With the coronavirus pandemic not nearly as done as one might like, it seems it’s going to take a while before we are able to hit the bar, in the literal sense. To give us an insight into how the alcohol industry has been affected and how they’re working their way back up and braving the storm, Abhishek Shahabadi, VP & Portfolio Head for Luxury and Premium brands, Diageo India, and Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker Global Brand Ambassador, answer some important questions.

MW: Tell us about your latest launch, and all the brainstorming that went into bringing out these special editions?

Tom Jones: When it comes to The Johnnie Walker Black Label Origin Series, four is the magic number. The series is based upon four distinctive flavour profiles, celebrating the four corners of Scotland. We’ve used an incredible range of malts from some of the world’s most famous distilleries to craft our four 12-year-old blended whiskies, each one only featuring whiskies from its particular region. At a time when travelling around the globe is limited, the Origin Series gives whisky fans the chance to taste the wide array of flavours Scotland has to offer.

All four of the 12-year-old whiskies were chosen as a path to explore the four signature flavours of Johnnie Walker Black Label. Each regional edition has been carefully married with one of the signature notes of Johnnie Walker Black Label: Vanilla, Orchard Fruit, Rich Fruit, and Smoke.

For example, Johnnie Walker Black Label Highlands Origin has rich and dark fruit notes whereas Speyside Origin is lighter and fruiter and Islay Origin is distinctively smoky with a maritime flavour. All three blends are crafted from some of the most famous distilleries in those regions, solely from single malts.

Lowlands Origin, on the other hand, required a sweet and creamy vanilla characteristic to best represent that region’s flavour profile so we added grain whisky to the blend. Each provides whisky fans with a distinctive taste and feel for the different regions, if you have a thirst for exploration, the Johnnie Walker Origin Series is your perfect starting point.

MW: What makes Johnnie Walker stand out?

Abhishek Shahabadi: Johnnie Walker is a global icon that’s celebrating its 200th year this year. It is one of the few brands that have remained relevant to changing times and cultures across the globe. As a scotch brand, it has championed and built the category across countries through its range of desirable liquids and variants. The latest expression launched in India is the Johnnie Walker Black Label Origin series. The brand has always egged consumers to keep walking by pushing boundaries to taste more from life. It enjoys big stature and iconicity among consumers.

MW: How do you see India’s alcohol and beverage industry changing in the coming years? Are there any noticeable trends in the alcohol industry that you see emerging?

AS: If we look at long-term trends, India’s alco-bev market is gaining penetration on account of increasing affluence with younger demography. Consumers are looking for brands that provide a great experience of socialising and celebrating. A connected world provides consumers to be cognisant of what’s happening in the alcohol category across the world, and allows them to replicate those experiences back home. Therefore, the category’s consumers are increasing their repertoire with more and more choices being available across price segments compared to earlier.

The category itself is also becoming more normalised, as there is an increasing overlap with food. For instance, white spirits like gin and vodka are an integral part of brunches. The whole category is transforming with new flavours, growing presence, with a plethora of brands entering the market and buzzing bar culture at city hotspots. Moreover, retails too are transforming to provide  more browsable and premium shopping experience to the consumers.

MW: The pandemic has set off an ongoing conversation of the new normal. What do you think will be the new normal for the beverage industry?

AS: With the pandemic, there are two big shifts that we see in the short to medium term. The first one is the growing in-home occasions. While stepping out has become a huge challenge, consumers have empowered themselves through digital media to create cocktails sitting at home. We’ve seen a huge spike in queries and views of DIY drinks content. Experientials were a big driver of consumption in the past, and now, with people spending most of their time in-home, they are exploring more fun ways to enjoy their drinks. A lot of what people discover during this time will stay even as we move forward. The other big impact has been on general consciousness which is leading people to avoid cold drinks, especially beer. This, however, is more of a short-term situation.

MW: How has Diageo handled the pandemic so far? What are the changes you implemented in your business? 

AS: Our business was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 led lockdown. The business remained shut for over a month and it only resumed gradually thereafter, in line with varying state-level restrictions. The on-premise channel, in a lot of states, continues to remain shut till date. As the pandemic hit our business, we quickly redirected our priorities towards our employees and the communities that we serve. This was followed by protecting the business and creating enablers that would help us to emerge stronger from this prolonged crisis. Our Crisis Management Team swung into action to monitor, assess, and minimise the impact on our people and our operations. The coordinated efforts of the team ensured quick resumption with the gradual lifting of the lockdown.

MW: How do you see the F&B industry recover in the near future?

AS: The restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In India, the restaurant industry is the third largest after retail and insurance in the service segment, contributing over 2.1 percent to the GDP. (Source: Pehle India Foundation Report). There is an urgent need to provide long-term recovery packages to help the hospitality sector. These businesses play an essential role in bringing people together to socialise and celebrate, sustaining hundreds and millions of jobs.

To help the hospitality sector revive and recover from the current crisis, Diageo in India has committed Rs. 75 crores towards ‘Raising the Bar’. It is a global Diageo initiative to provide practical support to bars, pubs, and alcohol-serving restaurants in select cities of India over a 2-year period. The programme is designed to provide targeted non-cash support including physical equipment needed for outlets to re-open. For instance, ‘hygiene kits’ with high-quality permanent sanitiser dispensers, medical grade hand sanitisers and a range of personal protection equipment (such as masks and gloves). The support will help these alcohol servicing places to establish partnerships with online reservations and cashless systems. We have also supported the hospitality industry with a Rs 30 million healthcare insurance for Bartenders associated with Diageo World Class.

MW: What is your vision for Johnnie Walker in India? 

AS: Johnnie Walker is one of the most iconic brands in the world. Our vision in India is to continue to make the brand the most desired, loved and talked about. It is the brand that has been an integral part of the bar culture in India and has bought global trends to consumers here. We have a wide range of whiskies for every pallet right from Red Label to Blue Label. We bring in a range of exclusives every year after having carefully studied global trends on taste and finishes for our consumers. Our latest offering is the Johnnie Walker Origin series, which is born from a sense of exploration, and a thirst to discover the best flavours that Scotland has to offer. This series comprises four whiskies that bring alive the flavour profiles of the four corners of Scotland.

MW: Do you think social distancing norms will affect the consumption patterns and sales even after places start slowly opening up?

AS: Yes, social distancing norms will surely impact the alco-bev category that is so centred around socialising. While bars and restaurants are doing their best to reassure consumers as they open, it will take some time for them to get back to their favourite bars similar to the pre-COVID days. In the near future, we will see consumption more with smaller, intimate gatherings at home.