FOUR MORE SHOTS PLEASE. A popular web series on Amazon Prime showcases lives of four city-bred women (a lawyer, a journalist, a fitness instructor and a stand-up comedian). One of them, a single mother, is trying hard to make her way through the judgmental eyes of the society, while another is a lesbian struggling to find her identity. The four meet at a bar every evening and share sweet-sour experiences of the day over generous pouring of cocktails and wines. Though the show has been criticised for showing too much skin and use of “foul” language, the non-judgmental way in which protagonists are shown consuming alcoholic beverages reflects changing societal norms. After all, showing women drinking alcohol in films and TV shows was a taboo not too long ago.

While one may say that Four More Shots Please appeals to metro audiences, even the saas-bahu soap operas of Ekta Kapoor (whose biggest consumers live in Tier-II/III India) are showing women lead enjoying cocktails or wines unapologetically. Gone are the days of ad taglines such as Khoob jamega rang jab mil baithenge teen yaar, aap, main aur Bagpiper, which showed well-built men celebrating masculinity over whisky. In a women’s day video on YouTube, whisky brand Black & White showed a group of women unwinding over brunch and whisky, while Signature Whisky’s recent campaign is all about carving an identity for oneself. The film shows actor Ayushman Khurana encouraging men, women and transgenders to create their own identity.

The trend has caught on strongly, so much so that women have become a cohort which alcohol companies can no longer afford to ignore. Not only are they communicating with women consumers more than ever, they are also innovating for them. Also gone are the days when alcoholic beverage companies hired women only for secretarial roles. Today, close to 50% senior leadership of companies such as Diageo India, Pernod Ricard India, Bacardi India and Sula Vineyards is women. Over 50% of Diageo and Bacardi India’s recruits in last one year have been women. After all, it’s important for workforce to mirror consumers. “Over 100 million Indians will enter the drinking age over the next five years. Women are driving the narrative. Diversity is core to our focus of celebrating life every day,” says Hina Nagarajan, MD & CEO, Diageo India.

However, the biggest change over last few years has been emergence of alcoholic beverage start-ups such as Third Eye Distillery, NAO Spirits and Adventurist Spirits, whose women co-founders are reshaping the industry. The Indian alcoholic beverage industry has always been known for mass-produced blended whiskies and rum. The concept of craft was alien not so long ago. These start-ups smelt an opportunity and introduced handcrafted artisanal spirits. The trigger was realisation that Indians had become experimental. No longer were men obsessed about whisky/soda and women about sugary fruit-based cocktails. “I always wondered why nobody was making good quality crafted spirits in India. India only had brown spirits and IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor). Nobody was talking about launching indigenous spirits using our rich agriculture heritage,” says Sakshi Saigal, Co-founder, Third Eye Distillery — the maker of Stranger & Sons gin. Products of all these three distilleries — Third Eye, NAO and Adventurist — are available in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore.

The Crafters

Most of these women-led start-ups make craft gin. Is it because gin is considered a lady’s drink? Not at all, says Devika Bhagat, Co-founder, Adventurist Spirits. Bhagat (also the writer of Four More Shots Please), a vodka lover, was convinced by her friend in London to switch to gin. “I went to a bar and ordered my usual vodka and tonic. My friend told me vodka isn’t cool any more, you have to drink gin and tonic.” She and her ad-filmmaker husband Khalil Bachooali (they were already discussing a career beyond entertainment) decided to get into gin-making after a passionate conversation with a London-based bartender about the global gin scenario.

The entrepreneurs realised that a large number of consumers, including men, were looking to consume gin. “We realised there was nothing between Blue Ribbon (a cold compounded gin), which is extremely cheap, and Bombay Sapphire, which is extremely expensive. We thought maybe we can create a gin which is delicious and easy on the pocket,” says Aparajita Ninan, Co-founder, NAO Spirits. Moreover, some ingredients of gin, botanicals such as coriander seeds, ginger and citrus fruits like lemon, are regularly used in Indian kitchens. NAO has two brands, Greater Than and Hapusa. While Greater Than is classic London dry gin, Hapusa has a host of local ingredients such as Himalayan juniper berry, turmeric, raw mango, almond, coriander seeds and a lemon variety from eastern parts of the country called ‘Gondho Raj’. “We pitch Hapusa as a sipping gin, so whisky drinkers are switching to it.”

Similarly, Bhagat of Adventurist Spirits (whose brand Tamras is a concoction of Indian botanicals such as Nilgiri tea, Indian mint and citrus fruits such as mosambi) says her gin is nuanced, meant for evolved taste buds. “A lot of women ask me why they are always offered fruity sweet cocktails. I tell them we don’t have fruity sweet cocktails.” Bhagat’s intent is to offer good quality Indian alcoholic beverages. “Tamras is for liquor connoisseurs looking for an excellent beverage beyond whisky or rum.”

Image : photograph by Narendra Bisht

Saigal of Third Eye Distillery also says that her brand, Stranger & Sons, has never been only about women. “We were surprised at the number of men asking for gin and tonic at bars. We have never innovated thinking that gin appeals to only one gender. We have tried to build good spirits that can be showcased globally.”Third Eye recently collaborated with Australia’s Four Pillar Distillery to launch limited edition gins Spice Trade and Trading Tides.

But what is it like to do business in a male-dominated environment? The three say they have never been asked why they entered a male-dominated industry like alcohol. However, they admit that government authorities look at them differently. “There are certain avenues where I put my husband forward, for example, the bureaucracy,” says Bhagat of Adventurist. Ninan of NAO, on the contrary, says whenever she walks into a government office, she gets a lot of respect and support. “I face discrimination not because I am a woman entrepreneur but because mine is a home-grown brand. I am asked dozens of questions as authorities are not sure if I am here to stay the course.”

But these women entrepreneurs are ambitious. As they break the narrative of gin being a lady’s drink, they are getting ready to introduce other artisanal spirits as well.

Evolving Tastes

Graphic designer Sonali Sen’s favourite relaxation on Sunday evening is drinking an interesting cocktail while watching Netflix. She loves whisky-based cocktails. As she gets ready to watch season four of romantic drama Virgin River, she makes for herself Whisky Sour — bourbon whisky, cocktail sweetener, lemon juice and egg white (to give the cocktail a silky feel) blended together. “I don’t mind gin either, but it has to be handcrafted. I love the citrus taste, I don’t like it sweet,” she says.

There has been a rise in number of consumers like Sonali, says Yash Bhanage, Co-founder, Bombay Canteen. He says there has been a change in preferences among both men and women. “It’s no longer women preferring sweeter cocktails and men addicted to brown liquids. They are open to cocktails, too. You have the same number of women enthusiasts for whisky as men,” says Bhanage. No wonder biggies like Diageo (recently re-launched McDowells and Signature) and Allied Blenders & Distillers are recrafting existing spirits to make them smoother and less dense in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Bacardi, says master blender Stefanie MacLeod (who was recently in India to launch Dewars Whisky), is trying to democratise whisky. The company has been investing in techniques to make blends that are smoother and have flavours to appeal to a wider consumer cohort. “We have managed to bring people who don’t normally connect with whisky into drinking it just by introducing nuanced flavours. Women, younger drinkers who would be drinking vodka, are looking at Dewars and trying it as a cocktail. It is about inviting people and encouraging them to try whisky in a new way rather than drinking neat or filtering it with water.”

French alcohol major Pernod Ricard India (makers of Seagram’s Royal Stag, Seagram’s Blenders Pride and Seagram’s 100 Pipers) is also looking at launching variants targeted at women. “There is a strong trend of openness among women towards alcoholic beverages and we see that as an important pillar of our growth. Women prefer less strong drinks, and sweeter and softer whiskies. Jameson, for instance, is suited for women, as it is sweeter and easier to drink. We have Jameson Ginger & Ale, Jameson & Apple and plenty of drinks that we can leverage with Indian women,” says Thibault Cuny, MD & CEO, Pernod Ricard, South Asia. Cuny says they plan to expand palates and experiences by launching ready-to-drink beverages and flavoured whiskies. “Beverages such as Jameson Ginger & Ale, Absolut ready-to-drink cocktails and some beverages under the Ballantine brand are extremely popular across the world. We will get some of them to India.”

There has been a huge transformation in the wine segment, too. Chaitanya Rathi, COO, Sula Vineyards, says though wine in India has been considered a woman’s drink, over the years, men, too, have started taking to it. “Younger men are more inclined towards wine and new-age spirits.” Sula is looking at launching wines with lower alcohol content as millennials across the world are embracing responsible drinking. “We have also launched wine in cans, so that consumers can have it on-the-go.”

In the luxury space, women are moving towards tequila and mezcal, says Ipsita Das, Managing Director, Moët Hennessy India. “The second trend is scotch consumption. The third is women consuming Rosé. A recent campaign reiterates day drinking from 12pm-5pm with shift towards work from home and increase in at-home consumption.”

Diageo India recently launched its first Indian artisanal craft whisky Godawan. It also picked up a 25% stake in NAO Spirits. “We are becoming active in gin more than ever before. We are looking beyond whiskies,” says Diageo’s Nagarajan. Since a majority of women consumers flock to premium products, brands such as Diageo and ABD are doing a bulk of their innovations in this segment. “In the premium segment, 40% consumers are women, but when it comes to mass brands, it is still male dominated,” says Shekhar Ramamurthy, MD & CEO, Allied Blenders & Distillers (ABD).

Also, with number of women consumers on the rise, alcohol majors are hurriedly adding women to workforce. “Very soon, women will be 50% of our consumers, so it is important to have them in the workforce,” says Ramamurthy. Diageo’s Nagarajan says workforce diversity has gone up from 7.5% in 2015 to 22% in 2022.

But hiring women isn’t as easy, says Nitu Bhushan, CHRO (South Asia), Pernod Ricard India. “We as an industry are playing catch-up. Even some of the senior candidates I meet ask me that if I am a teetotaller, how will I be treated in your company? I tell them we don’t get scotch in our taps. Clearly, there is work to be done.” Alcoholic beverage companies, especially women-led start-ups, are certainly breaking stereotypes.

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