Indians like to tipple, particularly the ones that give you a kick. Beam Suntory, therefore, got its star whiskey maker to create a blend that Indians would enjoy - even with water and soda - and yet, leave a hint of Japanese artistry.
Shinji Fukuyo, Chief Blender at Suntory, one who is responsible for every bottle of whiskey that is released from Suntory Distilleries including the single malt Yamazaki and the luxury blend Hibiki, has now come up with a whiskey that would cost between Rs 600 and Rs 1,300 depending on the expression and the state where it is sold.
How did Shinji-san go about the made-for-India whiskey, called Oaksmith? And why does Beam Suntory, which has some of the more hot selling single malts in its portfolio, need a semi-premium whiskey?
Business Today recently caught up with Shinji Fukuyo and Neeraj Kumar, Managing Director of Beam Suntory India.
It emerges that Shinji-san made six visits to India in 2019 to understand Indian consumers. He went to different thekas and restaurants, spoke to shop owners, retailers, consumers.
"I needed to understand the Indian palate first," he says. "I lasted local whiskeys. I drew from consumer research as well. But I always prefer direct communication with consumers during field visits. Then I found Indians drink whiskey with water and soda; they dilute it to lower the alcohol content. But they still need good aromas," the Chief Blender says.
These inputs reflect in his selection of whiskey in the blend. In Oaksmith, he has used smoky and spicy scotch, Kentucky bourbon, and Indian grain spirits. "And then, there is Japanese technique," he says.
Japanese craftsmanship can be more innovative compared to the whiskey makers of Scotland. While Japanese whiskey makers followed the processes of Scotch single malt makers to the tee initially, they developed their own techniques, over time.
"In the case of Yamazaki and Hibiki, the climate is very different in Japan. The water is different. We have hot and humid summers and very dry cold winters. As a result, the maturation is totally different," Shinji-san explains. "Our blending approach is different too. Historically, the Scotch industry sticks to its tested recipes. But we try to maintain the quality and yet change the recipe. We always try to improve our whiskey," he adds.
While in Scotland, whiskey makers have to age the liquid in oak barrels, the Japanese have experimented with barrels made from other wood varieties.
So how should one drink the Oaksmith? Shinji-san says one can enjoy it in Indian-style, with water and soda, or even with coke. "Or you could even have it with a small amount of water. It is very smooth and mild. I see Oaksmith as a gateway," he says. By gateway, he means an entry point to more premium whiskeys of the world, be it Japanese, Irish, or even Scotch.
This brings us to Beam Suntory's India strategy. Premiumisation is a definitive trend in India with growing consumption, affluence, a younger demographic and their aspiration. Yamazaki and Hibiki fit in well here so do the group's other single malts and whiskeys available in India - Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardmore, Teachers, Jim Beam. Nevertheless, any company also needs a mass product to bring in the volumes.
"We have a 2030 vision. In India, we have set a billion dollars (in revenues) ambition by 2030," says Neeraj Kumar. One important pillar to achieve this target would be playing the scale game.
"We did not have an Indian whiskey brand. If we needed to play in scale, we needed a differentiated product. We wanted an Indian whiskey created for the Indian palate but with the finesse and the elegance of what Shinji Fukuyo can bring us. Oaksmith can generate close to 50 per cent of our future revenues," Kumar hopes.
Oaksmith is available in two states to begin with - Maharashtra and Telangana. "Maharashtra has lot many bars; Telengana is one of the largest markets for whiskeys. In 2020, we will focus on these two states and then expand to a national presence by 2021," Kumar says.
India's sale of spirits, meanwhile, is expected to jump from about 304 million cases in 2018 to 350 million cases by 2023. Whiskey, today, forms over 61 per cent of the market by volume and over 73 per cent in terms of value. All this makes focusing on this category a worthy goal.