Hic Hic Hurray, not? Indians are drinking less whisky

Mona darling, you can blame it on Narendra Modi.

Whisky consumption is down in India and it might have something to with the election cycle says Quartz.

"Voting days are dry, and in the recently concluded polls, the Election Commission has been especially watchful."

Of course it’s not just our enforced electoral abstinence. The sluggish economy, high taxes, rise of wine all played their part in dampening our spirits.

2013 was not good for India as the Whisky Nation – the largest guzzler of whisky in the world. Growth in whisky and brandy consumption declined and overall spirit sales were down 2 percent. And it’s doubtful if 2014 will usher in better days either. Year on year growth in whisky sales, in fact, have been going down every year since 2010 according to International Wine and Spirits Research.

Thank goodness, Khushwant Singh didn’t live to see this. The sardar who till the end enjoyed his muchhe-gilli-ho peg (moustache soaking whisky) would probably have not survived the news anyway.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away either. Whisky in India is in no danger of going the way of the Ambassador. However it’s also clear that our relationship with the drink is evolving.

In a simpler pre-liberalisation India, the rites of adulthood (or more accurate manhood) were pretty clearly marked. Beer in high school. Rum and coke (or rather Thums Up) in college. And finally whisky. Vodka – what was that? Gin – that’s what ladies sipped at Calcutta Club. Wine was vinegar.

Of course none of us knew that we were drinking what Sanjeev Bhattacharya calls “a molasses-based drek which brazenly defies the definition of whisky as a grain-based product – and therefore isn’t whisky at all. (In fact, it’s closer to rum, not that you’d ever call India a Rum Nation.)” We have the Vijay Mallya, the King of the original Good Times as opposed to today’s acchey din, to thank for that. Mallya has been fiercely defending Indian whisky’s right to be called whisky to protect what comes out of his UB Group.

 Hic Hic Hurray, not? Indians are drinking less whisky

Whisky bottles at an Indian booze store. AFP

We drank whisky because the British gave it to us along with cricket. We drank it because Amitabh Bachchan slugged it down in Deewar while he contemplated the curvaceous charms of Parveen Babi. But mostly we drank it because it was there.

And we had our own whisky caste system.

There were the whisky drinkers who had uncle-aunty-abroad who could always be relied on to bring back a bottle of duty-free Johnny Walker Black Label and a carton of Dunhills. (That’s before we had discovered the status value of Glenfiddich and Laphroaig.)

There were the whisky drinkers who went every evening to the Gymkhana Clubs and Bengal Clubs where in defiance of all logic liquour was cheap although the clientele was among the city’s wealthiest.

There were the closet drinkers at home whose empty bottles of shame were weighed in broad daylight by the bikriwallah every month. But Indians being Indians we couldn’t throw away the freebies. So we all used the Royal Reserve coasters and branded glasses and grandmothers turned the fancier (read imported) whisky bottles into flower vases.

And then there were those who drank Indian whisky in shady smoky bars sometimes even on weeknights. They were the whisky riff-raff. They were the ones who hooted and whistled when Amrish Puri growled during an item number “Jab bhi mein gori haseeno ko dekhta hoon, mere dil me kale kutte bhaukne lagte hain. Tab mein Black Dog whisky peeta hoon." (When I see fair-skinned beauties, black dogs bark in my heart. And then I drink Black Dog whisky.)” (Thanks, HauteKutir for that blast from the past.)

And of course there were the Punjabis, who were a Patiala peg apart in the Indian imagination when it came to whisky. As Shivani Vora writes in Indian Ink that growing up in a Punjabi family meant “drinking whiskey is a ritual as sacrosanct as a religious ceremony.”

Manmohan Singh changed everything. Bhattacharya writes "The whisky graph first started to spike when Manmohan Singh reformed the trade tariffs in the 1990s, a time when duties on imported Scotch were so severe that only the uppermost crust could enjoy it.”

Drinking became more affordable, more commonplace and more varied. Whisky lost its Mona Darling connotation. Hindi villains post Ajit and Prem Chopra stopped flaunting that iconic green Vat 69 bottle as proof of their lecherous intentions. All of that was just part of the daydreams of a closed economy.

As Sidharth Bhatia who wrote an essay about the iconic Hindi film villain for Time Out recounts to Sayandeb Chowdhury, Vat 69 was more that just a drink:

"(It was) the scotch that symbolised both the aspirations of a closed economy and not the elitism of it, because people did not know their Glenfiddich from their Chivas and in the confusion, VAT69 stood out, more perhaps because of the blingy look of its bottle, the large lettered logo and the amber liquid inside. VAT 69 was the ambassador of the arch-villain.”

In the more open economy our horizons expanded. We didn’t have to depend on London Aunty and California Uncle anymore. We could afford to experiment with that dragonfruit-infused vodka from abroad instead of sticking to the tried and true old standards for that precious one litre allowance. We learned that vodka was odourless and a good drink to have when you were at the bar with the boys while pretending you were at a hospital because your colleague’s mother was at death’s door. Vodka had other advantages. At a famous drinking hole in Kolkata, with antiquated unwritten rules for women drinking alone, the waiter told a group of women they couldn’t have whisky on the rocks because it "looked" like hard liquor.

Vodka with orange juice however could pass the respectability test. We learned about mixed drinks. Indian publishing houses even brought out books like The tulleeho book of Cocktails with recipes like Anarkali and Instant Karma. Wine got better and more acceptable. “The industry is growing at a rate of 13 % per annum with an estimated 15 % increase in the premium wine segment over the next five years,” says Jackie Matai of Asprit spirits to Food-NavigatorAsia.com. India Today discovered wine boutiques and wine clubs even in Punjab.

Glasses with Whisky in them in this file photo. Reuters

Glasses with Whisky in them. Reuters

In the new India, Honey Singh, a Punjabi rapper no less, sings about char botal vodka. And you wonder why whisky sales are dipping.

Now there’s an attempt to target the creamy layer of whisky consumers to bring back a whiff of exclusivity. Business Today describes whisky tastings at perfumeries helping people “pick out the vanilla and geranium, the aubergine, lemon peels.” Five star hotels have been doing high-end dinners with whisky pairings. McDowell’s even has DietMate which it calls the world’s first ever diet whisky.

It’s enough to give an old-school whisky drinker an instant hangover.

But luckily for the die-hard drinker some traditions defy all makeovers. Alcohol is still sold in many places in cities like Kolkata in cagelike hole-in-the-wall shops with iron grids. The buyers throng outside on the sidewalk in a raucous disorderly but thoroughly democratic group where auto-drivers rub shoulders with business executives. The bottle is passed through the bars in the cage wrapped in newsprint like some kind of contraband. And when the respectable middle-aged Indian man shoves that little bottle of Officers’ Choice into his office bag with a surreptitious glance around him and calls his friend on the phone to say cryptically “Yes, got it” you know that whisky still occupies a special place in our imagination.

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Updated Date: Jun 20, 2014 19:13:09 IST