Crack open the bubbly, lovely

Crack open the bubbly, lovely

“And this is our bar,” Sharmila tells me as she brings the tour of her new flat to a close. “Ravi designed it himself and it took two weeks to finish,” she says proudly as she explains how it uses wood and leather and how she bought the champagne glasses on a visit to Austria.

Sharmila and Ravi are an average, recently married middle-class couple living in Mumbai. They’ve just upgraded to a better area of the city and on my first visit to their new home, I am being taken around with pride, ending at the spanking new bar.

It’s almost a reverential moment and I nearly feel I should prostrate myself before this latter-day temple to Nirvana.

Thankfully, Ravi walks in at that point and breaks the ice by pouring a drink for all of us, including a stiff vodka for his wife.

And my friends aren’t an isolated example. On gourmetindia.com, which calls itself India’s premier food and drink forum, a topic on whisky has attracted 660 replies, more than every other topic except for French food. Too much of anything is bad, but too much of a good whisky is barely enough, the site says.

Demonstration enough of how our attitudes to alcohol have changed in recent years.
No longer is alcohol something to be kept out of the house, a guilty pleasure to be indulged in on a boys’ night out, but it’s a joy best shared – with one’s family and friends in the comfort of one’s own home. And they’re not just in our homes, their availability in supermarkets means they’re a regular feature on many monthly grocery shopping lists. Overall, the Indian market for alcohol — mostly spirits and beer, as well as wine – totalled $14 billion in 2008, Time magazine reported.

It is one of the fastest-growing alcohol markets in the world. Imports account for only a tiny fraction of that, but with India booming while demand elsewhere stalls, no international beverage company can afford to ignore it. Over the next five years, the Indian market for alcohol is projected to grow at 10 per cent a year — more than China, the US and Europe combined, according to an estimate by KPMG India, quoted by Time.
Wine consumption alone is reportedly growing at 25 to 30 per cent a year, according to figures quoted by the Karnataka Wine Board.

Across Asia, social drinking is a popular pastime as disposable incomes rise and young populations embrace the party scene.
Urban youth in India is taking to alcohol in a big way: a NIMHANS study has revealed that the average age of alcohol consumption in India has fallen by nearly nine years over the past decade, from 28 to 19 years; this is predicted to fall to 15 in another five or seven years.
This growth has been driven both by changing attitudes in a liberalised generation and an increasing availability of product.

For example, not only is wine now seen as cool and sophisticated particularly with the many variables involved in judging whether a particular bottle is fit to drink or not, but any taboos that remained disappeared recently when doctors decided red wine in particular, with its high levels of reservatrol, is beneficial for its cardiovascular, anti-cholesterol and anti-inflammatory effects.

With other beverages, too, everything one could possibly want is now available openly on the Indian market – and more niche tastes, as always in India, are easily satisfied if the price is right.

Recent entrants into the market are Bacardi-Martini India’s premium vodka brand Eristoff, which is hoping for a nationwide roll out this year as part of a plan to capture a sizeable share of the market in the next two years, and Australia’s Victoria Bitter or VB beer, launched this January, already talking of gaining 12 per cent of the country’s beer business by 2012.

Niche products are also easy to find now, such as the Lady Bird Bio Beer, a herbal, vitamin-rich beer produced by a Bangalore-based researcher.

That these ambitious plans require big marketing and PR budgets – and creative advertising campaigns to convince consumers they suddenly need these wonderful new products – goes without saying, but the impact of such messages must surely be driving liquour sales up.

Shahrukh Khan, for instance, was memorably the face of Masterstroke whisky, while Saif Ali Khan, MS Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh have endorsed the Royal Stag brand. And if it’s okay for SRK to tell you that Pepsi should be your drink of choice, it’s a masterstroke to have him recommend a whisky.

In large part, you could easily blame the state for this happy state of affairs. Governments are increasingly also in on the act as they look for creative new ways to raise revenue. Karnataka is the first state in the country to have declared wine a family drink with a stated policy of promoting wine as a culture in the state. Not even liberal Goa is as forthright. It has also paid off for the government in other ways: With 1,800 acres being used for viniculture in Karnataka, up from 500 acres, the state now exports wine to the UK, France and the US.

Naturally, then, there are plans to push the envelope further, to keep the glass topped up. Boutiques specialising in wine and other high-end beverages are a sudden new retail trend, while wine clubs are helping manufacturers find new markets. And wine tourism is already being hailed as the next big step.

Given India’s demographics, the possibilities are endless. When Vijay Mallya said last month that he wanted his flagship United Spirits Ltd to top the world’s liquor market, he cited one major factor in achieving this milestone: in the next five years, he said, more than 100 million potential consumers will come of legal drinking age in India. India is already the third largest alcohol market in the world. However, this also makes it the third largest country in the world with a drinking problem. For, without moralising, it would serve us well to look to the example of the UK, where increased operating hours for pubs and the availability of cheap booze at the supermarket have fuelled a rise in binge drinking and alcohol-related violence over the past few years.

So much is it a problem that it has been an issue during this general election. Which begs the question, how much longer is it going to be before the same can be said of India?

Lore from the days of yore

According to a paper by social historian Dr Jyotsna Kamat, Karnataka has long been the homeland of several different inidgeneous alcohols and liquours. Traditionally, these have been brewed from rice, ragi, palm and ichala, grapes, mangoes, jackfruit, coconut and dates. Drinking was undertaken leisurely, under pleasing surroundings and decorated pavilions. Goddess of wine (Madhudevate) was invoked and the Mother Earth was propitiated. Draughts of liquor were put on the head (as a mark of respect). Then it was poured into artistically shaped bowls with bird heads and carved from mother of pearl, beautiful shells etc. To avoid inebriation, a dose of ghee and some herbal medicine was recommended.

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