Food

Four women in spirits: meet the entrepreneurs behind India’s new liquor brands

Anjali Shahi and Lavanya Jayashankar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There’s change rippling through the Indian alcobev industry with 2021 seeing women take the helm at the Indian arms of two of the largest alcohol companies in the world: Diageo (in July 2021) and Moet Hennessy. Women also have key positions across most beverage multinationals, reflecting not just increased diversity, but also the changing face of their consumer.

The other seismic shift that has taken place is in the craft spirits space in the country, where a slew of mostly young entrepreneurs of both sexes have captured the zeitgeist, and made Indian brands cool and aspirational. However, while there have been changes in the producer profile, the actual business still gets done via distributors, retailers, and bars and pubs. These are largely male-run and owned, with women being allowed to bartend in select states and only a handful working behind the bar. The supply chain for these companies — sourcing raw material, packaging — is still male dominated; in many cases, with traditional mindsets and ways of working.

Therefore, it is a challenging space for a woman entrepreneur to enter. That said, the four bosses featured here are the first to point out that with the trials have also come the unique advantages of working in a space like premium alcohol. Where a strong design aesthetic and a keen grasp of the consumer mindset are both key — natural advantages for a woman.

Anjali Shahi and Lavanya Jayashankar will be launching Matinee Gin this month

Eighteen years ago, while navigating through their business degree in Singapore and drinking copious amounts of gin, little did Anjali Shahi and Lavanya Jayashankar know that they would be launching Matinee, their own brand of gin, in 2021. Scheduled to launch in Goa on March 13, it is currently a two-woman team, with external consultants engaged on a case-to-case basis.

The epiphany came to Shahi in 2017, while living and working in London, home to around 300 brands of gin, and with India at that time having nothing to show as a local brand apart from Blue Riband. The irony which didn’t escape her was that several of these brands used Indian spices.

The idea then sprung to create an indigenous craft gin, using snake saffron, white turmeric, kagzi lime and Goan peppercorn — spices that make Matinee distinctive (even if Singapore’s Brass Lion Gin, run by Jamie Koh, does something similar — using torch ginger flowers, lemongrass and the like, says Shahi).

Although the gin landscape in India has changed a fair bit over the last four years, the duo, in their mid-thirties, still felt that there was a gap. “Matinee is here to liven up the party as gin has been taking itself too seriously,” says Shahi, sharing their plans to enter Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi and Chandigarh this year.

To zero in on the seven botanicals, she distilled 42 herself. Naomi Fletcher, the ex-Soho House (Mumbai) consulting mixologist, helped her in the blending and shortlisting process.

Meanwhile, Jayashankar was focussing on the label and creatives. “We wanted a bottle that would catch even the corner of your eye,” she says, adding, “One of the key lessons I have learnt in 15 years of working on brands is that balancing both feminine and masculine energies leads to the most well-rounded products, services, and communications.”

To be available in Goa at ₹1,490 for a 750ml bottle

Kasturi Banerjee

Kasturi Banerjee   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kasturi Banerjee, banker turned blender, launched Maka Zai rum in January 2021

Maka Zai means “I want” in Konkani, and the brand name of this new-age rum represents Kasturi Banerjee’s desire to put a local craft rum in the hands of Indian consumers. Stilldistilling Spirits, the company she recently founded, is her first foray into entrepreneurship, and an interesting shift from a 14-year career in financial services. For Banerjee, who moved from banker to bartender to finally blender, the first round of funding that she closed was all from friends and family (a testament to the familial support she received, and strong work ties).

With a keen interest in spirits that are aged and matured, gold rum was a logical choice. White rum was also added as a product with Banerjee, in her early 40s, branding it as the Bartender’s Edition (₹1,000). Recognising that there was no uniquely Indian drink for celebrations, she christened the gold rum as the Tribute Edition (₹1,300).

A wholly Indian product, Maka Zai has an Olive Ridley turtle on its colourful label, a tribute to the magnificent sea creature which, after a long and perilous voyage to the shores of Goa (and other parts of India), lays its eggs on its beaches, before plunging back into the ocean. While creating and blending her rums, Banerjee sourced countless spirit samples from distilleries across India, finally zeroing in on molasses-based cane spirit from Kolhapur and barrel-aged cane spirit from North India. The white rum is made from sugarcane growing in and around Maharashtra’s Panchganga river, picking up “influences of the red soil and making it floral, sweet, spicy and herbaceous”. The gold rum is far richer in taste, with “hints of praline, date and figs and a touch of spice”.

Banerjee is grateful for the support she has received from industry luminaries like Shatbhi Basu, Yangdup Lama, and Dimi Lezinska, among numerous others (full disclosure: I have been associated as an informal advisor to the brand over the past six months).

Varna Bhat

Varna Bhat   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Varna Bhat, branding expert, launched Rahasya Vodka in January 2021

Bhat’s parents wanted her to be a civil servant, but as John Lennon sang, ‘Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans’. Her first entrepreneurial venture, RapidStall, focussed on eco branding solutions for businesses. Beverages were always an area of interest, and while in conversation with friends, she realised that India had no signature drink. Something that led to the launch of Rahasya Vodka in Goa earlier this year — a brand conceptualised and created by Bhat, who is in her mid thirties, with a team of blenders.

With gin brands mushrooming around her, opting for a flavoured vodka seemed like a clear differentiator. An added advantage was that the flavour profile, with a hint of spice, was uniquely Indian, unlike other flavoured vodkas available in the market.

Bhat — who has her eyes set on Maharashtra, Karnataka and a few export markets — has been inspired by the story of Gem and Bolt Mezcal, founded by two women, AdrinAdrina and Elliott Coon, and how they built a successful brand. “Women have a level of instinctual understanding about consumers and their preferences that helps create a strong understanding for any business, not just alcohol,” says Bhat, who has a team of 30 people across her companies, with a higher ratio of women.

Available only in Goa at ₹850 for a 750ml bottle

The writer is CEO of Tulleeho and co-founder of 30 Best Bars India

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 6:26:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/these-women-bosses-are-leading-three-of-indias-new-liquor-brands/article33999483.ece

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