Interview

"Drinking has its taboo side in India, but that's changing" - just-drinks speaks to William Grant & Sons' India head, Sachin Mehta

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It has been a decade since William Grant & Sons established a standalone distribution unit in India. You may ask what took the company so long - India, after all, has long been the world's largest whisk(e)y market by volume and Scotch giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard have been in-market much longer.

William Grant & Sons set up its Indian subsidiary in 2009

William Grant & Sons set up its Indian subsidiary in 2009

But, the UK-headquartered spirits group has been making up for lost time. In the past 18 months, William Grant has made significant moves in India that will hopefully contribute to the pursuit of its rivals.

First came the news in June that William Grant will bottle its Grant's blended Scotch brand in the country in a partnership with Modi Distilleries. A few months later, the group launched the India-only Grant's Distinction, a first for the brand. As William Grant India heads into the New Year, optimism abounds, aptly characterised by new country manager Sachin Mehta.

Having taken on the role five months ago, Mehta became the first Indian to lead William Grant's India operations. Immersed in the country's alcohol industry for a career that includes stints at Bacardi and Pernod, Mehta is both proud of his employee's achievements in recent months but is well-aware of the challenges that lie ahead. In India, a country that contains a number of dry states and numerous anti-alcohol advocates, those challenges can appear with little warning. In 2017, for example, there was the curveball of the highway ban, which banned liquor sales within 500 metres of state and national highways.

Speaking to just-drinks late last year, Mehta outlined his vision for the future, which starts with a significant ramp-up in manpower. His unit has already quadrupled in size since he joined William Grant from Bacardi in 2016. Under a new hiring initiative, Mehta wants to increase headcount by a further two-thirds to 100.

Mehta is scouting for India's top talent during what is a critical time for the country's whisk(e)y market. As the drinking culture changes through the emergence of a younger generation with greater disposable income and global awareness than their parents, Mehta sees opportunities outside of William Grant's core Grants and Glenfiddich whiskies. The country manager is keen to tie blended malt Monkey Shoulder into India's fast-emerging cocktail culture, while he says Hendrick's Gin has potential amid increasing female empowerment.

Meanwhile, second-tier cities are in William Grant's sights, and Mehta wants staff that can breach the new premium spirits frontiers outside of the Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore strongholds.

"We want really talented people as part of this organisation," Mehta says. "We want people that will make a change in the industry, and who will reach out to consumers in the right way." 

just-drinks: You launched Grant's Distinction last year not long after you revealed the India bottling. Where does Distinction fit into William Grant's growth plans?

Sachin Mehta, William Grant's country manager for India: Distinction allows us to play in the gap between premium IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor) and the imported portfolio that comes into India. It's fairly early days - we are launching the brand market by market and are currently registered in eight states so far. One trend in India is that a lot of people who would otherwise go into different categories like beer or rum are actually entering the Scotch category directly. So, this is a big opportunity, and it also helps us to reach out to geographies and occasions that Scotch doesn't necessarily easily reach. 

j-d: Tax is a big focus in India [The levy on imported Scotch is 150%]. Is there a tax advantage when you bottle your own products in India?

SM: There is a price advantage that will come into play as we reach scale.

j-d: Does bottling in India also simplify the licensing process?

SM: I'm afraid not. It just highlights the complexity of doing business over here.

Once we are in a market, after that it becomes smooth - or smoother. But, for the initial process, [licensing] can take longer than an imported product would take to set up over here.

j-d: Are the voices advocating for dry states in India getting louder?

SM: These voices are not new to India. Prohibition in some states goes back 50 years. There's so much diversity and difference in opinion across the country, even within each region or geography. Overall, I think there's more responsible behaviour that is coming in, in the middle class and above, who are our target audience in how consumption is happening and that will change a lot of things.

India MD Sachin Mehta  joined William Grant from Bacardi four years ago

India country manager Sachin Mehta joined William Grant from Bacardi four years ago

j-d: How did the highway ban affect William Grant?

SM: The highway ban put a standstill to the entire industry. Our brands did not get impacted but, because the trade was impacted, that does impact the overall industry. If you look at consumption in itself, it probably didn't take more time to fill the pipeline back in. But, it does impact us in some way.

j-d: How has the new generation of consumers in India changed the spirits industry?

SM: Young legal-age consumers are now more aware of what's happening across the world. There are also people who are becoming more adventurous, not only with new brands but also new ways of consumption, new occasions.

There is also a lot of wealth and they are wanting the best that is available from across the world. So, we have things like an experimental cocktail being created for the consumer. The response to that is phenomenal - a few years back it would not have been thought of because consumers would like to have their whisky in the same way their fathers or grandfathers did.

With brands like Monkey Shoulder, we have a great brand that is so mixable. Whisk(e)y cocktails have started to do very well over here in India. When I started my career, I would never have thought that this change would happen in India, but it's very reflective in all the urban cities and it's also coming in the tier-two cities.

j-d: What are the new occasions?

SM: Drinking has had its taboo side in India, but that's changing. There is this whole different consumer that accepts drinking in moderation as an acceptable habit. So, every social gathering that you will see in a large part of the society does have alcohol as part of it. Corporate get-togethers also have alcohol as a part of it. Our brands are adding to that, because we have easily mixable drinks like Monkey Shoulder.

We also have the large growing categories, like gin. A luxury gin like Hendrick's, which was never heard of in India before. There is a lot consumption from men and women who are consuming luxury gin in India. A lot of bachelor parties, are now consuming Monkey Shoulder while hen parties have Hendrick's.

j-d: Have trends for non-alcoholic beverages emerged in India?

SM: So few zero-alcohol brands have launched in India. I think it will take more time.

What does the future hold for low- and no-alcohol? - Click here for a just-drinks analysis


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