If life gives you lemons, make limoncello. If you are handed tomatoes, sip on a Bloody Mary. Mumbai-based Mallika Sarkar may have taken this to heart while celebrating her lockdown birthday recently. Physically distanced from friends but not socially isolated, she organised the party over Zoom — and ordered a batch of premixed cocktails (sans alcohol) from the bar Social, popular with her set in pre-Covid times. The mixes were delivered to her and each of her friends individually, and the fiery Bloody Marys (with alcohol added from home bars) got the party going.
The way young, metropolitan India was used to socialising has been turned upside down in the last few months. Yet despite the closure of restaurants and bars, alcohol still remains a big part of our lives: whether it is to deal with the stress in Covid-19 times, to wind down for the day, or meet friends, albeit virtually.
Living room mixologists
In India, liquor sales may have been hit during lockdown, but now all eyes are on home bars to rev up spirits. Literally. Brands,retailers, professional bartenders and influencers are focussing on ways to engage with consumers at home. Consumers, for their part, are moving on from plain vanilla drinks, to paying more attention to what is in their glass — not just the quality of spirits (which is invariably better at home when people are likely to drink in a more discerning way than while bar-hopping on a budget) but also the mixers, garnishes and the ice that go into their drinks.
Globally, in pandemic-hit capitals such as New York, one category that has been cheering up otherwise beleaguered restaurants is high quality to-go cocktails. Authorities in the Big Apple allowed restaurants serving food to also home deliver cocktails, wine and spirits in March, and since then, homebound customers seem to be going all out for well-balanced Negronis, Martinis and Manhattans.
Research firm, Nielsen, reported that the category of home-delivered premixed cocktails had shot up by over 75% by the end of March, outperforming even wine that grew by 66%. In fact, chef Sujan Sarkar, whose restaurant, Rooh, in Chicago has been delivering three-course menus successfully (commanding a higher $45 per meal price than many takeaways), says that customers are even demanding things like square ice cubes to enhance their drinking experience.
In India, the cocktail culture had been growing steadily in the last few years, but was still nowhere close to what you’d find in other global cities like London or Singapore. Despite the emerging cult of the Negroni, sales were led by weekend binge-drinking, claustrophobic events, or over-priced shots. The culture of small cocktail bars where people could converse and savour well-made drinks was hardly pervasive even in more alcohol-friendly markets such as Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
Home-delivered cocktails may change that. Some of our best establishments are luring millennial customers with artisanal premixes sans spirits (because delivery of alcohol-laced cocktails is not permitted in India). Social recently launched SocialMixers in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chandigarh, with mixes made using seasonal ingredients and prepared in individual outlet kitchens.
Siddharth Wadia of Brown-Forman Worldwide LLC
Then there is Masque, the luxury restaurant in Mumbai, which is delivering two delicious mixes made by chef Prateek Sadhu, to be ordered alongside food. These include Limetter, a cordial made with smoked sweet lime (add gin or vodka at home), and The Terra, made from turmeric, ginger and honey. Both have been doing very well.
In Delhi, bars like Sidecar are offering bael (wood apple) and elderflower-basil spritzers delivered in serves of four to six people, with instructions on how to blend these with alcohol at home. As celebrity mixologist Nitin Tiwari, of Together At 12th in Gurugram, points out, “Bottled premixers and pre-batched drinks are becoming popular because when people are drinking at home, they are more conscious about quality. Local bars are using seasonal ingredients such as wood apples, turmeric, mangoes and tamarind, which can be made into cordials.”
Big brands, big winners?
Meanwhile, liquor brands are hoping to up the game on their luxury portfolios; the rationale being that people at home invariably consume higher quality of alcohol (albeit in more limited quantities). In pre-Covid days, the majority of marketing spends for big brands were directed at eyeball-grabbing, high-energy events such as music or fashion festivals — enabling consumption within bars — but now the accent has shifted to online engagements that educate the customer as to the legacy, taste profile and other attributes of the spirit and brand.
While earlier, the average budget for a three-day music festival, attracting 2,000 to 3,000 people per day, could be as much as ₹50 lakh by a liquor brand, now these kinds of approaches have been recalibrated to focus on in-home consumption. “The biggest shift is to move our resources to engage with consumers on digital and at retail stores,” says Siddharth Wadia, of Brown-Forman Worldwide LLC. Social media sessions where consumers can interact with global brand ambassadors, learn to make cocktails using kitchen ingredients, and participate in online quizzes are some ways in which campaigns are happening. “We are seeing consumers more inclined to experiment and go deeper into knowing what they are drinking. Our initiatives such as Grant’s Triple Wood Trivia Nights online and Monkey Kitchen Cocktails [with Monkey Shoulder] have been very successful,” says Payal Nijhawan, Head of Marketing, William Grant & Sons India, with brands such as Glenfiddich and Grant’s.
- While most liquor brands are focusing on educating the customer, some are looking at online engagements through art and culture. Bacardi India — with brands such as Bombay Sapphire, Dewar’s, and Breezer — has been running campaigns around lockdown art, collabs with chefs, virtual music concerts, and encouraging people to dance to #BreezerShuffle while doing household chores.
Most luxury brands say they get around 250-300 people viewing each online session. It is a far more sedate engagement, where the assumption is that the Indian customer at home is actually as thirsty for knowledge as for the beverage. This means that, eventually, premium brands may be the biggest gainers. While lockdown and high taxation in states such as Delhi have seen business suffer, Sanjeev Banga, president, International Business, Radico Khaitan (with brands such as Jaisalmer gin and Rampur whisky) says luxury brands will see an increase in sales. “When you drink less, you always drink premium,” he quips.
He is right. The days of endless Long Island Iced Teas in bars may be over for a while, but we can sip (attentively) on a perfect Martini — balanced between the juniper of the gin and the herbal of the dry vermouth, stirred not shaken — while comparing it with the smooth Belvedere Vodkatini we may contemplate next.