A room full of formally dressed old men enjoying a rare Scotch whisky in Old Fashioned glasses, the smoke from their cigars wafting up to shade the lighting. Sounds familiar? It’s an image that comes to many when they hear the word whisky.
All that’s changing now though. Welcome to the 21st century, where whisky brands have discovered the wallets of a new generation in India and are pushing hard to become their spirit of choice.
It all started with Monkey Shoulder, a blended malt whisky that debuted in 2005 and reached India a decade later, in late 2015. It straddled a strangely unclaimed spot. It was positioned between the cheapest grain whisky brands and the high-end single malts that remained the purview of the moneyed class. Its price point, similar to those of general single malts, meant that it needed an upscale customer.
“We decided to position ourselves not just to millennials but also to anyone who wants to have fun in life. Our brand positioning since Day 1 has always been to be funky and cool. We targeted people working in offices and who wanted to have fun with whisky,” says Pankaj Balachandran, brand ambassador of Monkey Shoulder.
That customer base is now being wooed by more brands. Beam Suntory made a big push throughout 2020 for its Oaksmith Gold blended whisky, developed by the legendary master blender Shinji Fukuyo, who visited India to understand whisky preferences. A few weeks ago, global spirits brand Diageo launched Copper Dog in India with a campaign on Instagram called House of Rascals, featuring actors Vikrant Massey, Radhika Apte and Shibani Dandekar.
“Copper Dog is a blended malt that disrupts and shakes down the traditionally stiff rules attached to the category. The House of Rascals is an initiative that invites all such resourceful rascals to come together once again as they savour this new breed of whisky unapologetically,” says Abhishek Shahabadi, vice-president and portfolio head for luxury and premium brands, Diageo India. As with Monkey Shoulder, Shahabadi is clear that Copper Dog “is meant for all sets of legal drinking age audiences who are united by an attitude and not age”.
It’s an exciting time for Indian companies too. Whisky ventures like Paul John and Amrut are chasing global recognition, while younger whisky brands such as Woodburns Whisky are targeting the new audience.
Catching ’em young
The 25-35 age group is in their sights. Vinayak Singh, co-founder of The Dram Club, which organises whisky events and tastings across the country, says: “India is the biggest millennial market in the world. Everyone wants a piece of the young population. The population over 35 years are those that appreciate whisky and are loyal to particular brands but the 25-35 age bracket is all about learning and experimenting with the spirit. This is a well thought out strategy by brands to target a newer audience.”
Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier, CEO of experiential events platform All Things Nice and an educator of the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, adds: “I think a lot of whisky brands want to come across younger today and to shed the image of being traditional or for older audiences. At the same time, there are also marquee brands which are aspirational that will hold on and defend their brand image in terms of tradition and history.”
The educated customer
It helps that the younger audience has learnt to appreciate good whisky, thanks to the exposure to other countries and social media. “They are digital natives and live in a world that has uninterrupted access to knowledge. They are more aware and are consciously finding out what they are drinking and how brands contribute to the society they live in,” Shahabadi says.
Balachandran adds that the new generation is travelling much more than earlier ones and knows about the bar culture in different continents. “You don’t have to necessarily explain what a sherry cask or port finish means.” This is why most whisky brands don’t really use complicated messaging or technical jargon to hype their products. They don’t use an age statement to tout their whisky, relying instead on influencers and events that the millennial audience can identify with. Monkey Shoulder, for example, has held events such as Boss’s Day and MNC (Monkey National Company) to attract people to the brand.
Access to social media plays a very important role, believes Agarwal. “I would go as far as to say that social media is just as important a tool to get your brand out there through sharing of stories and experiences by actual consumers,” he says.
Singh says that almost 60% of their audience at whisky events is under the age of 35. “This generation likes to share knowledge wherever they are. We often get DMs on Instagram from people in states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, asking which whisky to buy for a particular event, what whisky should they ask their relative to get from the UK, and even what whiskies are worth investing in for the next 5-10 years.” Brands hope that the younger generation will not only try their new whiskies, but will spend more money on their premium range as they move up in life.
And much more is lined up. “I was flabbergasted when I heard of Mackmyra, a whisky made with Artificial Intelligence by Microsoft, and Fourkind, a Finnish technology consultancy,” Singh says. “But for the next generation that might become the coolest thing!”
Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.