Sitting in a fairytale cottage in an idyllic village in Northampton, I first hear of Paul John. Jim Murray, the world’s most powerful whisky critic, is waxing eloquent about a small distillery in Goa, which, he says, is making some of the best single malts that have ever come from India. This is a serious tip-off in the world of whisky. After he picked Amrut Fusion from Bengaluru as one of the top three single malts in the world (in 2010), the brand has attained global fame and is now spotted even in bars in Edinburgh, the heart of Scotch-land.

Paul John of John's Distilleries, Bengaluru
Paul John of John's Distilleries, Bengaluru

Next stop, Goa. I’m visiting Giles Knapton who owns the villas-only resort Coco Shambala, often listed among the best in the world. When I tell him why I’m there, he produces a bottle of Brilliance, the flagship single malt of the Paul John distillery. ‘This is definitely unique stuff,” he says, pouring some for me. “Have you seen its tasting notes?” Indeed I had. I also tell Knapton that Murray, who rated the Paul John Edited single malt as ‘liquid gold’ two years in a row in 2014 and 2015, had told me, “there is real potential there”.

Bengaluru-based Paul P. John, 50, made low-cost alcohol (brands such as Original Choice blended whisky and Grand Duke brandy) for more than a decade. That was when he realised that there was a market for premium whiskies, and decided to experiment with single malts at his distillery in Goa. The first casks of single malts were released from John Distilleries in 2012, and by 2014, he was selling 5,000 cases of his eponymous single malt—peated and non-peated.

Most of the single malts Paul John and his master distiller Michael John (no relation) produce is exported to the U.S. and Britain. But increasingly demand is growing at home.

In the last couple of years, Paul John tells me, the company tested the market by distributing in Goa and Karnataka. At the moment, less than 5% of John Distilleries’s turnover of around Rs 620 crore comes from single malts, but in real terms the amount rises by nearly 100% year on year. With such encouraging response, John is set to go national. The plan is to start with North and West India, and then move cross country. “The customer is willing to pay even though this is made in India.”

That line sums up the change that is seeping, as opposed to sweeping, through customer behaviour in India.

Only a few years ago, the Indian consumer would have outright rejected anything—choice single malts, single-estate dark chocolate, single-estate coffee, and gourmet cheese—that came with a ‘Made in India’ label. The more ‘luxury’ or premium the product, the greater the reluctance to buy Indian. But that customer is changing.

Market and consumer behaviour researcher Santosh Desai says that through two decades of liberalisation, a subtle but powerful shift has happened where “the consumer has turned also into the producer”. He clarifies. “If you look at all the categories which today talk about a crafted experience, such as food, drinks, and even apparel, there used to be a clear difference between the creator and the consumer. The class distinction was defined. That has blurred.” Essentially, he says, the old vertical market of “patrons and producers” is giving way to a flat market, call it a horizontal one if you will, where the patron is also venturing seriously into production.

What Desai is talking about is a little studied shift in customer behaviour that is propelling change at the top tier of goods and services. The Indian consumer, confident after exposure to the best in the world, is looking for unique experiences at home, and is often finding that their social contemporaries and peers, ‘people like us’, are creating such products.

Take Michael John, the 42-year-old master distiller at John Distilleries. A self-taught whisky maker, he says he was determined to prove that a single malt made in India would be on par with the best in the world. “I asked the question: Why would people not pay if I give them quality? Just because it says India and not Scotland? That cannot be true forever.”

Priced at an average of Rs 3,200 in Karnataka and Rs 2,600 in Goa and going up to Rs 8,000, Paul John’s whisky sells on par with the Glenfiddiches and Glenmorangies of the world. “There is no need to short-sell ourselves anymore,” says Paul John. “I believe that I am standing with my product at the cusp of a change in customer mindset in India. This is the beginning. I will not live to see the full potential of this change, but I am a catalyst to start the process.”

Elsewhere in the country, Australian Jane Mason and French Fabien Bontems felt the same way about cocoa grown in India. “We wanted to break the myth that Indian cocoa is not good enough for world-class chocolate,” says Mason. And so, a little over a year ago, the two set up Mason & Co, to make artisanal chocolate using single-estate cocoa grown to specification in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala.
Based in Auroville, an experimental international township in Puducherry near Chennai, Mason’s tiny 70 sq. m. factory produces between 4,000 and 5,000 bars of chocolate (flavoured with coconut milk, chilli, cinnamon, sea salt, and orange) a month. Demand for the one-year-old brand has soared, with distribution now across 10 centres across India (and three online). There are plans to expand the factory to 120 sq. m. in the next couple of months.

A single bar of Mason chocolate costs between Rs 360 and Rs 390, almost as much as a bar of imported Lindt. And, says Mason, most customers are Indian. In fact, she adds, “We cannot keep up with demand. What constricts us now is how much quality cocoa can be grown, not demand. We can sell every bar we make.”

Is it difficult to make the chocolate, I ask. After all, chocolatiers jealously guard every process and recipe. “The art of chocolate making is about having special skills to work with the hand,” Bontems tells me. “The (four) women who work with us are from the neighbouring villages and they naturally have that feel for working with their hands.”

He adds that skills such as selecting produce and sorting the cocoa beans can be taught easily “as they are so used to working with their hands”. Mason is now opening a café in Auroville to hold chocolate pairings with coffee.

The mention of coffee triggers a memory; last year, I had met Matt Chitharanjan of Blue Tokai, a small company that sells only single-estate coffee. Chitharanjan told me that when he was setting up the company, he and his wife visited several independent coffee estates in Karnataka’s Coorg region. Many had never sold to an Indian company before. “They told me there were no customers for their coffee in India, and that they had only sold overseas. I was determined to see if that could change.”

Chitharanjan hoped to sell one tonne of coffee in year one of Blue Tokai; he sold three tonnes. Proof enough that Indians are willing to pay for single-estate, fair-trade, and organic coffee from the hills of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, over international labels.

Then there are wines, where companies such as Fratelli, Krsma, and Charosa are proving that India can produce award-winning wines. Krsma’s Sauvignon Blanc won the gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition in 2014 and a double gold for its Chardonnay 2013, and gold for its Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 at the China Wine & Spirit Award 2013. Fratelli Sette 2010 won the silver at the Decanter Wine Asia Award in 2013.

I decide to ask a typical customer why Indian brands are becoming popular. Development expert Simran Singh had been buying only foreign brands of chocolate and wine. These days, she makes it a point to buy Indian brands. Her reason: She was looking to give Indian products a chance. “I just felt that unless I have tried the new things that were being made at home, I couldn’t be prejudiced forever against them. Why should it always be true that Indians cannot make some things?”

Desai provides an academic framework to Singh’s changed buying behaviour. In post-colonial societies, he says, there is always a turning point when customers who can afford it tend to look inwards. In a sense, he says, they focus on what he calls the “nationalism of nostalgia”. “Of course, there will still be a great demand for foreign goods in technology and fashion. But equally, customers who have been around the world and tried global products start to ask the question: What is the best that my country can do? What can we craft that is special?” says Desai. “It is almost a political choice to expand the horizons and be proud of what is indigenous.”

Not far from the Mason factory, Benny, the Dutch cheese maker (he goes by one name), says he has seen this transition with his La Ferme cheese farm. He had started in 1988, when he sold cheese made from 50 litres of milk; today, he processes 500 litres a day. The farm uses only locally sourced milk, and sells everything from cheddar to gruyere to mozzarella and gorgonzola across the country.

Repeating what so many others have said, Benny adds that he is especially proud of the fact that “almost all our customers are Indians”.
Does he plan to expand, to get more customers? With a turnover of around Rs 4 crore, La Ferme is not looking to grow exponentially, he says categorically. “If we keep growing, there is no way it can remain crafted and personally monitored for quality by me.” And, he adds, “without quality, there is no craftsmanship and no demand”.