When it comes to curating whisky experiences in India we would like to believe that Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) leads the way; offline or online! Yes, this lockdown on account of the pandemic has taught us different ways to deal with the irreplaceable loss of events involving small or large get-togethers.
Truth be told, the deluge of webinars, online learning and e-tastings makes it apparent that every one of us in the industry is trying to figure out ways and means to mitigate the dis-engagement.
SMAC has always stood for creating experiences which are relevant in India with its usual quirks and challenges. Our first foray into the virtual world was called “Not another E-Tasting!” comprising three episodes of edutainment covering whisky selection, gadgets and glassware.
Having covered some of the basics from the whisky world we moved on to ‘Whisky Wise’, a candid chat with industry experts, who shared their views on the changing landscape. Our panellists were Mr Ashok Chokalingam from Amrut Distilleries, Mr Heemanshu Ashar from John Distilleries, Mr Angad Gandhi of Glenfiddich, Mr Robin Coupar of GlenGrant, Mr Krishna Nukala of Malt Maniacs, Mr Vishnu Kabadi of Anurag Wines, and Ms Charnelle Martins from Stranger & Sons.
When the decision was taken to lock down India and move to the essentials only, the alcobev industry was among the first to be immediately shut down. Ashok, Master Distiller at Amrut, laments the impact of such impromptu decisions on the production of malt whisky.
“Being asked to stop production abruptly, would lead to a potential loss of 1,20,000 litres of fermented wash. Also, being kept away from the distillery we were unable to monitor casks under maturation,” he noted.
Heemanshu, head of marketing from Paul John, highlighted the challenges on the sales front. “We saw the market collapse like a house of cards! International markets in Europe and the US, along with duty-free, closing down hit us pretty bad.”
As Brand Ambassador for Glenfiddich, Angad lives out of a suitcase. But with events or consumer interactions to look forward to, a hard transition to the virtual world became a necessity. “Training and knowledge sharing with hospitality staff has moved online. The connect with consumers is also now driven through social media using videos and streaming sessions,” he said.
Glen Grant, a relatively new whisky in the Indian market, has been a traditionalist in making and marketing its whiskies. On the 180th anniversary of this Speyside whisky, its Brand Ambassador Robin also explained how the business changed its strategy from ‘time on premises’ to tapping into online happy hour tasting events.
Giving the audience a different perspective, Charnelle, Distiller at Stranger & Sons, said that with inter-state logistics grinding to a halt during lockdown, her company had to face disruption in supplies of fresh ingredients, spices and botanicals. But it helped her company procure these locally in Goa.
While videos and images of long queues at liquor outlets inundated our social media feed, giving us the impression of clearance sales, Vishnu of Anurag Wines had a pragmatic view: “A week of sell-out does not compensate for a shutdown for over 40 days.”
As a consumer, Krishna Nukala, Judge Malt Maniacs, felt that his wings were clipped. “Sharing a dram completes the experience of whisky consumption; but without social interaction the fun element is missing,” he said, mirroring all our feelings.
Heemanshu and team have rallied over to the digital format and forged collaborations for virtual tastings with clubs such as SMAC, across the globe. He attributes the success of these sessions to the fact that couriers in international markets were operational, enabling delivery of samples across Europe.
At this juncture one may ask if “e-tasting” in India really works. Krishna was extremely confident, provided certain parameters are in place. “Like-minded people, focussed groups, the same whisky and glassware will make it work. The Malt Maniacs fraternity have dabbled with e-tasting over email 15 years ago,” he noted.
Narrowing it down to the geographical context, Angad observes that India is a continent by itself with startling differences in consumer patterns. Simple aspects such as order of food and drink, which are different for every region, make the virtual transition a challenging one.
With the virtual quest taking precedence, Glen Grant is vying to be in a space where it can be discovered by new consumers, says Robin.
Heemanshu summarises: the new norm will usher a shift to home consumption across all segments globally. Home bartending, service rituals and pre-mixes being offered by bars to consumers will lead the way.
Keeping the spirits up for members of SMAC, Ashok confirmed the release of the third and final edition of the coveted Amrut Amaze trilogy by the end of the year. This limited edition has checked all the right notes in its previous releases, setting high expectations for the grand finale.
Not to be left behind, Paul John confirmed celebratory editions of PX, Oloroso and Christmas 2020 will be available to consumers in a few regions in India. Gin lovers in Bengaluru can expect Stranger & Sons hitting the shelves soon.
Continuing its trend of experimental series from Glenfiddich we could expect the final edition early next year, along with a redesign of the core series in the 20-30 year age category.
While there is apparent widespread apprehension about the pandemic, the exciting line-up of whisky releases for India is something we can all look forward to. Meanwhile, stay safe and enjoy your whisky responsibly!