McDowell’s single malt is the first step towards leveraging a great legacy: Diageo’s Vikram Damodaran - Hindustan Times
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McDowell’s single malt is the first step towards leveraging a great legacy: Diageo’s Vikram Damodaran

By, Delhi
Apr 23, 2024 11:58 AM IST

The whisky has been created in collaboration with the Bengaluru-based Single Malt Amateurs Club (SMAC).

Late last week, mass market brand McDowell’s threw its hat into the Indian single malt ring with the launch of the Distiller’s Batch Indian Single Malt. The entry-level whisky, a triple cask expression, is made at United Spirits’ Nashik distillery. It is aged in ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks, and finished in ex-cabarnet sauvignon and Shiraz casks that are sourced from small vineyards in and around Nashik.

Vikram Damodaran - Chief Innovation Officer, Diageo India
Vikram Damodaran - Chief Innovation Officer, Diageo India

The limited edition whisky — only 6,000 bottles will be released — is priced at 3,500 and is currently only available in Gurgaon. It will go up against the likes of the formidable Indri and Paul John Nirvana which, unlike McDowell’s, have a premium sheen to them.

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The whisky has been created in collaboration with the Bengaluru-based Single Malt Amateurs Club (SMAC).

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United Spirits is the Indian arm of Diageo, the world’s largest alcoholic beverages company, and the Distiller’s Batch is Diageo’s second locally made offering in the segment after Godawan, which was launched in 2022. Last week Godawan 100, a limited edition release, was adjudged ‘Single Malt Whisky of the Year’ at the 2024 London Spirits Competition.

The launch of the new single malt whisky represents the first step in Diageo’s ambitions to premiumise the 125-year-old McDowell’s brand, which set up its first distillery in Cherthala, Kerala, in 1959. McDowell’s is a colossus in the prestige segment in India and among the world’s largest umbrella spirits brands. It makes the world’s largest selling whisky in McDowell’s No.1, which sold over 30 million cases in 2022. Both the brand’s Celebration Rum and No.1 Brandy rank among the world’s largest selling spirits of their kind.

Earlier this month, Diageo India acquired a 15% stake in Inspired Hospitality, which owns the Indian agave spirit brand Pistola. It also owns a stake in Nao Spirits, which makes Greater Than and Hapusa gins.

In this interview with the Hindustan Times, Vikram Damodaran, chief innovation officer, Diageo India, talks about the whisky’s positioning, leveraging McDowell’s legacy, and, among others, its broader strategy in India with regard to white spirits. Edited excerpts.

Diageo India has been working on premiumising McDowell’s for some time. Is the launch of the single malt the first big step towards achieving that aim?

It does represent the first step. It gives us an opportunity to take a mega-brand like McDowell’s and offers a platform to bring the best offerings to consumers. McDowell’s was a brand that also made great rums and brandies and our idea is to reimagine the portfolio. The single malt establishes craftsmanship. We are also renovating the McDowell’s Number 1 Original. Everything else in between is currently in the works.

How is Diageo India positioning McDowell’s single malt? Who do you see buying it?

This is not a whisky for the extremely high-end consumer, it is for those who are dabbling in single malts. The one thing we’ve learnt about single malts is that the consumer isn’t hooked to one brand. He might make a comfortable choice, but he is always open to new experiences. With Godawan, we created a niche with an artisanally crafted whisky with a special mindful luxury component. McDowell’s, on the other hand, is this behemoth with massive recall. We are working on harnessing its legacy.

How do you make this legacy interesting to consumers, who are used to seeing McDowell’s in a different light?

So, with regard to the Nashik distillery, it is one of India’s largest distilleries and a marriage of science, talent, and expertise that is unique to McDowell’s. The best way to convey that is to really bring the entire portfolio McDowell’s once offered back to life albeit in the premium segment, where we will focus, like we have done with the single malt, on the depth of creation.

As far as I know, this is the first time Diageo has actually co-created a whisky. What was the thinking behind the move?

I always tell people that Diageo owns the world’s largest-selling scotch whisky in Johnnie Walker, and in McDowell’s we have the largest selling whisky. For us, reinventing McDowell’s had to be about a whisky made for the people, by the people. That was the idea behind collaborating with SMAC. These are people who really understand the whole process and participated in it. We literally wanted to use the power of crowdsourcing and wanted their insights into everything from the conceptualisation as well as the process parameters. SMAC was also involved in the selection of the casks and the specific finishes.

Last week Diageo India picked up a minority stake in Pistola. This comes about two years after it acquired a minority stake in Nao Spirits. Are these acquisitions elements of a larger plan for the premium craft spirits space?

We’ve invested in two startups so far, but through initiatives such as the Good Craft Co (Diageo India’s ‘craft and innovation’ hub in Goa), we are actively engaged with many startups in the alcobev space. There are about 100 alcohol startups in the country today, and the Good Craft Co. is Diageo’s way of providing them with a nurturing platform. The way these ventures works for us is that there are areas where we are better off doing things with partners. So, if my focus is on whisky and brown spirits, our partners focus on the white spirits, and that’s where Nao Spirits and Pistola come in. That is the strategy.

Nao Spirits also recently launched Pipa Rum. The craft rum space has been hotting up in the last couple of years. How do you see it playing out?

If you look at the US market as a parallel example, you see these waves of different spirits: craft beer during summer, then gins, and vodkas, then bourbons and so on. To me, the proliferation of rums is a sign that India is evolving to different alcoholic beverage experiences. The rum wave is the first indication of that evolution. But we still we have some way to go when it comes to not just rums, but an appreciation of ‘craft’ itself. Craft and knowledge go together and consumers are just discovering what really makes for a craft spirit and that’s the evolution the Indian consumer is going through.

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