailed IPL 2021 was a welcome move, it prompted a question in many minds. What explains the existence of a team called ‘Royal Challengers Bangalore’? One can’t help but remember that the current captain of the team Virat Kohli is idolised by a young boy in a health beverage commercial, among many others. Royal Challenge is a brand of whisky owned by United Spirits, which also owns the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team. If scale of presence, volume of advertising, market share and the likes are the key metrics by which one decides whether or not an alcohol brand can advertise its extension, then Royal Challengers Bangalore has no problem at all.” He goes on to add “The only seeming solution then, albeit rather simplistic and overarching, is that if a brand is present in a category where promotion is banned, it should not be allowed to promote itself in any context. It should be denied the right to promotion, whether for its shared corporate brand, for its extension, for its event, for its cricket team or whatever else.” Since such conundrums exist, there are those who feel that we need to shed this hypocrisy and accept that people do drink and reaching them is a legitimate part of a company’s business plans. The companies should be allowed to promote safe, moderate and responsible drinking. In states where there is prohibition this issue does not crop up at all. With digital media coming into play, some players have been advertising brand extensions as the CTNR does not apply to advertisements over the internet. This is changing as we have seen the government bringing social media under control. The digital medium is pretty nascent and governments are grappling with policies to rein in the medium. Indian liquor companies have been using social media to promote their brands. The UB Group recently tied up with a digital content company which produced a web series titled ‘Pitchers’, a five-part series on four friends trying to launch a start-up. With over 10 million viewers, the show got a rating of 9.7 out of 10 on internet movie database website, making the new concept of advertising, going beyond surrogate advertising. As rules become stricter, liquor brands will look at different channels – events, experiential, branded content and in-film, like ‘Pitchers’. As manufacturers need to advertise, one way or the other as to get their products sold, they have been innovative in how to get the message across.