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Smaller brands can make a dent if they play it right.
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Four small Indian alcohol brands that the world needs to know about

By Madhura Karnik & Manu Balachandran

India boasts of some of the world’s biggest alcohol companies.

From Officer’s Choice—the world’s largest selling spirits brand— to United Spirits, one of the world’s largest spirits company, India has had many star brewers and distillers.

In the last few years, however, a number of smaller Indian alcohol makers have been experimenting with developing new products. India is one of the world’s fastest growing spirits markets, where smaller brands can make a dent if they play it right. 

Quartz brings you a small assortment of alcohol brands with very local roots that are vying for global attention.

None of these brands, except DesmondJi, replied to Quartz’s emails seeking more details about their offerings.

Amrut Single Malt

Perhaps India’s best known single malt whiskey, Amrut Fusion Single Malt is manufactured by Bengaluru’s Amrut Distilleries. Established in 1948, the company manufactured Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL)—hard liquor manufactured in India—for more than five decades before it launched this whiskey.

Today, Amrut has two bottling units in India, with annual sales exceeding Rs150 crore ($22.9 million). In India, a bottle of Amrut Fusion Single Malt sells for a little more than Rs3,500 ($53).

In 2004, Amrut took the single malt to the UK. “It was a conscious decision to sell an Indian single malt to the Scots,” Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, chairman and managing director of Amrut, told Forbes last year. “And we continue to do that. It is the ethos of the organisation. We wanted to have a distinct identity in the international market and not just be a part of the crowd.”

The company continues to produce some of its older brands, including Amrut Silver Cup Brandy and XXX Rum, which are also sold to the Indian armed forces. These mass products account for some 90% of the group’s sales.

In 2010, Amrut was listed as the world’s third finest whiskey by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, one of the most recognised global whiskey guides.

Paul John Single Malt

Paul John is a single malt whiskey made by John Distillers Ltd (JDL), another Bengaluru-based brewer.

The company was founded by Paul P John, a first-generation entrepreneur in 1992, who also runs a hospitality business, including a luxury resort in Kerala.

The company’s flagship brand, Original Choice—the seventh largest selling whiskey in the world in 2014—sells over 10 million cases a year. JDL owns nine liquor brands and makes whiskey, brandy and wine. Much of this is sold in India’s southern states, with some exported to the UK, the UAE, Angola, Congo, Ghana, and Namibia.

Paul John is made in the company’s Goa distillery, which has a capacity of producing 3,000 litres of whiskey a day. It has received the Liquid Gold Award by Whisky Bible—a recognition of its place among some of the best whiskies in the world.

DesmondJi

It’s not quite Mexican tequila, but India’s homegrown liquor brand DesmondJi apparently comes close to the real thing.

Owned by Agave India, the brainchild of Desmond Nazareth, DesmondJi is an Indian brand that offers five agave-based spirits. Agave is a plant and the primary ingredient required to make tequila.

However, DesmondJi can’t label its spirits as tequila. Because of a geographical indication system, only a tequila manufactured in Mexico can be called tequila. The only exception is the US, where agave-based alcoholic beverages can be called tequila if they are bottled in the country, thanks to a special agreement with Mexico. Nazareth, therefore, simply calls it agave-based spirits.

Agave India is also the country’s first micro-distillery—a small, boutique establishment—according to the company’s website.

The distillery’s journey began after Nazareth returned to India in 2000 after many years in the US. An engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Nazareth once worked with software services firm, Wipro. Once back in India, he missed the taste of authentic margaritas. And that prompted him to establish Agave India.

Today, Agave India has a micro-distillery in Andhra Pradesh, while the bottling and packaging facility is in Goa. The company has 20 employees and 20 casual labourers.

“We are number one and two in agave spirits in Karnataka (and Goa), and our annual sales currently are around 10,000 cases. We are a profitable craft brand and enjoy an unaided top of the mind recall as the agave drink of choice,” Nazareth told Quartz in an email.

But it’s not always easy for a smaller brand to do business. ”We have to struggle to get any paperwork done and there is plenty of paperwork in the alcoholic beverages business, to do any little thing,” he explained.

Solan No. 1

For a long time, much before the Indian whiskey market was flooded by the likes of Diageo, the international alcohol giant that produces the Johnnie Walker brand, among others, Solan No. 1 was one of the most sought-after malt whiskies in the country.

Brewed in the Himalayas by Mohan Meakin, the company that also produces the Old Monk rum, a bottle of Solan No. 1 still costs just about Rs400 in India. And like other products from Mohan Distilleries, Solan No. 1 is also not advertised.

“We do not advertise. I will not, and as long as I am in this chair, we will not (advertise),” Kapil Mohan, managing director of Mohan Meakin said in 2012.

But that doesn’t quite take away the love for Solan No. 1 from whiskey aficionados across the globe. For instance, in his popular blog, whiskyfun.com, Serge Valentin rated Solan No. 1 as among the best, after tasting some 80 whiskies from across the globe. In 2011, he wrote:

Quite a few were really superb, such as some American bourbons, some new Irish, a few Taiwanese or the recent Kornog, but if I had to choose one and only one whiskey to put on a pedestal, that would be the Solan No.1 from India. Only 77 points but also only… 1 Euro a bottle. That’s what we could call premiumising… the customer!

Mohan Meakin, the makers of Solan No. 1, was founded as in the early 1820s when Edward Dyer, an Englishman, set up a brewery in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan. It went on to produce Lion, Asia’s first beer. After World War I, the company’s name was changed to Dyer Meakin & Co. Eventually, in 1949, NN Mohan, an Indian, purchased the stakes from British shareholders who were leaving India after the country’s Independence, and changed the name of the company to Mohan Meakin.

Image by Vikrambj on Wikimedia licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.