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Think global, drink local

Some months ago, Diageo India, the local arm of one of the world’s largest liquor companies, called to ask if I would be willing to come to Jaipur to attend the launch of Godawan, a new single malt whisky.

This, by itself, was not particularly unusual. Diageo owns several malts, of which Singleton is probably the one you hear the most about these days.


But there was a catch: this was not a Scotch single malt, they said. It was made in Rajasthan.


   As it turns out, whisky is one of the few things I know a little about. I have travelled from distillery to distillery in Scotland, trying to decipher what Scotsmen in kilts are saying. I am a Keeper of the Quaich (kilts optional), a small association of men and women who are dedicated to keeping the Scotch tradition alive. And I have even made a documentary film on Glenlivet, one of the world’s most famous malts (not owned by Diageo but by its great rival Pernod Ricard), which involved shooting for several days in Scotland and immersing myself in the legends of Scotch whisky.


   So, I was intrigued that a great liquor multinational should be pushing an Indian malt.


   By now, I assume we all know the difference between what we call IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) and real whisky. IMFL is usually just flavoured alcohol meant for the middle to lower end of the market. Till recently, most of the real whiskies were all made abroad, most often in Scotland. That’s why there has long been so much snobbery in India about Scotch rather than Indian whisky.


   In the course of this century, this has begun to change. For a start, not all the best whiskies are made in Scotland. The Japanese, for instance, now make excellent whisky that even Scotch whisky fans concede can be better than Scotch.


   Nor is India solely an IMFL market. Some years ago, I wrote in these pages about my visit to the Amrut distillery in Bangalore. The makers of Amrut had set out to create a real malt whisky and had made such a success of it that Scotch whisky critics began rating Amrut higher than many well-established Scottish single malts.


   But Amrut (like Paul John, a single malt from Goa) was a small entrepreneur-run operation. I liked the whiskies but frankly, their chief claim to fame was that if you drank them blind, you might think that they were Scottish single malts.


   So, why was a giant like Diageo, with its vast Scotch single malt portfolio, making Indian malt whisky? And why was it bragging about the Rajasthan associations?


   I never got a chance to find out. I missed the Jaipur launch. The bottles that were shipped to the Delhi market sold out in just six days, according to Aman Dhall, the veteran wine importer and liquor distributor.


   Then, the chef, Manu Chandra, told me that he was going to Cannes for the film festival, to cook a dinner hosted by Anurag Thakur, the Information and Broadcasting Minister. But while he was there, he would also participate in the launch of the Godawan malt whisky because he had played some role in deciding what the final flavour would be.


   An Indian whisky launched in Cannes? Now, I was more than intrigued. And so, when they invited me to a launch party in Dubai, I went.


"The idea behind Godawan was to make a whisky that emerged out of that Rajasthani tradition but was still a world class spirit, on par with the best Scotch single malts."

  I am glad I did. Because not only is it a very good whisky, the story behind it is the story of a new sector opening up. According to Vikram Damodaran, the Chief Innovation Officer of Diageo India, the company has a dedicated group to look at craft products.


   One of the group’s biggest triumphs was the launch of a rice-based craft whisky called Epitome. Apparently, United Spirits (as it was in the Vijay Mallya days before Diageo took over) had put away many casks of rice alcohol and forgotten about them.


   When the current management came across the casks some years ago, it had an idea: why not use the liquid in these casks (now, nicely matured and delicious) to make a special edition whisky? It is possible to make whisky from rice alcohol (though wheat and barley are more commonly used). They put the alcohol into barrels, aged it further, worked to soften the edges and were delighted when the small quantity of craft whisky they produced was loved by everyone who tasted it. Epitome was a limited edition but it became a runaway hit.


   Their second idea was to create a whisky in Rajasthan. They called it Godawan after the great Indian bustard, a Rajasthani bird that is becoming endangered. This time, they went the whole terroir route. The whisky was made from barley grown in Rajasthan. They used local water and made it at a single distillery in Rajasthan. People forget, says Damadaran, that Rajasthan has an ancient tradition of making spirits and of distillation.


   The idea behind Godawan was to make a whisky that emerged out of that Rajasthani tradition but was still a world class spirit, on par with the best Scotch single malts. At the Dubai launch which I attended, various whisky aficionados from that city raved about the quality of the whisky and its two variants. There will be more launches in the months ahead. London is probably next. And Godawan will keep going global.


   All of this begs several questions. First of all, why is Diageo whose portfolio includes some of the world’s great Scotch single malts going to so much trouble to make an Indian malt? I asked Shweta Jain, the company’s Chief Business Development Officer (and along with Damodaran, one of the parents of Godawan,) if it wouldn’t just be easier for Diageo to just sell more Talisker and Singleton rather than persuade the world to try a whisky from Rajasthan?


   The short answer appears to be: yes, may be, but that is not the point.


   According to Jain, single malts are not just a Scottish thing any longer. Excellent whiskies are made all over the world. If India can do it, if we can make an outstanding single malt, then why should we stop ourselves from doing so just because we have access to Scotch?


   Diageo is not marketing the whisky globally as an Indian whisky. Rather, the campaign focusses on terroir and taste, encouraging consumers to treat it on par with any great whisky from anywhere in the world.


   But there are also sound commercial reasons for the launch. Consumers all over the world are always looking for something new, something special. Because of its high quality, Godawan fits that slot. Plus, there is the artisanal/craft element.  I have seen for myself in Scotland how much the distillers like to talk as though their whiskies are delightful little concoctions they dreamt up the other day. In fact, the Scotch whisky industry is a well-oiled machine that ships millions of bottles all over the world.


   Godawan, on the other hand, is a craft product, dependent on barley from just a few fields and a single distillery. Even though it looks like it will be a huge global success, there is a limit to how many bottles can be made. It is, says Jain, an artisanal product with an element of craftsmanship. (And scarcity, I guess.)


   The craft division of Diageo will launch more products, says Damodaran. The two whiskies are only the beginning. Clearly, he thinks that a new space has opened up between the massive IMFL market and the great global brands. It is a space that relies on discerning drinkers who want something a little more premium, not necessarily in terms of price (Godawan costs roughly as much as a Scottish single malt) but in terms of flavour, scarcity and attention to craftsmanship.


   It is a bold experiment. But judging by the response at the global launches and the sales figures in India, it is an experiment that has worked. Expect more craft launches and a new generation of high quality Indian sprits in the years ahead.



Posted On: 10 Jun 2022 10:00 AM
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