New Delhi: The society of the Keepers of the Quaich was established in the Scottish Highlands in 1980s to recognize people’s work in the production and promotion of Scotch whisky globally. Over the years, more than 2,500 people from over 100 countries have become its members. In December, the Keepers of the Quaich launched their India chapter, their eighth international chapter, in Udaipur. James Pennefather, 44, the managing director of William Grant & Sons India, was appointed chairman of the India chapter.
In an interview after the launch, Pennefather spoke about the society’s hopes in India, Indian single malts, global trends in the spirits business and the threats to the whisky industry. Edited excerpts:
How does Keepers of the Quaich work? How do you choose the members in any new geography? India has always been a huge market so why set up an India chapter now?
The membership is decided by the management committee in Scotland. However, one of the things that the India chapter will be doing is encouraging companies in Scotland to look to India more for their next batch of Keepers.
As to why now, India is the largest whisky market in the world, consuming more than 190 million cases of whisky every year, according to the International Wine and Spirits Research (IWSR). Scotch whisky is about 3.5 million cases, which is basically about 2% of the total market here. The target is to double the sales in India. There’s a huge move towards premiumization in Indian spirits and a lot of people are moving up the ladder into Scotch whisky.
The consumption figure of 3.5 million cases of Scotch whisky per year in India has been growing every year in the past five years, at 10-20% each year. It’s still tiny but fast growing. So, from the point of view of a business opportunity, it is the right time in India. We’ve got a critical mass that we can take to the next level.
What impact does the Keepers of the Quaich have on the whisky industry?
I have a personal view about this. Our trade associations are brilliant at helping us run our businesses, but at the same time, we also need reminders about our common goals while working hard in a competitive industry. We are the emotional side of whisky, the beating heart of the industry, if you may, in the sense that we don’t talk business that much. We appreciate a good dram and get to try each other’s whiskies and discuss what we’re going to do to make Scotch whisky an even bigger force here.
What is the next phase of evolution for Scotch whisky in India?
I think doubling the sales is the first and we are working towards it. Also, the India-made single malts, such as Amrut or Paul John, which are really good, are increasing the interest in the category. So more Indians are talking and thinking about single malts and about the premium blends, which is working really well for Scotch whisky. When I look at priorities as an industry, we are keen to have a free trade agreement that brings down the 150% customs duty in India. That would be a great help. But at the same time we have to make sure that there’s good access to Scotch whisky.
I think in this market where your choice of whisky can often be a status symbol or a sign of how successful you are, there is a great opportunity for Scotch whisky. In fact, Peter Gordon, the grand master of the Keepers of the Quaich and the chairman of the Scotch Whisky Association, said during his visit here that India is one of the top three priorities for the Scotch whisky industry.
At a time when other spirits are experimenting with craft versions, doing a lot of work with flavours, etc., where do you think whisky stands?
It’s very hot topic at the moment. If you look at the premium gin category and go back to Hendricks, it was launched with brand ambassadors working with bartenders to create a distinctive experience. They suggested it should be drunk with cucumber because the gin had the essence of rose and cucumber as part of its ingredients. That really boosted the renewed interest in premium gins.
As a result, a number of other players started producing premier gins and the category has exploded since. In Europe today, you are getting pink gins for example. So it’s very, very exciting. But when you look at the Scotch whisky category, it is a little more complex. Not only does it have a GI like Champagne, there are lots of stringent rules regarding what can qualify as Scotch whisky. You can’t put in honey, for example, and still call it Scotch whisky. At best, that becomes honey-mixed spirit. And I think the industry really respects those guidelines. But at the same time, there is a debate going on about how, while preserving the heritage and the guidelines at the core, one can also experiment and innovate.
What is the young global millennial drinking?
Funny enough, I actually asked some global millennials from the UK as well as some young guys who are just out of university living in the same apartment where I live in Gurugram.
And they are actually drinking a whole range of things very similar to what we drank back in the day: wine, whisky, rum and gin. Premium gin is the only thing that is different from 10 years ago, I think. And the jager bomb.
But the biggest change in the last decade, and people are calling it the Mad Men effect, is that people are moving to whisky cocktails. So the Old Fashioned and the Whiskey Sour are incredibly popular today. Another trend I have noticed is the growing interest of women in Scotch whisky.
Whisky is a little difficult ingredient as a cocktail base compared with, say, white spirits. Do you think people are experimenting enough with whisky in different ways in cocktails?
When you look at a good hotel bar, for example, they will always have classic cocktails, and then what they call their house cocktails.
The classic cocktails are the ones that have been around for 50 years. However, at the same time, several brands are collaborating with bartenders across the world to innovate and create cocktails. At William Grant & Sons Ltd, we have a similar initiative that is a bartending competition. Its Indian leg has completed three years now.
This year, we had a partner mixologist who went around India, finding the finest ingredients. Then he created six Glenfiddich cocktails combining them. So we have something called a Brahmaputra Boat, which has bayleaf from Assam and cinnamon from Kerala. Then there is another drink called Nutty Rob Roy that has Ladakhi walnuts.
We did this competition in February and then the cocktails became so popular that a number of bars asked to keep running. It is going to take a long time before something like the Brahmaputra Boat can become as popular as the Old Fashioned, but what I love about that is the mixologist thought a little bit outside the box and the ingredients became as much part of the story as the whisky.
What are the threats to the whisky industry?
There are some macro threats more around legislation being prohibitory. Also, the industry goes up and down depending on the state of the economy because it is something people spend money on when they have disposable income and want to celebrate promotions, etc. And if those things aren’t happening then the industry contracts.
Over the last few hundred years, prohibition, when it has come in different markets such as the US, it has had a big impact. And then we look at India, at states like Gujarat and Bihar. This is where the work of associations like ISWAI (International Spirits and Wines Association of India) becomes important because they work with the governments to analyse some of the pros and cons of prohibition.
And then there is competition from other categories like premium gin. And if you look at Scotch whisky, there is bigger competition from, say, Japanese whisky. But competition is a very good thing, especially for the consumer. It also ensures that as an industry, the Scotch whisky remains on top of its game and not become complacent.
What do you think about the whisky being produced in India?
I have visited a number of places here and I am particularly impressed by Amrut. Like William Grant & Sons, they are also a family-run business and they think in the long term. They put a lot of effort and investment into making great single malt whisky. They have wonderful mix of casks from across the world and I think some of their whiskies are exceptional. It is my go to Indian whisky.