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.

Fresh out of business school, Menon wanted to build a brand, not bottle someone else’s. But the timing wasn’t right. “The government had slapped a ridiculous amount of taxes on the family business and we were on the verge of getting shut down,” he says. “We couldn’t focus on building a new brand – we had to save the mothership.”


But while helping to keep the family business afloat, Menon was allowed to pursue his plan, his father paying for trips to drinks shows and conferences in the likes of the UK, Germany and Singapore. “What really bothered me was that India is one of the biggest drinking demographics in the world but there wasn’t one Indian brand represented at these events. I saw a huge opportunity.”

Within that opportunity, Menon saw rum. “In India spirits are made from molasses so the only authentic story is rum. And with the category stuck at £2.00-£2.50 a bottle, it was the easiest to premiumise.”

The brand story was more obvious. “India is the land of the tiger and I am a huge enthusiast. Indian tigers are particularly found in Karnataka – which has the highest concentration of anywhere in the world – Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It’s become a man and animal conflict. Villagers don’t understand why the wildlife needs to be left alone – they think because they have been there for generations it belongs to them. The hunting of deer is a problem. A tiger needs 15 adult deer a year and for every six chases only one is successful.”

Poaching is harder to understand. “China has a crazy demand for all parts of the tiger for medicinal and aphrodisiac properties – even their intestines and sexual organs are in demand,” says Menon. So what will WTF do about it? Firstly it has adopted the Wayanad Tiger Reserve in Kerala and is working closely with leading tiger conservationists, local authorities and NGOs on the ground. It seems it’s not a lost cause – in April the WWF reported that tiger numbers have grown for the first time in 100 years, but clearly this is the just the beginning of the conservation effort.

That’s the story, but Menon wanted to be proud of the liquid too. He laid some rum down for maturation in 2008 and signed up “a very good Indian master blender”. Through his travels he had built up a collection of more than 300 rums and an even better idea of how his own rum would one day taste. “Indian rums are molasses based, but I decided to blend mine with molasses and sugar cane spirit – the taste and aroma is quite different.”

When it debuted at London’s Rumfest last year, 225 people tried Wild Tiger. Menon says the consensus was that “finally India has a rum of substance”, which has given him great motivation to roll the brand out globally. More editions will follow – a white rum and a spiced variant that draws on the larder of the biggest spice-producing region of the world. Again Kerala.

Currently the price is $23, which to some retailers is at the lower end of what it could achieve. Built around an authentic story and provenance of ingredients, you might say Wild Tiger rum is a textbook premium spirit. You might – if it wasn’t for the outrageous orange fake-fur packaging. “It’s not such a subtle bottle,” concedes Menon. “But you either go all-out tiger or don’t do it at all.”

Indeed, although this is the one area where Menon might want to pull back on going 100% authentic.