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Daag mein kuchh kala hai

india Updated: Jan 15, 2010 20:27 IST
Girija Duggal
Girija Duggal
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Expect a rise in the prices of your favourite desi whisky, rum and vodka brands very soon. No, it’s not a hike in excise duties this time around (thank god for small mercies); the culprit is a sweet, unsuspecting customer — molasses.

What does this dark, viscous liquid have to do with this situation? A lot, actually, considering that this sugarcane-derived product is the starting point of almost 90% of all Indian Made Foreign Liquor. While international whisky makers use grain such as barley or corn to distill whisky, for example, Indian manufacturers make do with spirit obtained from fermented molasses. And where grain-based or malt whiskies get their colour naturally from oak barrels during the maturation process, ‘fake’ colouring is added to desi whisky.

So molasses are, in a sense, the liquid gold of our world. And for the past couple of years, its cost has been on a steep upward journey. In the space of twelve months, prices have almost doubled, leaving small distilleries fighting for survival. No wonder companies are considering a small hike to counter that.

That shouldn’t be all that worrisome for most of us, seeing as we are (silently) suffering exorbitant duties as it is. An extra twenty to thirty rupees is not going to hamper your or my daily/weekly/monthly tipple. At the very worst, some may switch to cheaper liquors, or stretch a bottle an extra mile, knowing that not much can be done about market vagaries.

But it’s the unfairness of the situation that we, the consumers, are caught in that’s irksome. The molasses problem is a minor part of a larger picture called protectionism. You see, in the wake of a price hike in domestic liquor (and, of course, on other days as well), there are very few imported alternatives in the same price bracket for consumers to choose from. That’s because import duties have been kept so high that IMFL brands have a protective halo around them, allowing them to bag a lion’s share of the market. So in situations like the one we are facing currently, we’ll just have to grin and bear the hike, and subsequent hikes, for lack of options.

The ideal scenario would be one where today’s celebratory bottles become regular buys, and we start looking at super luxury labels for special occasions. Till then, here’s hoping the sugar cane sector can resolve its woes, because ultimately, in their happiness lies ours.