Battle for the world's largest whisky market -- India

Sipping a tumbler of Johnnie Walker whisky as he chats with his friends in a hotel bar in Mumbai, Kunal Doshi, a smartly-dressed young solicitor, appears an unlikely warrior.

But in the increasingly bitter “whisky war” being fought between the Indian industry and traditional Scottish producers, Doshi, 21, has become an unknowing frontline soldier in a foreign assault on the world’s largest whisky market.

“If it’s really good whisky, maybe I’d spend 500 rupees ($11),” Doshi says. “I know I’m going to be making the money soon so what am I going to do with it? I might as well have a good time,” he says.

“Young Indians have a lot of money now. Your call centre employee, your financial analyst, thanks to foreign companies, are on 30 000 rupees a month, so what are they going to spend it on? It’s going to be on foreign alcohol.”

The Indians are prodigious whisky drinkers, downing 570-million litres in 2004, 40% more than the second largest consumers the United States, and the total is set to grow, according to British-based market analyst Canadean.

Major drinks companies including the Edrington Group, Moet Hennessy and Diageo are jockeying for position for the tiny segment of top-end spenders in hotels and restaurants, where a 30ml shot of 30-year-old Glenfiddich can cost 1 600 rupees ($36).

But producers of Scotch also want some of the action among India’s growing middle classes, particularly the affluent over 35s, as the country targets a growth rate of 10%.

However they are currently being priced out of the market because of tariffs of up to 525%, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), leaving Indian producers with a tight grip on the mass market.

The powerful Scotch industry is running a two-pronged strategy: targeting the increasingly wealthy urban professional with a sales pitch for its “sophisticated” drinks and lobbying the government for tax cuts.

“There’s no question, we’re all playing a game which is a slow burner.
When the taxes do come down and prices become reasonable, that’s when the real sales will start happening,” says Ashwin Deo, managing director of Moet Hennessy India.

“It’s not difficult to imagine a million consumers each drinking two bottles of whisky a year.”

Analysts say the trend for taxes is downwards—despite disappointment for the Scotch producers in this week’s Budget—but they need to come down sharply for young professionals like Doshi to make a major impact on sales.

Feuding between the two industries is partly based on differences in manufacture and distilling culture. When is a whisky not a whisky? When it’s made with sugar cane molasses, say the Scots, sparking rage from the leaders of the thriving 160-year-old Indian industry.

The Indian product cannot be sold in Europe as “whisky” although talks are continuing for it to be sold as “molasses whisky” or “Indian whisky”, according to Vijay Rekhi, president of United Spirits, which has 45% of the Indian market.

One Indian company, Amrut Distilleries, using barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan, has marketed its own single malt at Indian restaurants in Scotland.

It said its whisky earned critics’ plaudits after its 2004 launch but admitted it had not reached its first year sales target and had now expanded into continental Europe.

In return, the Indian “molasses” whisky has about 90% of the Indian market and the domestic industry is fighting a fierce rearguard to ensure that it does not lose its dominant position.

It is also much cheaper at 200 rupees for a bottle of entry-level Indian whisky compared to some 3 000 rupees for a bottle of single malt Scotch whisky such as Glenfiddich.

“The Europeans are not listening to our cry, hopefully our government is listening,” says Rekhi. “We don’t have the benefit of their scales of production.”

In a letter sent to India’s Finance Minister last month from the All India Distillers Association, the group representing India’s whisky makers appealed for continued high tariffs on Scotch whisky imports.

It said if duty had not been set at a high level “the domestic liquor industry would have been totally annihilated”.

It went on: “Any reduction or total removal of customs duty or additional duty will certainly sound a death knell for the domestic Indian liquor industry.”

The Scottish industry—which brought whisky-making to India during British colonial rule—has already set out its stall and embarked on a vigorous sales campaign to India.

While Scotch whisky exports stand at $4-billion a year, it was just $24-million in 2004 for India compared with the US where it was $600-million, according to the SWA.

“India is the industry’s top trade priority,” says spokesperson David Williamson.

The Scottish industry claims it is produces a superior product from malted barley—a claim disputed by the Indians.

“Molasses provides the fermentable material ... you will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said Bill Lumsden, the master distiller of Glenmorangie, a Scotch single malt whisky during a marketing push in Mumbai.

“You can never hope to recreate something which is very similar to real whisky.”

In the hotel bar, Doshi agrees, the only member of his group of eight drinking Scotch. But for most of his friends the key factor is price.

“We have a fixed amount of money and there’s a huge amount of tax on foreign liquor. For most people, it just makes much more sense to drink Indian liquor—unless you’re with your parents and you can order whatever you like.” - AFP

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