Opening the floodgates to the North-East

Opening the floodgates to the North-East

Guwahati, the capital of Assam, now boasts of the largest retail store for alcohol beverages in all of north-east, central and east India. Spread over 8,900 square feet, The Whiskey Company has the largest collection of brews and spirits curated specially for the store.

The Whiskey Company has an in-house WSET-certified sommelier, an upcoming tasting area and a Cuban cigar lounge. These added services are helping bring a quality shopping experience to even the most demanding customers in the region.

The idea of such an enterprise was first conceptualised in 2018 and came to fruition 2 years later, after acquiring the requisite permissions, designing and construction of the store.

The brainchild of a gang of four entrepreneurs – Vishal Deorah, Abhijit Jasrasaria, Rachit Saboo and Sanjeev Khound – it was born out of a common vision to be the leading chain in the luxury alcobev retail space in the region.

The partners have decades of collective industry experience and own various customs and state excise warehouses, retail vends, hotels and bars throughout the North-East.

According to Vishal, who is Managing Director of the venture, the company is in the process of opening more stores in other regional capitals of the North-East in the next 2 years.

Fresh approach

From adding a 1,500-square-foot tasting and cigar room to sourcing exclusive brands of spirits, mixers, books, snacks and accessories, Vishal has brought some of the world’s best brands to the North-East for the first time, with a vision to bring a unique shopping experience.

“Our approach is to educate first, sell later. Our educated sales people can help customers make value-based brand discoveries that suit their needs, and will help expand their palate,” Vishal says.

With their Director of Beverages, Rajesh Swarnankar at the helm of this vision, The Whiskey Company wants to make sure every customer that walks into the store interacts with the knowledgeable sales force and enjoys the shopping and tasting experience.

But why did the promoters choose to call it ‘The Whiskey Company’? “India is still an 80% brown spirits market, and is the largest consumers of whiskey in the world,” notes Vishal. “We chose the name based on its wider appeal and instant connect. It just sounded good. Don’t you think so?”

The industry has been supportive to help Vishal and his peer promoters in the company to bring to reality a store of such massive size. From its initial strategic partnership with Diageo at the concept stage, to commercial rollout, support from nearly every alcobev company, big and small, was forthcoming.

“The experience has been humbling for us. This industry runs on relationships and it looks after its own. There is no better example of this kindness I can give you – the birth of this store!” gushes Vishal.

Consumer profile

According to Vishal, the North-East has always been a trend-setting market. Most people are well travelled, are more exposed to Western concepts and lifestyles, but with a distinctly Oriental preference to cuisine!

“Alcohol is not regarded as taboo here; it is cherished and celebrated with family and friends. We have one of the largest percentages of women drinking populations in India in the North-East,” Vishal informs us.

Yet, there was no store in the region that was meant to service their unique buying needs. “We wanted to attract this majority to our stores. We offer personal shopping assistants, valet parking, lounges and kerb-side drops, just a few of the many little things to enhance their shopping experience,” he adds.

Premiumisation in spirits is the leading trend here as well. People are drinking less, but drinking better. There is a constant demand for brands which are globally trending.

“From Japanese whiskeys to ultra-aged single malts to craft beer, they want it all!” Vishal says. “Another interesting trend is the high acceptance of Asian spirits – such as Sake, Soju and rice beer – given that these pair well with the local cuisine.”

Covid disruption

The overzealous price hikes by state governments using ‘Covid surcharge’ to generate revenues is pushing general consumers to reduce consumption and shift to lower brands, according to Vishal.

On premises consumption is limited, while home consumption is not the magic bullet to overcome this. Most families in the region are not supportive of that trend.

“If lockdowns can be prevented then overall, we are hopeful we will meet the numbers at the end of the year, just that the brand mix will change,” he notes.

In addition to the standard Covid-19 guidelines for retail stores issued by the government, Vishal’s company has made testing for all staff compulsory twice a week. Phone bookings and ready pickups are also encouraged to limit the time consumers spend at the store and reducing crowding.

“As a policy we ask consumers to not touch bottles if possible, and ask for our assistance. Customers are being advised to buy in bulk and reduce multiple trips to the store,” Vishal adds.

Growth prospects

The West Bengal government recently permitted home delivery as well as online ordering of alcoholic beverages. “It’s a reform in the right direction and will help the industry come out of decades of isolation,” Vishal observes.

Arunachal Pradesh has started online ordering and delivery; and Meghalaya recently permitted home delivery as well. “The Assam government, we are hoping, will take such a positive step because it will help generate more revenue and help keep consumers safe,” he adds.

Customers in the North-East always want to try something new, especially when it comes to healthier categories like beer and wine. Apart from high-end Indian and imported wines, The Whiskey Company also has a good representation of locally grown fruit wines from north-east India, which are very well accepted.

Wheat beer and stouts are also doing well. Right now, apart from some multinational beer brands, the choices are limited. “So, there is a lot of headroom for more brands to enter and expand the market in Assam and the North-East,” Vishal signs off.

 The 8,900-square-foot store in Guwahati has a tasting room and a cigar lounge.