36-year-old advertising professional Gaurav Gupta remembers the first time he went to buy liquor in Mumbai a few years back. “The owner, an old man, was sitting and watching to make sure that riffraff didn’t hang about his store while a couple of young guys were busy mouthing off prices of cheap Indian rum and whiskies that most people had come to the store for. I distinctly remember the owner’s eye popping when I asked to buy a bottle of my favourite Jameson Whiskey,” he recalls.

Today, Gupta simply hops over to Mansionz by Living Liquidz to pick up his Jameson, an experience he says is “as simple as picking essentials from any other store”. Indeed, from metro cities like Mumbai to satellite towns such as Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Tier 2 cities like Pune and Ludhiana to name a few, the change in alcohol buying through the experience of premium stores has been on a steady rise over the past half decade.

Now, super premium stores, ones that boast of technology-assisted services, self-service areas to browse through the entire collection of spirits, bar room, and tasting facilities and more are challenging the very concept of buying liquor. Indeed, these experiential stores offer a much better buying experience than even airport liquor stores. Most premium liquor store owners say that ironically, it was Covid-19 that helped propel the change from corner shops to premium stores as state governments realised the benefit of having people buy alcohol whilst maintaining social distancing and increasing revenue for the state exchequer.

“The demand for alcohol went up during lockdown, and the benefit of a large retail store that doesn’t draw in crowds was obvious,” Dinesh Kathuria, one of the three founders of The Liquor Store at Belapur’s Palm Beach Road, says. In 2019, boutique liquor store Tonique made headlines for being Asia’s largest liquor store to launch in Bengaluru with a space of over 25,000 sq ft and a dedicated sommelier to help you choose the best wine. Similarly, other premium liquor stores started popping up in places from Gurugram to Guwahati. Now in 2022, super premium stores have joined the fray to woo liquor-buying customers. 

Premium stores might have birthed super premium liquor outlets, but the latter is firmly in a category of its own, thanks to innovations in the form of technological advancements, tasting rooms, and a better spirit collection.

The Liquor Store, for example, boasts of Mumbai’s greatest collection in Maharashtra with over 1,000 spirits, 1,500 wines, 250 champagnes, and over 100 types of beers from across the world. Some of the rare items in its collection include Taiwanese hotshot Kavalan’s range of whiskies, the extremely rare 1800 Milenio Extra Anejo Tequila, and special edition Louis XIII cognac priced at Rs 3,95,000. It also has a British-style restobar called The Tavern, which occasionally hosts alcohol pairing sessions and is meant to be an all-day diner with innovative cocktails. The Bengaluru outpost of Mansionz, meanwhile, boasts of a larger-than-life façade to welcome guests at its 6,000 sq ft outlet. The space includes a dedicated New York style tasting room spanning 700 sq ft, with the lower floor dedicated to spirits from across the world, while the first level has wines that are exclusively showcased to guests.

Speaking about the space, Craig W Wedge, director of retail operations, Mansionz by Living Liquidz, says, “Each outlet operates as its own personality. Bengaluru has a young, enthusiastic crowd with money and an attitude to enjoy good things in life, and it made sense to be a part of this upcoming, fluid, and dynamic market. The idea was to bring in luxury without any pompousness to the space.” While Mansionz opened in Bengaluru in February this year, The Liquor Store launched in April 2022.

Super premium stores are not just hosting experiential events and marketing tactics to draw in regulars, they’ve also invested in sophisticated technology to bring in a more diverse crowd. Mansionz has a special app where a user can add a predefined amount of money and sample any three spirits of their choice before making a purchase. The Liquor Store, on the other hand, has an AR technology called Lift and Learn. A curious shopper simply needs to place a liquor bottle to learn about its tasting notes, history, and other important details without needing to talk to an assistant every time. Premium liquor stores also come with the promise of stocking more varieties and options of spirits compared to corner shops that are simply made for a get-in-get-out experience. “Not every retail store will have a bottle of Macallan 18-Year-Old that retails for almost Rs 90,000,” Kathuria says.

Revealing the secret sauce of a successful premium liquor store, Wedge says that customer service needs to be front and centre, adding, “You need to make people feel welcome, provide a clear and clean environment, create an experience where they can ask questions. The space needs to be shopping friendly, and we make sure that there is a dynamism to everything.”

An offbeat example of how to supercharge an alcohol retail and distribution business came from Goa where Vaz Enterprises, one of the biggest names in the trade, decided to open a bar called Tesouro, and stock all the brands in their portfolio. Not only did this help the co-founders of Bar Tesouro and certified mixologists Pankaj Balachandran and Arijit Bose create some of the best cocktails in India, it also became a product showcase for the local crowd, who started buying everything from feni to foreign bottles from Vaz Enterprises. Donovan Vaz of Vaz Enterprises says the idea was always to have a space where all the brands from their inventory could be displayed. This is one of the reasons why cocktail prices at Tesouro rarely cross the Rs 500 mark, even as the rest of the state has prices around the Rs 600 mark on an average in 2022.

It is interesting to note that despite being known for its alcohol culture, the premium store experience has yet to hit Goa. Almost every corner shop and big retail mall in the state will have a license to sell liquor, making it a bit unnecessary to travel to an upmarket place to simply check out liquor bottles. A similar model as Tesouro’s has been brewing in Haryana. In the northern state, liquor stores would encourage people to pick up a bottle from their outlet and consume it in a designated space within their premises. Called an ahata, these were places where a lot of the young crowd would flock to, especially on weekends. While they were a bit run-down pre-pandemic, their appeal caught the eye of the state government which, in turn, directed that ahatas become upmarket places of establishment.

Gurugram resident and mixologist Nitin Tewari, who is popular as Mr Bartrender on Instagram, says, “In Haryana, a liquor license comes with a space for serving drinks, which is how places like Machaan and The Buck Stops Here among others have become popular. Additionally, two years ago, the state government decided to ‘beautify’ ahatas that not only made the liquor buying experience better but also encouraged these open spaces to draw in a lot of young professionals who can’t afford to go to places like Cyber Hub and One Horizon all the time.” The aahata culture makes for easy upgrades to more premium liquor. Tewari himself recalls an activation campaign at an aahata where his team would make free cocktails for anyone who bought a bottle of Bacardi. While not all premium liquor brands in Gurugram have an aahata associated with them, the idea of drinking your own liquor with friends bought at MRP is definitely appealing to a large section of liquor lovers “who are proud of their aahata culture”. 

Even Delhi is getting its act together to compete with Gurugram’s swanky liquor stores and aahata culture. In November 2021, liquor stores were finally incentivised to expand and compete with cut- throat pricing strategies after state liquor stores were shut down as part of a new excise policy. It might reek of sexism, but liquor stores, even until half a decade ago, were not spaces where women would feel the most comfortable.

The super-premium liquor store, though, has changed all that. “We have seen women come on scooters at our Bengaluru outlet to pick up what they like, which is fabulous,” Wedge corroborates. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report released last month threw up some interesting stats on liquor consumption. While overall the proportion of men who drink alcohol decreased from 29 per cent to 22 per cent between NFHS-4 in 2015-2016 and NFHS-5 in 2019-2021, the proportion of women who drink has remained unchanged during the same period. Women, therefore, are an important and growing community when it comes to drinking liquor, and high-end liquor stores are not only creating a safe place but also encouraging women to make liquor buying part of their overall shopping experience.

While it may seem like we’re finally normalising, perhaps even celebrating buying liquor through these premium stores, a large part of the country is still to access them. Wedge acknowledges that the action is moving towards Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, with Pune all set to have India’s third Mansionz premium liquor store after Mumbai and Bengaluru. “Other cities, like Nagpur, have a lot of potential as well,” he adds. While some states like Maharashtra have relaxed alcohol rules quite a bit since Covid-19, others have stood firm in controlling the liquor store experience. Whether it is BEVCO (Kerala State Beverages Corporation) in Kerala or TASMAC in Tamil Nadu, these states control the retail distribution of liquor through sole retailership, meaning no other brand or store can open liquor stores. This is why news reports of miles-long queues to buy liquor from these places were reported when lockdown rules were first lifted.

Last year, the Kerala High Court had called on the excise department not to treat BEVCO customers as “cattle”, following which BEVCO has announced plans to premiumise all of its retail stores by August 1. From a walk-in experience to paying money digitally and carrying liquor in proper bags instead of newspaper wrappings, the winds of change have reached state-owned liquor stores as well.

There’s little doubt that the whole liquor buying experience has changed for the better in more ways, and places with the trend showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. However, this has yet to translate into a pan-India movement with state governments who need to realise its true potential to add to their own revenues through increased liquor sales.