Premium Indian IMFL brands are going global

Amar Sinha, COO, Radico Khaitan, is of the opinion that India’s alcohol consumption dynamics are very different from those of the rest of the world. Today, most of the IMFL premium brands are made of grain spirit. They have not only flourished in the country but are gaining recognition oversees, making India a large exporter of IMFL in the recent years.

Amar Sinha, CEO, Radico Khaitan

IBT: India has till date not adopted the concepts of selling indigenous aged malt spirits to its consumers as a branded product. Why is that?

Amar Sinha: India is a price-sensitive country and malt spirit is always used in the premium segment due to its higher cost of production. However, the trend is changing now because people are more exposed to international flavours and offerings. People’s preferences are evolving as well and the pattern of alcohol consumption is also changing in the country with Indians wanting to consume varied and quality spirits today. It’ll be safe to say that the indigenous malt spirit industry is picking up pace in the country.

Rampur Indian Single Malt, from the house of Radico Khaitan, is hand-crafted and aged in the foothills of the Himalayas and was initially made especially for export. It had a runaway success in the international market upon its launch hence; it was decided to bring the taste of India’s finest single malt to the domestic consumers as well in 2019. It has received an overwhelming response here with Indian malt connoisseurs showing immense love. It was available in select retail outlets and sold out in no time. We firmly believe that the time is not so far when the domestic industry will be well established and India won’t have to rely on imports.

IBT: What are the reasons for the high popularity of the IMFL segment and not following the process of whiskey making as is done across the world i.e. using malt spirits and ageing process?

Amar Sinha: The key raw material for malt spirit – barley – is produced on a controlled scale in the country owing to the fact that it is least tolerant of hot, humid conditions. This makes it unsuitable for the subtropical or non-tropical regions.  In 2019, barley production for India was 1,633 thousand tonnes. Though India’s barley production fluctuated substantially in recent years, it tended to decrease through 1970 – 2019 period.

In most parts of India, summers are extremely harsh and winters are spine chilling. These conditions not only affect the production of raw material but directly impact the ageing process of the malt spirit too – making the maturation faster compared to the West. Thus, Indian single malts make no age statements or claims like their international contemporaries.

However, we are picking up the malt spirits trend slowly. There are a number of single malts that have come up in the last decade, with one of them being Radico Khaitan’s Rampur Indian Single Malt, and they have been very well received. We launched our Rampur Single malt in the Indian market starting with Delhi last year which was earlier only available in the international markets where it tasted success and fame.

Until two decades ago, the IMFL category was dominated by mid-price segment brands made of molasses spirit. As foreign companies entered the Indian liquor space, they brought with themselves a wave of proliferation of premium brands made of grain spirit. This paved way for Indian brands to produce grain spirit that helped them compete with their international counterparts in the premium category. Today, most of the premium IMFL brands are made of grain spirit which have not only flourished in the country but are gaining recognition oversees, making India a large exporter of IMFL in the recent years.

IBT: What are the key challenges in the development of the malt spirit industry and the key reasons to depend on scotch imports?

Amar Sinha: India’s consumption dynamics are very different from those of the rest of the world. It is a price-sensitive country with high per capita consumption and malt spirit is always in the premium segment. The production capacity and aging of malt spirit in India is still scarce and therefore foreign companies have been importing bulk of blended scotch whisky, vatted malt spirit for blending and their flagship key brands of bottled scotch whisky manufactured in origin(BIO). However, the new trend suggests that the proliferation of eating out culture, higher purchasing power and exposure to the world travel have been swelling the demand of premium malt spirits resulting in home grown brands to flourish. Key Indian players which are few in numbers have started the production and maturation of malt spirit and using it to produce premium IMFL brands besides maturing for flagship single malt whiskies produced from India.

Rampur Indian Single Malt, from the house of Radico Khaitan, is one such brand that had a runaway success in both domestic and international markets. In the first year of its launch, Rampur Indian Single Malt whisky won a Double Gold at San Francisco World Wine & Spirits Awards 2017 and a Gold Medal at Monde Selection Belgium 2017. This recognition was a testament of the fine quality and state-of-the-art product from India on the foreign land.

IBT: Foreign companies have to their benefit promoted the concept of “Blended Scotch Whiskey” to promote import of scotch to India, can it be the other way round?

Amar Sinha: Yes, we do believe it can. When Radico Khaitan launched 8PM Whisky in the year 1998, it was the first IMFL whisky blended with Scotch in India. We introduced the trend of scotch blended IMFL whisky but now we have also started producing our own malt spirit. We see the change taking place as it’s evolving so; the time is not far when the Indian brands will be the leaders and trendsetters. Foreign companies have started importing blended scotch whisky to suit their convenience as per the market demand and cost effectiveness. Malt spirit market is still evolving in India and importing malt would be an expensive proposition due to the higher cost implications including the custom duties.

As mentioned earlier, some of the Indian companies have already started producing and maturing malt spirit to be used in Indian single malt whiskeys. In the last 10 years, several Indian Single Malts have been launched and the response has been fabulous in both the domestic as well as the international markets.

With the growth of premium whiskeys in India, IMFL made from grain spirit has seen remarkable acceptance and growth of the market and these Indian whiskies are now being exported in large quantities out of the country as well.

IBT: Does Indian origin packaged aged Blended/Single malt spirits have good export prospects?

Amar Sinha: Yes, it is very well accepted in the international markets; even in the case of Rampur Indian Single Malt the response was phenomenal when it was first launched in the international market in 2016. Within the first year of its launch itself, it was rated among the top 5 whiskies in the world. We have a tried and tested formula of success in our product. In the times ahead, the demand and acceptance of Indian Single Malts would grow on the world platform.

Amar Sinha, a sales & marketing expert has a distinguished professional career spanning across more than 30 years with a diverse range of fast moving consumer goods. He has an acknowledged track record of heading large corporations both of Indian and Multinational origin. Before Joining Radico Khaitan Limited as COO, he was the Executive Director at the Wave Group. He has also been on the advisory board of the S&D Group, the largest gaming & lotteries company of Asia, with interests in real estate, information technology and e-commerce.

Amar began his career in 1983 as a management trainee with the consumer products division of Shaw Wallace Distilleries Limited and climbed the corporate ladder to become the Managing Director and CEO of the company.

During his professional career over the last three decades, Amar has served as the Managing Director of Whyte & Mackay India Ltd, Executive Director & CEO of BDA (now Allied Blenders & Distillers Ltd), Director & CEO of Golden Tobacco Ltd., Managing Director of Playwin (Zee Group) besides working in senior positions with Herbertsons Ltd (U.B.Group) and Smithkline Beecham.

In 2001, he was conferred upon the ‘Corporate Professional of the year’ Award by then Union Minister Shri Ajit Singh. He has also been the recipient of the ‘Certificate of Excellence for Meritorious Services, Outstanding Performance & Remarkable role in the Corporate Sector’ in 2002 from the hands of the Governor of Madhya Pradesh, Bhai Mahavir.

In 2015, he received the Rajeev Gandhi Excellence Award for the ‘Most Enterprising CEO of the Year’. In 2016, he received the ‘Make in India Excellence Award for the most enterprising CEO for being a management expert in diverse industries and contribution to the growth of the corporate sector.’

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