Indian summer

USL’s Kripalu shares the frustration of his home market: “While the fundamentals make India an attractive opportunity for our sector, what’s holding it back is a difficult and unpredictable regulatory environment. We have delivered a strong net sales growth of 6% (third quarter), despite the subdued economic environment in the third quarter due to demonetisation.”

But despite the blips, premiumisation is still the word on everyone’s lips, not least Kripalu’s: “There is a significant, ongoing trend of premiumisation within the Indian spirits market. We are seeing consumers trade up between categories and even within them, for example from regular IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) whisky to prestige IMFL whisky, and onwards towards scotch. This trend is expected to drive double-digit growth in the prestige and above (P&A) segment. Our stated focus is on the P&A business, which is largely McDowell’s No.1 whisky and above, which remained robust and grew 12% net sales in the third quarter and 16% in the nine months’ period. This has been hugely enabled by our renovation and premiumisation strategy. The P&A business represents 41% of total volumes and 58% of total net sales, making it a much richer part of our total business.”

Alcobrew’s Sheth adds that India has a new consumer who looks beyond price. “The consumer is looking for value-added products. Apart from a good quality blend they also appreciate premium and disruptive packaging. Entry of new players (both domestic and international) has spoiled the consumer with choices. They don’t mind trying a new product offering instead of established brands.”

Ladders have to lead to somewhere, so one wonders what happens eventually if consumers continue to trade up and out. Diageo and Pernod Ricard are clearly well placed to hold Indian drinkers’ hands as they step off the local ladder into scotch, but for the Indian producers? “Local producers are reacting,” says Sheth. “We are tracking the trend and have noticed how Indian consumers are already spending more on Indian whisky. Indian single malts are the new and promising trend. There won’t be a surprise if a few local players flirt with flavoured whiskies such as cinnamon flavoured etc. Producers are innovating and you have to speak the same language. If you don’t, you will lose the whisky market to Scotch, Irish and Japanese whisky.”

That’s a long way off. For now, it is enough to get on board and let the premiumisation ship sail, navigating any swirls and currents as they try but likely fail to throw this titanic category off its course.