When A Billion Indians Drink…

We Indians drink about 500 million litres of beer and 3 billion litres of spirits a year. And the party has just begun.

The Great Indian Alcoholic Rush is on and the liquor majors are salivating at the prospects. Why wouldn’t they? We make up the 3rd largest liquor market in the world. We have doubled our alcohol consumption over the last decade. Yet, by global standards, we are just on our first sip & our consumption is just a drop in the barrel.

The average Subramaniam or Sharma drink about 2L of beer in a year. Just babes in the woods, compared to the average Chan or Zhiang in China who guzzle 25L. Our eager Subramaniams and Sharmas don’t imbibe too much of the spirits either compared to their peers in China or the US. But they are enthusiastic & growing up fast. They show promise. They make the fastest growing big market for liquor of all kinds, especially beer & whiskey. No big alcoholic brand worth their yeast can afford to ignore the burgeoning appetites of our Sharmas & Subramaniams.

Disposable incomes of our teeming millions are rising. We are learning to splurge like there is no tomorrow. Our habits & culture are changing fast. We are constantly on the look out for occasions to drink and be merry. Our creative spirits in the tech world have spilled over to the bar. Uniquely desi concoctions and cocktails are being crafted. Innovative craft beers spiced with, what else, Indian spices, are quite the rage. Pot-holed roads and mind-numbing traffic snarls don’t deter the well heeled denizens of our big cities from their weekend, more often even weekday, bacchanalia.

We don’t wait for evenings any longer. Thirsty patrons start dropping in at bars & pubs from early afternoons. Wine culture is keeping pace with coffee culture. Startup aspirants & new age freelancers don’t mind staring at their laptops for longish hours over a glass of chilled french or nashik wine at a business-friendly pub, though perhaps less often than over a tall iced latte at Starbucks or CCD. A glass of wine or beer over a business lunch is not frowned upon anymore.

Let’s not forget our less fortunate brethren whose thirst for country liquor and arracks of all kinds is legendary. They start earlier in the mornings and are quite a thirsty lot. While their wallets may not bulge as much, the liquor businessmen are not deterred. They use all kinds of persuasions to upgrade the tastes and spends of their customers. The money is on premium brands. Intoxicating levels of market segmentation with product variants at various stimulating price points are making us euphoric. MBA grads from premier B-schools find the alcoholic business challenges mentally and economically invigorating.

Bacchus may have lived in ancient Rome or Greece. But our own crafty ancients didn’t have to invoke him for their revelries. A few millennia ago, they waxed eloquent about the heavenly brew Soma in the Rig Veda. Soma, its many variants & recipes, is celebrated in religious texts & literature, including epics such as Mahabharata & Ramayana. It was de rigeur at religious rituals, royal feasts, mundane festivals, and other social occasions. Divine heroes like Krishna, the Pandavas & Kauravas, Rama, and many others seem to have taken a swig now & then, though we are not sure if they got drunk or high. They also seem to have enjoyed meat, but that’s a different story. Offended devotees refute the alcoholic content of Soma. But lesser mortals of ancient India who indulged in a glass or two have no such staunch defenders. Our ancient literature is littered with their drunken stupors & brawls. Alcohol flows in our genes & veins.

Medieval prudishness & social reformists sobered us down a bit. For a while, society looked down at folks who knew how to let their hair down. But no longer. We liberalised, westernised, and then, globalised. Women drink a little less than men, but they are questioning the gender gap. All the major global liquor companies are betting on us to imbibe more. Swanky bars, pubs & lounges are popping up everywhere. The alcohol business is on a high and it may not get a hangover for a long time to come.

As alcohol flows, so does cash. Profits are going up. Returns on capital employed are increasing. Shareholders are rejoicing. Business morals & ethics be damned. Let’s smoke, drink and make money.

When there is a growing demand among the populace and suppliers are more than eager, what can the state do? Tax both and fill the coffers, of course. Most state governments depend on the liquor industry for about 20% of their revenues and their addiction to the elixir is getting stronger. Tamil Nadu leads the way and its tax counters are ringing loudest. AP & Telangana governments may not be amused as their people consume the highest amount of alcohol amongst all states and, ipso facto, they should be earning more from liquor taxes than their canny neighbour.

Now & then, to win elections, politicians ban alcohol sales. But, soon, crippling budgets force them to embrace the bottle. Meantime, bootlegging runs rampant. Corrupt officials turn a blind eye and stash away a few precious bottles for themselves. It’s in our nature to get intoxicated once in a while. No state or politician can stop us.

Now, why bother about all this?

Liquor manufacturers and sellers should rejoice as they will sell more and make more money. Buckle up for a heady ride ahead.

Investors in liquor businesses should also rejoice as mouth-watering returns flow into their bank accounts. Forget morals & ethics.

Politician should innovate with liquor taxes, talk morals now & then, and drop their battle with the bottle. Banning liquor may be injurious to their health & wealth.

As for common Indians, the world is in their bottles…err…pockets. Everyone else wants them to drink more and be happy. So be it.

3 cheers for the Indian economy. 5 trillion is in the bottle…err…bag.

The unexamined life is not worth living