A National Drink is Born

Mahua, The Traditional Tribal Drink from India, Enters the Mainstream

The US has Bourbon, Mexico has Tequila and Mezcal, Scotland has Scotch, Brazil has Cachaça, and the list goes on and on. But what about India? It’s among the top five alcohol consuming countries in the world and there is a robust spirits/whisky manufacturing industry. Colonial India invented the gin and tonic, but has had no serious candidate for national liquor, until now.

This is the story of the emergence of a national drink, led by one man’s innovativeness and tenacity. An alcohol product with a long history and exclusively Indian heritage, surrounded by legends, and spanning centuries. A historic product from the many tribes in the Central Indian Forest belt.

The products (there are two) are called DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur. The man is Desmond Nazareth and we have met him before in this blog. (You will find them here, here, and here.)

Desmond Nazareth, Founder and Managing Director, Agave India.

The Product

Mahua (pr. Ma-hu-a) is a flower that Indian tribes have been fermenting, distilling, and drinking. The Mahua tree has been considered sacred for centuries. Desmond and his Agave India Company have begun marketing the product under the DJ (DesmondJi) brand in liquor and liqueur formats and selling these products as Indian Made Liquor (IML) since June of this year. But his real challenge is to get the widespread liquor authorities to recognize Mahua as an official, potentially national drink.

Here’s how he describes Mahua:

“Mahua is a nectar rich flower of the Madhuca longifolia tree, which grows in the Central Indian Forest belt, historically inhabited by indigenous people of India, so called ‘Adivasis’, or ‘Tribals’. The nectar rich flowers mature and drop for a month or so in the Mar-April-May timeframe. These edible sundried flowers retain a significant part of their sugars, with a pleasant, complex taste akin to a hybrid of sun-dried raisin, fig and date… For centuries, Central Indian tribes have been collecting and storing Mahua flowers, and consuming single distilled Mahua spirit made from the flowers in traditional clay, wood-fired potstills.”

He depicts the products as “forest-to-bottle” and both are 40% Alcohol by Volume (AbV). The DJ Mahua liqueur is blended with honey and spices and there are plans for a DJ sparkling product. I’ve tried both the liquor and liqueur and found them to be very enjoyable products, with unique and pleasant tastes. The DJ Mahua Liqueur product in particular, was most enjoyable both straight and in cocktails.

Desmond describes Mahua as “the only spirit in the world that is fermented and distilled from naturally sweet flowers.” ‘What about St Germain?” I asked. According to Desmond, St Germain is made by macerating and steeping Elder Flower in alcohol; DJ Mahua is naturally fermented and distilled directly.

The Mahua Mystique

Mahua Tree

What fascinates me about Mahua is its colorful history. Spend a few minutes here and you’ll see what I mean.

As legend has it, Mahua is “An indigenous drink rumored to be the elixir of the Gods and the weakness of deities, the tribals tell tales of how it is coveted by deer, birds, and humans alike.”

According to Desmond, Mahua is more than a drink, it’s a reflection of India’s colorful tribal history. The legends and stories abound with tales of hard-working villagers saved from the messengers of death by Mahua; of animals cavorting while tipsy on the flowers. Desmond writes:

“From bark to fruit, leaf to root, every part of the Madhuca Longifolia (botanical name) earmarks our heritage in a way few other elements of our long cultural history do.”

A well-respected English anthropologist working with tribes in Central India named Felix Padel, a descendent of Charles Darwin, tasted Mahua and was surprised that the government did not develop it as an industry. He is quoted as saying, “I wonder why people in India would prefer French wine and English scotch when something fresh and rejuvenating like Mahua is available.”

And that leads us to Desmond Nazareth’s journey to make Mahua the Indian national drink.

The Challenges and Obstacles

Mahua is currently made in over a third of India’s 29 states and getting Mahua recognized all over India is a daunting task, particularly when you’re a niche, craft distiller with limited resources.

The Indian alcohol market is very complex and, to me at least, somewhat confusing. As I mentioned, its alcohol volume consumption is among the highest in the world but its per capita consumption is low. There is a love-hate relationship with alcohol, dating back to Gandhi’s aversion to it and at least four states and one territory practice prohibition. Yet, Indians love to drink and the worldwide cocktail enthusiasm is alive and well in the major cities.

Indian Made Liquor (IML) consists of two types. One is Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and is the official term used by governments, businesses and media in India to refer to all types of liquor manufactured in the country other than indigenous alcoholic beverages. The other type is Country products such as Feni and Mahua.

Desmond is trying to get a new Excise category established countrywide. It would be known as Heritage alcohol products and strictly governed by international standards. It would be taxed lower than ‘IMFL/IML’ and higher than ‘Country’. He feels that this would encourage entrepreneurs to explore and exploit the huge treasure trove of Indian alcoholic beverages.

To get Mahua recognized as a national drink means a state by state campaign since there is no central national regulatory body equivalent to the USA’s TTB. “It is a crying shame that there currently is no simple Excise/ Revenue/ Customs mechanism for proudly made in India alcoholic beverages to be placed in Travel Retail (Duty Free) outlets in India,” says Desmond.

Nevertheless, an important step forward has emerged, thanks to Desmond’s efforts so far. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is roughly equivalent to the USA’s FDA and is working to standardized the manufacture of Mahua and the use of its ingredients.

What’s Next?

As you read this, know that Desmond is hard at work on a number of levels. The manufacture and sale of DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur in his home state of Goa and elsewhere in India; working on a sparkling Mahua product; and pushing for recognition as a national drink.

My own view of this situation is that it represents a unique and powerful opportunity for a global player to enter the fray. The “size of prize” of the Indian market and overcoming the obstacles for global brands, suggests that the Diageos, Pernods, and others might want to take a close look at Mahua. I think it represents a real opportunity to participate in the development of a new national brand with Indian and global potential. (If I were still at Seagram, I’d be doing just that.)

For a brand to succeed on the global stage, it needs to be good tasting, backed by an entrepreneurial effort, and a have compelling story. DJ Mahua and its variants has all that and more.

It’s time for the product to come out of the woods and reflect its heritage the same way as bourbon, scotch, tequila, and all the other national drinks. I hope that the Indian authorities would grant a type of AOC (protected designation of origin) or Geographic Indication (GI) for Mahua along the same lines as those for cognac, tequila, champagne, and others.

DJ Mahua Liqueur
DJ Mahua
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Alcohol vs. Cannabis Marketing

Seth Godin on the Differences Between the Two

I have followed Seth Godin for many years and have found him to be among the most insightful marketers I know. Here’s a bit about him — he’s an author (18 bestselling books), an entrepreneur (founded two companies, one of which was sold to Yahoo), a speaker/teacher, and a member of both the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame and the Marketing Hall of Fame (probably the only person to be in both). Above all, his views and ideas on effective marketing have inspired, motivated, and changed people and ways of looking at things.

One of his blog posts last week dealt with the differences between marijuana and alcohol marketing. Considering the close scrutiny of the pot business by the booze industry, I asked and received his permission to share most of his blog post with you.

Let’s look at Seth’s views followed by my comments.

(By the way, as I write this, it was just announced that Constellation Brands has increased its investment in a Canadian cannabis company by $4 billion.) 

US prohibition ended in 1933. After that, there was a gold rush that led to the creation of dozens of billion dollar brands.

80 years later, the prohibition against pot is ending in various places throughout North America and then, probably, worldwide.

The question some professional marketers are asking is: Will there be worldwide profitable brands for pot that are similar to Bacardi, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff for alcohol?

Both industries are regulated. Both have products that are sold in specialty stores. Both use non-proprietary manufacturing techniques.

Here’s the big difference:

When alcohol marketing became legal, it coincided with the glory days of magazines, radio and then TV. The mass marketing phenomenon happened at exactly the same time as these brands were being rolled out—and along with cigarettes, alcohol brands were major advertisers, particularly in magazines (liquor) and TV (beer). The ads supported the media in a fundamental way (and vice versa–Rick’s Cafe anyone?).

But when cannabis marketing arrives, it’s the internet that’s dominant. And the internet isn’t a mass medium.

It seems like one. It’s used by billions of people.

But it’s a micro medium. A direct marketing medium. There are 3 billion people online, but they’re busy looking at 3,000,000 web pages (that’s only a thousand a page).

The other difference is that there’s a thousand-year tradition of the pub and the bar. And those facilities offer status games, word of mouth and significant margins that created another marketing engine for alcohol that won’t exist for cannabis.

Sure, it’s possible that the huge demand and profit margins will fund a winner-take-all advertising movement for pot. But it’s more likely to be more like local espresso or high-end chocolate or whiskey (word of mouth) and less like vodka.

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My Comments and Observations

  1. Seth is obviously on target; the overall world of marketing has steadily been moving from macro to micro — away from mass media toward direct to consumer media. To a large extent this is happening in the booze business today. Brand building and communication has left mass approaches (print as well as broadcast) in favor of word-of-mouth, bartender influence, publicity and event marketing.
  2. Let’s not forget that currently, the cannabis industry is totally on a state by state basis. There are no national brands and there will not be until such time as the federal government approves its sale. Marketing, therefore, is regional, at best.
  3. The notion that the absence of bars and restaurants for cannabis will inhibit marketing is true now but will it be in the future? In many of the legal recreation use states, weed cafes are springing up and it’s a topic that will grow in the future. Think Bulldog Café in Amsterdam.
  4. As to branding, that too is emerging. Consider this:
  • For many cannabis consumers, the content and type are surrogates for brands. They talk about Indica vs. Sativa. For others, it’s the amount of CBD vs THC that becomes the brand.
  • For those introduced to weed medicinally, they think of the brand the same way as branding in prescription drugs — by function.
  • In this regard, recreational users have the function/purpose of the cannabis as an identifier, such as “sleep,” “arouse,” “harmony,” “awake,” etc. These are clearly labeled and provide a kind of branding function.
  • There are brands like Dompen, LuxLyte and others. But the function/purpose is the main factor.
  1. At this stage, it’s the retailer that becomes the brand. Check out the list of retailers in Colorado. A company I wrote about recently, MedMen, has stores all over the country, both dispensing medicinal cannabis as well as recreational. The dispensary is the source of quality and other reassurances.
  2. Interestingly, the beer folks are getting into alcohol infused cannabis, partly leveraging their own brand’s influence. There’s even a brand of wine made with THC.

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As of June, of this year, 30 states have legalized medical marijuana and 9 have approved recreational use. New Jersey and New York are expected to legalize recreational use soon. So, clearly, legalization of cannabis is here to stay and will grow in acceptance.

The key marketing issue will be, as Seth points out, the difficulty in mimicking branding (and reach) of the alcohol world. Perhaps that means that no one brand will predominate; perhaps the function/purpose will be the brand; or the retailer. But, it’s still earlier days for the fledgling legal business.

He’s also correct that the marketing of cannabis, despite other similarities with booze, will have its own model and pattern.

Like the man says, more like whisk(e)y and less like vodka.

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Seagram’s 7 Crown: Then and Now

An iconic brand still alive and kicking

Seagram’s 7 Crown launched an interesting event last week — the first official National Dive Bar Day. No surprise that the launch date was 7/7. So, there’s lots to tell about the brand and this event. Let’s start with the event.

Dive Bars

Here’s how the folks at Diageo described this brand promotion:

“The Dive Bar is an American institution: where long-lasting memories are created, where people-watching is imperative, and where the greatest stories and a come-as-you-are attitude, live. Seagram’s 7 Crown will raise a glass to these historic hidden gems found across America, marking the first official National Dive Bar Day, fittingly taking place on July 7th, 2018 – in celebration of the quintessential Dive Bar drink, the 7&7.”

There are lots of definitions of a Dive Bar, some negative like this one in the Urban Dictionary: “A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” Whew, that’s mean.

The one that comes closest to what I think, is from my friend, Gaz Regan:

“Dive bars …. are bare bones joints where guests are treated equally whether they arrived wearing greasy overalls, or tuxedos … when the guest wants a quick shot and a beer before heading out to some swank affair. These places are great equalizers. The filing clerk can tell the CEO how to run the company better in a dive bar.  And in a real dive, the CEO will actually listen.”

Linking Seagram’s 7 and Dive Bars makes sense on many levels. First, the brand is an icon and an important part of America’s drinking history. It’s a natural link and since the purpose of Dive Bar Day is to support these places through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it makes sense.

In addition, Dive Bars suggest fun, camaraderie, and good times. According to Jason Sorley, Diageo Brand Director for Seagram’s 7, both the brand and Dive Bars have a storied past and have been an important part of the American drinking culture. (Here’s a list of the best dive bars in every state from Thrillist.)

Seagram’s 7 Crown

As I was doing my homework for this article, I walked into my favorite neighborhood package store and asked for a bottle. (Yeah, it’s been a long time since I bought one.) The owner, who’s a friend, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “Seriously?” he said, “You come in for all kinds of fancy shmantzy whiskies and gins and now you want Seagram’s 7? I don’t carry that. I remember it but who drinks that these days?”

I grumbled something about how any store can fail to stock an American liquor icon and one that millions of folks remember as their drinking “training wheels.” In fact, for decades, the 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7 Up) was the drink of choice for entry level drinkers. It tastes great and is easy to drink. But, alas, many other booze products have usurped that esteemed rite of drinking passage.

So, I for one am delighted that Diageo is working to bring that brand back.

Let’s Look at Some Numbers

One of the things that I’ve learned about the booze business is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to kill a brand based on its sales. Sure, a manufacturer can end the life of a brand, but, the marketplace itself will rarely if ever kill a brand.

According to the ex-Seagram people I spoke with who worked on the brand, at its peak, Seagram 7 Crown reached well over 8 million (9-litre) cases in the late 1970s. Even by 1990, when whiskies were losing dramatically to vodka, the brand sold close to 4 million cases. As to my retailer friend’s view that the brand is dead, guess what? Today Seagram’s 7 still sells in the 2 million case range. In fact, according to Shanken’s Impact, the brand is in the top 30 leading spirit brands in the US. So there, Mr. Retailer!

The Brand’s History

To stay with the numbers for a moment…

Seagram’s 7 was the 1st brand ever to reach 1 million cases. The 1st to sell 100 million cases. And, over the years sold over 300 million cases in 1983. (See close up photo below.) We’re talking a multi-billion-dollar brand, boys and girls.

The back label of the commemorative bottle from the 300 million case celebration

As the story goes, after prohibition and before WWII, Seagram introduced two blended American Whiskies — Seagram 5 Crown and 7 Crown. Why the name Seagram 7? The apocryphal story is that Sam Bronfman (the Seagram patriarch, known as Mr. Sam) was presented with a range of candidate products for a blended whiskey and ended up choosing the one he liked — the 7th one presented to him.

Whatever happened to Seagram’s 5? During the Second World War the government asked distillers to cut back on alcohol production to aid the war effort. Seagram’s 5 was not doing as well as 7, so it was discontinued. Also, Seagram’s 5 was higher in alcohol at 86.8 proof.

How did the 7&7 come to be? (Another apocryphal story.) Well, those were the days when distributor sales reps tried to build brands rather than just fill orders. So, an aggressive sales rep thought it would be clever to link the 7 in 7up with Seagram’s 7. Much to his surprise it was great and the 7&7 was born.

Here’s What Else I Can Tell You

  1. At Seagram and since then, I’ve heard it referred to differently. Internally, we referred to the brand as 7 Crown. Among consumers and generally outside of Seagram it was called Seagram 7 or just plain ‘7.’
  2. The event linking the brand to Dive Bar Day was organized and run by Greg Leonard and his company Proof Media Mix. Greg is a former Seagram and Diageo PR and activation executive and, for my money, the best in the business at making ideas and events come alive,
  3. Did you know that Seagram’s 7 — a blended American Whiskey contains a large percentage of grain neutral spirits? Check the packaging, right on the front label it says “75 per cent Grain Neutral Spirits.” Even back in the day, GNS was a significant proportion of Seagram’s 7. In fact, the US regulations for blended whiskey allows a blend of straight whiskies and up to 80 percent neutral spirits.
  4. I’ve often heard it said that brands have a life cycle — from creation to maturity to decline, and ultimately gone. Maybe. Here’s a brand that had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s and is still alive and kicking. Like I said, manufacturers kill brands, consumers don’t.

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I wish to thank the following people whose thoughts and experiences helped shape this article… Rob Warren, Greg Leonard, and John Hartrey. Special thanks to John for sharing his collection of Seagram memorabilia and photos. In fact, John has the dubious distinction of being the last Seagram’s 7 brand director at Seagram.

Diageo activation at the 2018 Firefly Music Festival  (Photo by Jack Dempsey)
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