Before 2017, the concept of using scotch whisky to make cocktails was virtually unheard of in India. Many traditional whisky drinkers the world over, not just in India, still consider it blasphemy to drink their scotch in any form other than neat or on the rocks. But Diageo Plc’s iconic Johnnie Walker brand has received a significant fillip in the country after it launched a cocktail called Johnnie Ginger about two years ago, the British distiller’s Indian arm said.
“There are sometimes these perceived rules around how to enjoy scotch and that’s not what people want. What people want is to enjoy Johnnie Walker the way they like it. So a highball serve for Johnnie Ginger, or a highball serve for Johnnie with anything, really changes the game. It feels very different – like a longer drink, more refreshing. It feels more accessible. It has been a push for us in India," said Julie Bramham, Diageo’s India marketing head.
For Diageo-USL, the Johnnie Walker Red variant is its largest selling one in India. Sales of the variant grew 13.4% in 2017 from the previous year, according to data from research firm International Wine and Spirits Research (IWSR). While Diageo-USL did not share a growth percentage for calendar 2018, it said sales growth for the variant was significantly higher than it was in 2017.
Johnnie Ginger is a cocktail that largely uses the Johnnie Walker Red variant as a base, and is mixed with ginger ale and served with a slice of lemon in a highball, or long, glass. It can also be made using Johnnie Walker Black, in which case it is served with a slice of orange instead of lemon. Diageo-owned United Spirits Ltd (USL) launched Johnnie Ginger to bring new consumers to the scotch whisky fold, and broaden the scope of occasions for its brand.
India is the world’s largest whisky market, and that is mainly because of sales of locally made whisky brands, which form the bottom of the pyramid. The highest profit margins, however, come from the premium and luxury end of the spectrum, which is dominated by scotch whiskies. But cocktail menus are, typically, led by white spirits such as vodka, rum and gin. When it comes to whisky-based cocktails too, bourbon has been the preferred choice over scotch for bartenders and mixologists.
“All whiskies are moving outside the era of Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours and coming to highball cocktails because it is much easier to drink and it opens up a whole segment of brunch cocktails. Highball whisky cocktails were invented by the Japanese to drink whisky in a better way. It is a whisky soda done in a tall glass, but in a glorified manner made using proper proportions and different kinds of sweeteners. That is what is trending right now and is where scotch is also being used," said a Bengaluru-based mixologist.
Diageo-USL plans to continue to create and invest in Johnnie Walker-themed menus and Johnnie Ginger as a way of getting new consumers to enjoy it on different occasions. It’s a sustainable programme and not a one-off promotion, Bramham said. Sales of the brand have improved by 2.5 times in outlets where the company has launched the cocktail, she added.
“Within the scotch portfolio, Johnnie Walker and Black & White clocked robust growth in the third quarter of 2018-19 aided by the launch of new variants as well as activations that helped to connect better with consumers," said Abneesh Roy, senior vice-president at Edelweiss Securities.