Bengaluru-based Alina Harun, a business development professional at an ed-tech firm, loves a good Long Island Iced Tea (LIIT) when she’s out with her friends at the bar. LIIT is a strong cocktail made of tequila, vodka, triple sec, gin, rum and a splash of cola. At other times, she would order a classic Bombay Sapphire or a Red Sangria depending on her mood and the time of the week. Harun’s choices, when it comes to liquor, represent the diverse preferences of urban working women who are experimental with their drinks.
Similarly, when Mumbai-based Alisha Rodrigues (name changed on request) goes to a bar, she orders drinks based on the occasion. “When I am with my friends at a bar over the weekend, sometimes we prefer a strong cocktail or a beer pitcher. At other times, for an occasional meet-up during the week, I prefer going light so that I can go on with the day in my senses. I am not a fan of sweet drinks or rose-flavoured drinks,” she adds.
When the girls in the movie, Sex and the City, ordered a Cosmopolitan, it became popular as the ultimate woman’s drink. A ‘cosmo’, as it is also known in short, is a cocktail with vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and sweetened lime juice. Like the sweet-flavoured cocktail, a dozen more fruity and light flavours pop up during a simple Google search for ‘women’s drinks’. Apart from soft liquors like beer and wine, vodka too has earned the label of being a ‘women’s drink’.
However, Kasturi Banerjee shatters the stereotypes. The founder and director of Stilldistilling Spirits says since the consumption of liquor has not been a acceptable ritual in India; naturally when it came to women, they were supposed to have sweeter, lighter alcohol like Breezer and ready-to-drink mixes. That is how the stereotypes were born. However, she adds that along with travelling and experimentation at home, women’s preferences have evolved in quality. “I know so many women who like whisky and rum. The patterns have changed with a shift towards conscious, healthier drinking and women are a big part of it,” she says.
The shift is evident in numbers, too, which show a decline in liquor consumption for both men and women, as conscious drinking takes the centre stage post Covid.
According to the recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report, the percentage of Indian men consuming liquor fell from 32% to 22% in the last 15 years and that of women from 2.2% to 0.7%. For the study, 7,24,115 women and 1,01,839 men were surveyed. The survey also notes that alcohol consumption dipped in women across all age groups. It also indicates that those who consume liquor have been consuming more of it during the period.
Before the pandemic, alcohol consumption in India had increased by 38% between 2010 and 2017, and the women’s alcohol market was expected to grow by 25% over the next five years. In Delhi itself, 40% of men and 20% of women (almost 15 lakh women) are alcohol consumers, according to a survey by Community Against Drunken Driving (CADD) that surveyed 5,000 women from Delhi aged between 18 and 70 years.
However, a study published in the Lancet Journal in July this year states that the alcohol consumption among Indian women in the age group of 15-39 years increased by 0.08% since 1990. The study further mentions that currently, 5.39 million Indian women in this age group are consumers of alcohol.
Smriti Sekhsaria, head of marketing, Moet Hennessy India, says: “Indian women are expanding their drinking repertoire from white spirits (vodka) and wines to brown spirits such as malts and tequila. Having said that, the preferred alcoholic drink for Indian women continues to be wines, followed by sparkling wine. Globally, we qualitatively see women moving towards spritz beverages, which has started penetrating India via cocktailing.”
Today’s reality is far from the stereotypes. Women are experimental with their tastes and want to try newer cocktails, even stronger drinks basis the time of the week and the occasion.
In fact, women make up for 10% of participants in events organised by Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) that was founded by Bengaluru-based IT professional Hemanth Rao in 2011.
That is a small percentage, but SMAC’s Rao says that over the past decade, he has witnessed a steady increase in number and a notable evolution in India’s whisky culture—the most important change being that it is no longer perceived as an ‘old man’s drink’. “New-age whisky drinkers comprise both young men and women who are starting to enjoy whisky and are genuinely interested in the history behind their drinks,” he says.
Underlining some of the most common stereotypes around women’s liquor, Rao says, “It is usually thought that women like wine, gin and tonic and prefer their cocktails to be sweet and colourful, and women don’t like whisky. But there has been a lot of exposure due to travel, leading to increased acceptance in society compared to a decade ago; women can now consume liquor socially and don’t have to enjoy it in private,” he adds.
Some of the contributing factors, according to Rao, in pushing away social taboos have been the availability of quality liquor, large participation in events like tastings and weekly offers for women, like a ladies’ night.
Since no one better than a bartender would know what women order, Sahil Negi, bartender at Hoots’ in Delhi, which was voted among Asia’s 50 Best Bars, says the choice of liquor among women varies a lot based on the taste profile of a particular person. But he adds that women today mostly prefer to have drinks with low sugar content which are also light on the palate.
Over the years, according to Negi, there has been a drastic change in the drinking preferences of women. “The trend has shifted away from the usual cocktails with straight vodka soda or vodka water. Cocktails with the base of gin, vodka and tequila are most preferable among women these days,” he adds.
According to Minakshi Singh, co- founder & CEO, Sidecar India, there is not much difference in the way men and women drink today. Many times, she also finds women sitting at her bar and enjoying cocktails by themselves as well, which, for her, is a great sign of progression, and how far we have come, in the last 10 years of running bars in India. Singh, too, agrees with the stereotype that women will drink ‘sweeter’ cocktails, which have low ABV or are less potent.
Ruchika Gupta, marketing director, Beam Suntory India, says their Roku Japanese Craft Gin and Sipsmith London Dry Gin, some of the white spirits in their portfolio, have a fair amount of fan following across genders. “Similarly, our Japanese whiskies Suntory Whisky Toki and Hibiki Japanese Blended Whisky, or even the classic Single Malts like Laphroaig and Bowmore have received a lot of interest among women,” she adds.
A 2009 advertisement for Bacardi Breezer has a cat going to a club full of women—a female DJ and an all-women crowd. It clearly targets its women consumers and the young generation—giving way to the stereotypical notion that flavourful and light drinks are for women to consume during clubbing and parties.
While it is true that the market of soft liquor is expanding post Covid and was becoming bigger even before that, it is also true that women alone do not remain the consumers in this industry today.
In fact, that is not the only case when it comes to liquor. Industry experts says the demand for low-alcohol, gluten-free, non-alcoholic and low-sugar beverages has gone up, too, as the focus shifts towards drinking in a healthy, responsible manner.
As the crowd socialises after two years of social distancing, one also wants to be out for a longer time, having lighter drinks and more of them in quantity and better in quality. At times, one would prefer a single drink but high in quality. This has paved the way for the flavoured, ready-to-drink, non-alcoholic or low-alcohol drinks market in India—catering to the urban millennials.
A report published by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) in August 2021 had suggested that the alcoholic beverages market in India was estimated to be around $52.5 billion and was expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.8% till 2023. ICRIER’s report titled ‘Contribution of Non-alcoholic Beverage Sector to Indian Economic Growth & Atmanirbhar Bharat’ also states that the size of the non-alcoholic beverage market was estimated at Rs 671 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach around Rs 1,472.33 billion in 2030, indicating a boom of the non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic beverage market.
Australian wine brand Jacob’s Creek recently forayed into the non-alcoholic wine category, witnessing a demand in this sector. The Unvined, a non-alcoholic wine with less than 0.5% alcohol, is available in two varietals—Riesling and Shiraz. It is designed for those who want to enjoy a glass of wine without the alcohol content yet retaining the true character of the original styles and flavours. It also has 50% less calories than regular wine of the same varietal, catering to the evolved consumer base’s preferences and mood.
Several new brands have also emerged in the space—Bengaluru-based ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages O’Be Cocktails launched in 2019 and secured a funding from Ola’s Bhavish Aggarwal. Another 2018 brand Moonshine Meadery, India’s first meadery, has lately been doing well. It intends to revamp meads, known as the ‘elixir of Gods’, the oldest alcoholic beverage that is gluten-free.
Kartik Mohindra, chief marketing officer, Pernod Ricard India, says that though the non-alcoholic wine may sound counterintuitive and something out of the ordinary, sometimes this is exactly what the evening calls for. He adds that the idea behind the creation of Unvined was to ensure that everyone is able to celebrate important life moments with their friends and family in a way that suits their lifestyle.
However, the evolution of choices of liquor among men has not been at the same pace as that of women. Gupta of Beam Suntory India explains that since women’s participation in consumption of spirits lagged behind that of men, so did their trajectory of graduation. And while choices evolved for men when their consumption went relatively more mainstream in India, women were seen to prefer early trajectory choices like cocktails, alcopops and few other low ABV and conventionally mixable drinks like white spirits, which specifically got branded as “women’s drinks”. “That historic reference aside, the field is now quite levelled as we see consumers enjoying a variety of our brands without displaying any gender specific patterns,” she adds.
According to Beam Suntory India’s consumer surveys of 2021, potential women’s participation in drinking in India is as high as 45%, with an actual penetration of about 18% (as per their internal workings) in 2021, shares Gupta, adding that in the coming months, they will be coming out with new flavours for some of their existing brands. However, they will all be gender-neutral products and marketed as such.
With more and more women bartenders and new liquor brands owned by women being launched, the industry is already undergoing an inclusive change. Kasturi Banerjee’s Makazai Rum, Anjali Shahi and Lavanya Jayashankar’s Matinee Gin, Varna Bhat’s Rahasya Vodka, Yoginee and Ashwini’s Cerara Meads, and Sakshi Saigal’s Stranger and Sons are some of the women-led brands that are paving the way.
Soft liquor bars
The soon-to-be-implemented Delhi Excise Policy 2022 has a provision that allows the opening of special beer and wine only bars. These soft liquor bars will require a cheaper licence as compared to that of conventional liquor bars. The move comes with the rising popularity of soft liquor beverages in India. The Beer Café founder Rahul Singh says that this is a welcome move and will impact tourism in a positive way.
Singh explains that this is not the first time that these licences are being given but the governments have gone back and forth with the provisions. He says that currently, Delhi is underserved with only 800 points of sales whereas Mumbai and Pune have 3,000 and 1,000, respectively. “Every state wants to promote low-on-alcohol beverages as it basically means getting away from hard liquor. That is the trend in other countries too,” he adds.
Perch wine and coffee bar co-founder Sandeep Bishnoi, too, applauds the initiative and says that it could surely be a successful model depending on the specific provisions. “Soft liquor is always refreshing. Also, it’s a good way to differentiate oneself in the market. It can help revive the industry which has had a tough time in the pandemic as well as help with government revenue. So, it’s a win-win for all. We are just waiting to see how it is going to be implemented but we are optimistic,” he adds.
Delhi-based sommelier Magandeep Singh calls the soft liquor market affordable for the bar owners as they do not need to have an intensive bar set up. But it means that a beer can be sold at a coffee shop too. But at the same time, he pitches for full liquor licences to be cheaper. “In the immediate sense, I am all for it. It allows for the civility of equaling alcohol with other beverages in the longer run. But it doesn’t make much difference if one has several bottles of liquor and gets drunk and has one glass of whiskey and remains in their senses. So, full liquor licences should be cheaper too,” he adds.
Singh, however, says that with plenty of soft liquor options available in the market today like various flavours of beers, seltzers, fruit-based beverages, meads, wines, ready-to-drink offerings, one could have a hundred different options at the soft liquor bars as the industry has expanded in the last three to four years.