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Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Too cool for whiskey, India goes crazy for vodka


While older Indian men still nurse their whiskies, increasing numbers of women and young adults in conservative India are knocking back vodka, sending sales of the tipple soaring.

The love affair with vodka can be traced back to a government decision in 2001 to allow the import of foreign liquor into the country, albeit with high duties.

India has a long history of making rum and gin, but until the arrival of foreign makers, vodka was undistinguished in taste, easy on the wallet -- and brutal on the stomach and head.

A 750ml bottle of Swedish-made Absolut vodka with its host of flavors costs 1,450 rupees (US$31) including the 200 percent tax, but the hefty price tag does not put off India's bold and beautiful.

"You have to be insane to drink Indian vodka -- they tend to have a lot more crap in them that makes your body revolt the next morning. Don't even get me started," said polo player and part-time model Robin Grewal, 32.

"I can die for chilled Grey Goose vodka. I am shameless. I just ask all my friends coming from abroad to get me a bottle. Thank God, Swedish Absolut is now available in India," he said.

Vodka made abroad or in India under license by international firms now accounts for 75 percent of the market, with foreign vodka making inroads into 14 of India's 28 states, industry officials say.

Before liberalization, vodka sales were stuck at 350,000 cases, but last year an estimated 3 million drinkers put down 620,000 cases. Sales for this year are projected at 750,000 cases, industry officials say.

"The vodka market has been expanding at 20 percent each year, which is faster than the Indian liquor industry average of 8 percent," said R. N. Raja, chief operating officer of the South Asian branch of US-based United Distillers and Vintners, which sells Smirnoff.

Siddharth Banerji, director of Kyndal India Pvt Ltd, which distributes Absolut, said vodka sales could grow to 1 million cases if duties were scaled back.

He attributed the decline of India's preference for brown spirits to rapid changes in society.

"In the last decade, drinking has come out of the closet in India with the collapse of the joint-family system," Banerji said, referring to the tradition of the entire extended family living under one roof.

"More men now enjoy a drink

in their own drawing rooms with their wives. And, middle class women and young people with high incomes love vodka," Banerji added.

The trend is evident in urban India's pubs and lounge bars, where anyone over age 35 is as out of place as a whisky drinker.

"When I started running this joint we hardly stocked vodka. Now suddenly I can't do business without it as young people want nothing else," said C. Singh of DV8, a popular weekend hangout in New Delhi.

The choices from imported vodka range from pepper to black currant, taken straight or with mixers of soda or juice.

"Young people always look for something different. The exciting flavors keep them hooked," said R. Sidhu, manager of Delhi's busy Amber bar and restaurant.

In some parts of India where anti-drinking traditions are stronger, vodka is favored for a different reason: Tipplers can pour it discreetly into porcelain cups.

"When I drink vodka people think I am sipping water. It does not smell as foul as whisky or rum so I can fool my mother-in-law, who drops in unannounced," said homemaker Anju Kesarwani.

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