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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Diageo in the News

If you’ve been a Booze Business follower, you know that I like to keep close tabs on Diageo and follow the good, the bad and the “close but no cigars” assessment of their actions.

This past week or so provided lots of press worth commenting upon.

India

As part of their global strategy, Diageo seems to be concentrating on gaining a presence in emerging markets. To do that, they have developed relationships in various countries, focusing on local spirits, at least initially. They have ventures or are selling such locally made products as Raki in Turkey, Baiju in China and local vodka in Vietnam.

This week brought the news that they are launching a local Indian whisky aimed at the country’s middle-income drinkers. Considering the fact that the spirits market in India is 234 million 9-liter cases (2nd only to china and Russia in volume) and growing at a compounded rate of 20% the last five years – I’d say it’s a good move.

But it won’t be easy, given the tough advertising rules for liquor. According to my friend and publisher Bishan Kumar (I write a monthly column for his magazine in India called Spiritz), the pathway to promotion of liquor is centered on point of sale and event sponsorship.

Diageo will also have to confront other past issues. It had a local product (Gilbey’s Green Label) but sold it in 2002 to concentrate on global brands. Now it wants to go back to concentrating on local brands. I suppose time and management changes allow for course adjustments.

Also, in July the US SEC charged the company with violating the Corrupt Practices Act in part for illicit payments made to Indian officials between 2003 and 2009. I read that Diageo agreed to pay more than $16 million to settle the charges. I guess they figured point of sale and event promotions are more effective brand building tools.

ESPN

In another recent move, Diageo signed a deal to become “presenting sponsor” on two shows and – get this – on both the English and Spanish versions of the broadcasts. It’s a smart move to reach different types of audiences with a consistent message.

On the other hand, their initial choice of brands includes Captain Morgan. That made me smile. Some time ago in doing some research on brand potential among Latino consumers, a focus group moderator asked a group of consumers with a Caribbean background how they felt about the brand. One respondent said something like, “Captain Morgan… wasn’t he the dude that sailed all over the Caribbean burning and pillaging? You want me to buy his rum? For all I know he destroyed my great-great-great grandfather’s village.”

Talk about dumb

Diageo announced last week that they are moving production of the US supply of Red Stripe beer from Jamaica to the US.

One of my readers sent me an email on the subject that just about sums it up. “They’ve got to be kidding! They’re not just moving bottling, but production itself. Do they think that consumers are stupid?”

I wrote back and told him not to get too excited. They thought it would be okay since the new facility will also be in Jamaica… Queens.

Besides, if you’re going to take a chance on moving the production of Captain Morgan from one place to another when the brand faces stiff competition, changing Red Stripe production is a trifling matter.

I have a new slogan for them – At Diageo, Our Accountants Rule.

My favorite event of the week

I don’t know how much Diageo’s deal with P Diddy is worth – some give the number in 8 digits or even 9 digit millions – but he sure has done good things for the brand.

Last week, however, he lost it in a club in Atlanta and had to spend much of his time apologizing for what some have referred to as a “foul-mouthed vodka rant.”

Apparently he saw some guy drinking Grey Goose rather than Ciroc and decided to defend his brand by 1) throwing ice at him 2) calling him the “N” word and 3) maligning the guy’s sexual persuasion.

An online blog called Hollywood Gossip quoted him as tweeting, “I’m sorry for the ignorant way I represented myself … I have backslid and regressed. Forgive me for my ignorance. Pray for me pls.”

Don’t apologize Mr. Diddy, Diageo could care less. Your contract is safe. As for me, I just want you to know that you’re my kind of brand ambassador.

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India

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”

Mark Twain

Last month I was contacted by Mr. Bishan Kumar the Group Editor of an Indian magazine focusing on the liquor trade called Spiritz. Mr. Kumar is my type of editor/publisher, someone with a passion for his publication and his readers. We hit it off from the outset and the next thing you know, I’m writing a monthly column called Booze Abroad.

It made me think how little most Americans know about India. From an alcohol industry perspective, India is the subject of many misperceptions and, until recently, you could have included me in that criticism.

Things you might want to know about India and why I’m thrilled to have an audience there  –

Their spirits business is the 3rd largest in the world (236 million cases) and ahead of the US, which is # 4. The industry is dominated by brown spirits and growing at the rate of 18 to 20% per year.

United Spirits Limited (USL) run by Dr. Vijay Mallya, is the major company in the market. It’s the second largest spirits company in the world…and growing. Lookout Diageo.

The dominant factor in the market is Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and all the major global players have a presence in the country. In fact, the # 2 player in the market is Pernod Ricard India Ltd, which had an 8% volume share of spirits in 2010. (By the way, that company was previously Seagram India Ltd. Enough said.)

The future outlook for spirits is quite good based on a number of factors — rising income levels and a growing middle class; a youthful population; international travel and exposure to premium products. All that is fueling a demand for imported products like tequila/mezcal and bourbon/other US whiskies. Currently, whisky, vodka and rum dominate the market.

Oh, and it’s not just about liquor. Beer is flying off the shelves and the wine business, while still small, is growing.

All in all, it’s a fascinating country with a robust and interesting booze industry. With all my international travel, I’m sorry to say I’ve never been to India – a situation I hope will soon change.

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