Burning bright

Gautom Menon is the man behind Wild Tiger Rum. Hamish Smith finds out how he earned his stripes


ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO there were 100,000 tigers in India, now there are 2,000. WTF? you might ask, and you’d be right to. The Wild Tiger Foundation (WTF) is working on providing the answers. The conservation programme is run by a group of philanthropic entrepreneurs, of which the gentleman with the tigerish car to your left, Gautom Menon, is one. What’s this got to do with drinks? Well, 10% of profits of his new Wild Tiger rum will go to repairing the population of India’s national animal, the existence of which has been gravely endangered by poaching and loss of habitat.

You might be cynical about cause marketing, particularly those with a tenuous connection (Kellogg’s needy children campaign, Retweet for a Meal, stuck in the throat). But the Wild Tiger rum collaboration doesn’t jar and Menon is no bandwagon crusader – he is close to the issue, having been born a Keralan raised in Tamil Nadu, two of a handful of Indian states that provide refuge for India’s last tigers.

Menon too is a rare breed. He has launched a premium Indian rum brand in a country where none exist, from a state whose alcohol market is facing extinction.

Total prohibition in Kerala is eight years off, says Menon, lamenting the conservative governance of a state of otherwise learned people. “It’s political. Elections are won and lost based on alcohol policies,” he says. “The state is a mess. It had a 10-year plan to phase alcohol out – 10% each year. My brand is only in travel retail there. I don’t have the patience for the bureacracy.”

But he fully expects the bureaucrats to continue to meddle in his fledgling business. His global roll-out has been severly delayed by the local government’s insistence that his Wild Tiger rum carries local health warnings.

Last month he won the court battle so is now shipping product uninhibited. Now he just has to hope Keralan prohibition doesn’t extend to export goods, but either way, on all sides he’s fighting for existence.

You wouldn’t know it to meet him. A large man of merry disposition, Menon was known to the rum industry long before his rum. It was by instruction of his father, a blender and bottler from Kerala, that he acclimatised to the spirits business before he entered it.

Menon had returned home to India after studying business management at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He set up a student discount card business while he was probably young enough to hold his own, but was seconded into the family bottling and blending firm soon after.

“My dad had to have heart surgery – it was very unexpected. As a typical Indian family, everyone said as the only son I had no choice but to join the family business.”

As a young man, Menon was a teetotaller. “I was thrust into an industry I was averse to. I learned the ropes, but I found contract work boring,” he says.