Aneesh Bhasin is many things, but a svami. There is not a shred of asceticism in him. The 37-year-old, who made drinking tonic water cool for a whole generation, loves indulging in cigars, sneakers, vinyl, gadgets, coffee, and booze. He is as much a podcaster and part-time DJ, as he is an entrepreneur. And also, a party animal. His friend and business associate Vidur Gupta describes him as the person present “at every event.” “I don’t know how he gets the time,” Gupta jokes.
It’s ironic then, that his brand is called Svami. Founded in 2018, it was a first-mover in the premium mixers space and has since, grown to become a market leader with 2,500 touchpoints, across 35 cities, and 12 products, spanning tonic waters, alongside non-alcoholic and ready-to-drink items like ginger ale, salted lemonade, no-sugar cola, gin and tonic and rum and cola. The name Svami came about when Bhasin and his co- founders started brainstorming for one that rolled off the tongue and came sans colonial elements like ‘Sons’ and ‘Co’. “We wanted something super Indian,” Bhasin shares.
A few weeks ago, Bhasin hit the headlines when his four-year-old company, Foxtrot Beverages Private Limited — which is yet to cross the Rs 20 crore sales mark — was valued at Rs 100 crore. He sold the majority stake to Gupta’s Third Eye Distillery Holdings (TED), the makers of the popular craft gin brand, Stranger & Sons. Though Bhasin will continue to run the company as earlier, the change in ownership will bring in new investment, enabling him to expand and achieve Rs 100 crore in sales in the coming years. Plus, allow Svami to piggyback on TED’s large distribution network spread across the country and abroad.
But when I speak to him, he is more in the mood to talk about his passions. “Contrary to what people see on Instagram, I actually live a slow life, and I enjoy that,” he says. This could be true in part, given that many of his interests require time to enjoy. Be it a cigar, which, if it is the good kind, burns slowly; vinyl, where, unlike iTunes and Spotify, songs cannot be fast-forwarded; or, wine and whiskey, both of which are necessarily savoured, not chugged. “A lot of my hobbies are sensory in nature, whether it’s music or cigars. And these things go hand in hand — if you appreciate good coffee, it’s likely that you will also appreciate good whiskey or wine,” he reflects.
Bhasin happens to be the proud owner of about 200 sticks of cigars, hoarded primarily from duty frees during his travels. “Buying cigars in India is a b*tch,” he says, adding that he has a preference for Dominicans over Cubans. His favourite currently is Arturo Fuentes — a brand known for its sweet, earthy, and nutty flavour of tobacco, and considered to be among the best premium, hand-rolled cigars made outside of Cuba. A box of 20 will set you back by as much as Rs 60,000 in India.
With music too his tastes are eclectic and his collection spans everything from Daler Mehendi to Daft Punk, the latter of which, he assures us, sounds best on vinyl. “I got into vinyls only about a year and a half ago when I thought it was time for me to get a turntable,” he says. Bhasin dons the DJ hat occasionally at parties at the hip, members-only Soho House in Mumbai, where he is a regular, smoking cigars, soaking in the rooftop pool, and taking photographs of birds while rubbing shoulders with fellow new-age businessmen.
Speaking of photography, it’s where this nouvelle entrepreneur’s journey started. Two decades ago, Bhasin landed in Mumbai as a photographer and worked with several travel magazines gallivanting across the globe. It was during a commissioned project, which required him to take pictures of sommeliers and winemakers, that his interest in alcohol and beverages began. He channelled that interest into his first venture — Hipcask, a repository for Indian wines that was to grow into an app, with home-delivery options. “Diageo [a multinational alcoholic beverage company] had shown interest in the tech, but ultimately, it didn’t come through,” he recalls.
Back when Bhasin was still a photographer, he bumped into his now close friend, Saransh Goila, the well-known restaurateur, chef, and content creator. Goila remembers meeting him on the sets of the reality show, Food Food Maha Challenge. “He was there to shoot Madhuri Dixit, but he also met the contestants and I was one of them,” he remembers. This was at a time when Twitter was still being used to stay connected with people (as opposed to waging verbal wars). And it so happened that the two followed each other. “Later, I went on to win the show. So, when hoardings and articles about it got published, I posted them on Twitter. To which Aneesh replied, ‘Do you know who shot these?’”
Goila is one of the few people who has known Bhasin from his early days and watched him blossom into a successful business owner from an intrepid photographer. “I’ve seen him fail at his business [Hipcask], and transform as a person,” he says. What, though, in all of these years, has changed most significantly? His focus, the restaurateur assures us. “He used to jump from one thing to the other, very quickly. But especially with Svami, he has been focused right from the start.
Understandably, focus can be an issue with a person who is naturally inclined towards multiple things. But the deeper you dig, the more it is apparent that the panoply of pursuits that keep this entrepreneur intrigued are all linked by an underlying common theme. They’re all subjects that you can ‘geek out’ hard on. “I have a lot of fun going in-depth with things and a lot of my hobbies are like that. At the same time, they’re also extremely pleasurable. Ultimately, going home and listening to a well-put-together album is therapeutic. But you can’t ever listen to all the albums in the world or smoke all kinds of cigars in your lifetime,” he shares.
It explains why earlier this year, he started his own podcast, A Niche Thing (the pun is unmissable), where he talks to successful men and women who are involved in his areas of interest. He has covered everything from beers, pizza, and affordable art to indoor plants, sneakers, and black T-shirts. “It’s so hard to find good black T-shirts for men,” Bhasin asserts, which is amusing because it’s exactly what you’ll find him clad in for the most part.
While his passions and interests have found an outlet in the podcast, their influences can be seen in his business as well. From the earliest days, Svami has been involved in endeavours that speak to those interested in subcultures. For example, there’s their annual Curiously Sober affair — a bundle of events celebrating sobriety in January. These typically include sessions on art, skateboarding, poetry, and so on — smartly designed to promote Svami’s range of non-alcoholic beverages.
I recall going for a music event, before the pandemic, at the Mahalaxmi racecourse where the bar was fronted — not by an alcohol brand — but by Svami. “I don’t want to play second fiddle to alco-brands,” he asserts. Bhasin has had his finger on the pulse and knows that the new-gen couldn’t care less for a commodity — they want a brand and they want it to be cool.
“He’s very well versed with what’s going on in the F&B space and he’s a great marketer. He has a good sense of what trends,” says Gupta. For him and his co- founders, Sakshi Saigal and Rahul Mehra (who is incidentally also a co-founder in Bhasin’s company, making him a common denominator) the Svami acquisition is part of their effort to build a house of brands, much like Diageo or Pernod Ricard.
Bhasin has a similar goal. “We were always clear that we’re building a large-scale brand. We’re not trying to cater only to Mumbai or stay limited to the premium space. We basically want to be your first, easy upgrade to any super mass product, whether it’s Schweppes in tonic water, or Coke in a cola category,” he clarifies.
Vikram Achanta, the co-founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, is a keen observer of entrepreneurial ventures in the alco-bev space. And he is one of Bhasin’s admirers, too. “He has this idiosyncratic, edgy feel to him, with his vinyls and whatnot. But there’s also the business side of him, where he’s rather hard-nosed. An insights that I have received over the years is that a brand’s personality should be a reflection of the entrepreneur. And I think, Svami is a great case in point. It’s nice to see people like him add colour to an old- fangled industry. Seeing people like Aneesh must have been aspirational or inspirational to others.”
Achanta’s analysis finds an echo in the far-east of the country, in Mizoram, where an erstwhile beer brand called Mizo Brewery had to shut down operations after the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition) Bill was passed in 2019. That was when the co-founders Zomawii Khiangte and Felipe Rodriguez pivoted towards non-alcoholic drinks. Their new brand now goes by the name Local and specialises in sodas and ginger ale. “When we had to shift gears, Svami was one of the first brands that we looked at. There are so many mixer brands that are popping out of the woodworks, but I don’t think anybody is doing it the way that they are.”
Rodriguez recalls ordering Svami’s products online — all the way to Aizawl — with painless ease during the pandemic. “It was quite cool,” he observes. That’s what it boils down to. Being cool. With a myriad of passions, and despite running a business valued at Rs 100 crore, Bhasin, and his brand exude a coolness that connects them to the aspirations of a new generation of young men and women in urban India.
Images: Anurag Ahire