Liquor consumption in India is more of a social phenomenon and solitary drinking at home is something that has been traditionally frowned upon so far by elders and spouse.
Will things change tomorrow in the post pandemic era when social distancing will continue to be a norm, and will drinking at home no longer be taboo especially among the well-heeled?
Will consumers upgrade to more expensive booze if it is going to be for self-consumption or will consumers start down-grading to cheaper brands and options given the lack of show-off value?
These are some interesting questions to pore over and while one does not have a crystal ball to peek into the future, here are some hypotheses for the new normal in alcohol consumption in Bharatvarsh.
Let us start with the most basic question first – will the Alcobev category size go down like most others predict or will it surprise us by going up?
The pertinent aspect to keep in mind: has liquor consumption dropped during hard times of job losses and shrinking economy when recession is lurking around the corner in the past? My humble opinion is that demand for alcobevs stays inelastic to such shifts as it is something to be imbibed in both good times and bad times as the extremes drive an urge to consume the category more (who does not remember the Punjabi yaar di shaadi as the euphoric moment or the Devdas moment when girlfriend has broken up with you, as the down in the dumps moment and jab yeh ek bottle hi sahara thi – the last frontier). The only time it drops in India is due to religion and periods of restriction prescribed by religion like shravan, and it also goes up due to religious festivals like Diwali, Holi etc.
Google searches indicate, even during the great recession of 1929, liquor consumption did not drop but grew and that was during times of prohibition. Liquor flowed freely, although illegally. In fact, this ultimately led to the lifting of prohibition as the governments could ill-afford not to earn the revenue by taxing the same and letting it stay illicit in the US of A. And are we also not experiencing today a once in a century phenomenon - the pandemic hopefully with no returns where governments want to up their revenue by hiking the sin tax?
But let us not depend on history from another geography. We should attempt to answer it using very simple maths so that it all adds up. The total per capita consumption of a country is total quantity of whiskey consumed, is equal to number of people consuming liquor, multiplied by occasions for consumption, multiplied by average frequency of consumption, multiplied by quantity consumed per occasion divided by the total adult population of the country who are legally permitted to drink above the legal drinking age. Simple isn’t it!
OK, let us try and decipher each question one by one.
Will more people start drinking once they become eligible (as per government rule based on their age)?
This itself is a very confusing question as it varies from state to state and while it may be as young as 18 years in Karnataka, it is 21 years in Goa, going up to 25 years in Maharashtra, to not permitted for all ages in Gujarat, despite them being contiguous states thus leading to a porous borders.
The number of people consuming liquor is unlikely to grow at the same pace in-the-near-future as new entrants to the category may be restricted. The first occasion of consumption or baptism into the liquor category in past used to be an out-of-home, on-occasions, like a party with friends, at their home/ in their car/ at a restaurant/ pub (this will now move to a virtual phenomenon or stay on an indefinite pause till the vaccine is discovered which may still be a few years away) rather than in-home by stealing from their dad’s bottle (for which you run the risk of getting thrashed if caught with bottle in hand).
What categories of alcobevs will grow and which ones will decline?
What will happen the to the growing beer consumption phenomenon over recent years?
Given that beer consumption was driven by youth and beer is a recruiting category for most, this may start to plateau. And there is a simple explanation for this, most youth would no longer be at hostels, college canteens or outdoors and with the pubs and breweries closed, most of their hanging out may be virtual Google, hang-out-from-home. If few months from now, I were to rummage through my young neighbour’s disposal bins accidentally, I suspect it will be the bottle and cans of regular and lite variants of the foreign brands like Carlsberg and Budweiser that will be doing better, as will be the lite and regular variants of our swadeshi brands, Kingfisher and Haywards. The strong variants may just hang onto the lead but with diminishing growth. I would like to believe when it comes to social stigma associated with it, both beer and whiskey do equal damage when it comes to elders frowning disapproval. The other thing that may diminish beer’s salience maybe its strong association with high octane sports like soccer and cricket, which seem to be under the COVID cloud with pause on live sporting events. In fact, cricket itself has been relegated to the background with no clarity on the IPL season and sports channels viewership plummeting, giving way to news and movie. Both cricket which till recently was almost followed like a religion in India and its current God Virat Kohli, seem to be on a break currently, with Mr. Kohli being more visible on Instagram consuming OTT sponsored by his spouse and getting the haircut from Mrs. Kohli, rather than hitting the ball with a flourish outside the stadium. If recent viewership trend needs to be looked at carefully, sports has given way to mythology and the rest as they say is all history or should we say mythology.
Further, whiskey may grow at the cost of strong beer given that the price value equation favours whiskey, more so for in-home consumption. Indians still do not like to pay for water, unless it is the current peak pandemic times or they are on Indian Railways, where they still try and economise using disposable cups instead of bottles.
In fact, the no smell no colour variants of alcobevs like white rum and vodka may see a pick-up given the need for our hapless students to return home earlier than usual with closure of colleges and universities leading to migration to e-learning and virtual classes from home. It may lead to a second return for the breezers and pre-mixes, given the need for on-the go consumption and the GenZ may choose the brand based on the money/ plastic in their wallet pocket at the moment, rather than their monthly pocket money - Magic Moment for the tight on money days and Absolut or Grey Goose for those special days when you need to impress that special friend. The plastic with the magnetic strip may just come in handy to this generation as also the virtual e-money wallets.
How frequently will they drink?
This will lead to an interesting dichotomy in times to come.
As more and more time would be spent indoors/ in-home across segments with the fear of Corona virus prowling outdoors, my guess is this will lead to drop in consumption of lower priced brands which are the volume drivers. These lower priced brands are consumed by the less affluent who have smaller houses and are more likely to be living in joint families. Given the family objections and pressures and lesser time out of home, these could lead to drop in consumption both frequency as well as quantity.
On the other hand, consumption of more expensive whiskeys like scotches and single malts may actually perk up with the affluent households who are more likely to have a bar as also more time to unwind and relax rom the day-to-day stress and social drinking being acceptable (with even couples drinking together as a phenomenon although still restricted). Finally this could lead to the bottle emerging out of the closet and being displayed prominently as the affluent India emerges from the shadow of being perceived a bevda (drunkard with a bottle in hand and a loser) to a suave and upwardly mobile Indian, where a bottle in the background adds to the swag and is an stamp of success of having arrived in life.
Where will they consume it more often than earlier and from Where will they procure their booze?
Let me answer the simple question first. It is a No brainer; in-home consumption will go up while out of home will decline given the entire time equation getting skewed in favour of time spent in-home versus out of home.
Going ahead, one of the key barriers, as also enabler, to consumption could be the access to liquor.
This would be more relevant for the high-end whiskeys and single malts which are currently significantly dependent on the duty-free channels at the airports through the uncles and friends returning from abroad after their vacations and on the return flights from international business meetings and holidays abroad. As international business travel shrinks & makes way for telepresence and webinars, Indians would also holiday less abroad for some time to come. Hence, the flow of imported liquor from duty free channel may dry up a bit.
This may translate into an opportunity for our domestic liquor retail (like Madhulokas) to scale up. These affluent customers would go visiting the neighbourhood liquor shop for their favourite imported brand and if the same is not available, look for similar priced substitutes or surrogates.
If the queue at the liquor shops during lockdown relaxation was any indication, the unmet demand will come back with a vengeance and even the job losses and uncertainty would not tighten the purse strings but lead to the liquor actually becoming the solace and stress reliever.
Further, if the government finally allows delivery at home of liquor through the Swiggy and Zomato boys, the in-home consumption phenomenon will only rocket as the convenience of having daroo (liquor) with chakhna (snacks) and khana (meal) as a combo-offer being delivered at the door-step is a boon (cherry on top) occasion for Indian tipplers.
While the occasions for consumption may shrink due to lack of options of drinking at club, restaurant, bars and pubs due to limited operating time and limited operating space given government restrictions, in-home consumption will definitely shoot up on the rebound.
Will there be new consumption occasions and a new time for consumption during the 24 hours?
The jury is still out – but there is a high probability this will lead to a new occasion of in-home in front of the television consumption while watching TV (whether it is the latest OTT content on Netflix like Money Heist season 4 or the Disney Hotstar Housefull 4 or even the DD ruled Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (YJHZ) episode 4, household may only decide the type of whiskey you may consume ranging from the Glenlivet to Johnnie Walker to the Royal Stag to the Bagpiper, but a glass at home, may actually become more prized than multiple had, while at the bar in the past.
With multiplexes and movie halls closed and OTT being king of these not so good times, this may be the new consumption occasion brand managers may be chasing for in times to come. With work from home being the new way of working and flexi hours being the new work hours, 10 pm to midnight may soon become the prime-time slot for media consumption, in time to come.
But that’s for another day another time, jab char yaar phir milenge aur saath baithenge (friends will drink together again) and men will still be men (no pun intended) courtesy latest tech zooming into their living rooms using the house party or an equivalent app, ki farak painda hai (does it really matter!).