Whisky Tales

In the world’s biggest whisky drinking country, there are great expectations and an untapped potential, when it comes to brands. From understanding millennials’ fondness for scotch, to new ways to drink it, to making a positive impact, Diageo India’s Abhishek Shahabadi tells us about whisky’s new landscape in India, even as one of his several scotch labels, Johnnie Walker celebrates two centuries of existence.

Johnnie Walker Black Label Lowland Origin 750 ml

The largest whisky-consuming nation in the world might be closer than you think. In India, the whisky market, for brands and retailers, is enormous, and still untapped in many ways as whisky is fast becoming a favourite among millennials, and first-time consumers. We speak to the Vice-President and Portfolio Head for Luxury and Premium brands, Diageo India, Abhishek Shahabadi, about his enviable repertoire of scotch and reserve labels such as Johnnie Walker, Singleton, Talisker, Black Dog, Black & White, and how both single malts and blended whiskies are regarded – and consumed – in India.

Abhishek Shahabadi, VP and Portfolio Head Premium & Luxury brands at Diageo India

How has the consumption of whisky – both blended and single malts, changed in the last five years?

Over the recent years, one can summarize that the changes in consumption behaviour have been through two main vectors – occasions and experiences. Over time, with rising affluence and aspirations, we are seeing a lot of first-time consumers reaching out for scotch. This is fueling rapid growth for us.

Historically, scotch has largely been a part of special moments of celebrations and discernment. With rising affluence, a lot of consumers are choosing to drink the whisky in their everyday occasions that is leading to increased relevance. Young adults who are well-travelled and connected with global trends end up being experience seekers and love to expand their discerning taste by trying out new brands, varietals etc. This has also led to a wide repertoire of brands entering the market and making a good play for India’s growth opportunity.

What kind of pattern in terms of choice of drink does the millennial drinker follow, especially when it comes to whisky?

We’ve noticed that young adults are very experimental and have a wider repertoire of alcoholic beverages. They like drinks that have character and look forward to brands that can provide accessible taste and depth in experience. We’re seeing a rising trend of young consumers preferring simple serves or highballs to enjoy their favourite scotch compared to straight drinks /on the rocks. This set of consumers is not fussed about the rules of drinking but love to enjoy a drink that complements an occasion or a mood. For example, one would go for a Johnnie Walker highball for a brunch, whereas choose to drink it with a seltzer and an orange peel for an evening get-together. They may opt for malts like Singleton or Talisker to celebrate special occasions with friends and family.

How has the pandemic impacted your brands – since all over the world, less was produced and consumed? Or have people been buying more of it?

The pandemic did have a big impact on the alco-bev community. In India, the bar fraternity was impacted substantially as they were shut for most of 2020. The community is slowly getting back to normalcy now as consumers are venturing out for drinks. Like other categories, we also did lose consumption but are on a path to emerge stronger with positive consumption in the remaining year.

How and when do you feel that the consumption of whisky brands will hit a huge high?

India is already the largest whisky consuming country in the world. The volume at which our brands sell is amongst the top. Even for scotch as a category, we are amongst the top 10 countries across the globe with a huge potential of size and scale.

Can you tell us about your sustainability action plan for this coming decade, and what it means for whisky lovers in India?

We are conscious of our impact on the environment as sustainability is a key commitment for Diageo. In November last year, Diageo announced ‘Society 2030: Spirit of Progress’ designed to make a positive impact on the world by end of the decade. As a part of this initiative, 25 bold and ambitious goals were committed to focus our action over three core areas such as positive drinking; championing inclusion and diversity; and pioneering grain-to-glass sustainability. These goals are in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development and will enable us to focus on achieving net zero-carbon emissions across direct operations, achieving net water impact and ensuring 100 percent use of recycled content in plastic packaging. We are immensely proud of what we have achieved to date, and this new, ambitious action plan will challenge us even further. We will be announcing bold commitments on Johnnie Walker soon that will be highlighted later this year.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Johnnie Walker has celebrated 200 years, it’s a beloved brand in India – how are you celebrating this here, and what are you doing to attract younger consumers?

Johnnie Walker is such an iconic brand with so much depth as a result of its 200 years of existence. The brand has thrived through the ages and emerged stronger after every major world event. Our attempt is to mark this year as the beginning of the next 200 years for the brand. Around the world we have transformed the brand’s tone of voice to reflect a very vibrant, modern and new luxe attitude. Johnnie Walker has been inspiring personal progress over the years with “Keep Walking” and we’ve used in-depth cultural understanding to refresh what ‘Keep Walking” means in today’s time. Today it’s about pushing boundaries and status quo, to taste the richness of life. There are a series of limited editions that have been rolled out across markets to celebrate this iconic journey.

Black & White Scotch Whisky

Is Black & White also popular – and who are its consumers?

Yes, Black & White is one of the fastest growing scotches in India. It has a unique liquid offering that is delicate, rich, and easy on the palate. It’s a perfect scotch that’s made for sharing with friends. The world of this brand offers a vivid and playful language that is brought alive by the illustration of the two terriers on the pack. The brand has a much larger audience amongst the young LDA+ adults who are new entrants to the scotch category and can enjoy the liquid in a shared setting, best paired with a platter of food.

Talisker 10 Year Old

How does a single malt like Talisker fare in comparison to a brand like Johnnie Walker?

Talisker has an amazing story that makes you want to reach out and grab a dram. The oldest distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker has been an integral, and essential part of island life since 1830. Skye is an island of contrasts, from its cloud-scraping, granite mountains to its soft, golden sandy beaches. It’s in this land of extremes that a small, whitewashed distillery stands proudly by the sea, impervious to the elements. As the storms and decades have swept over the island, a small community here has worked tirelessly to perfect this iconic, and very distinctive single malt. Just as the sea has carved out the very coastline of Skye, very few single malts can tell the story of their origin better than Talisker. Its smell and taste instantly connects with the drinker through its rugged coastal storytelling that brings out the charm of Skye like no other.

Who are the Talisker drinkers in India? Are their numbers growing?

Talisker is for those who have been bought into the world of single malts and are explorers by heart. It’s a small but fast-growing brand in India and is one of the key brands in our portfolio.

Black Dog whisky

In comparison, who is Black Dog aimed at – and how has it fared in the past year?

Black Dog is Diageo’s largest selling scotch whisky brand in India. It’s one of the brands that has shaped the scotch category and offers consumers one of the most versatile scotch experiences available. The Black Dog variants are a range of fine tasting scotches that ring in a harmonious blend of sweet, spicy and creamy taste every time you drink it. It’s a brand meant to savour the pauses that are worth a toast. Black Dog is enjoyed by both the young and the old alike. It is one of the most widely available brands in the country and has a sizeable preference in small towns.

What are some of the strategies that you have implemented to improve the consumption of both blended and single malts in India?

Our focus has been on driving relevance of scotch in many more occasions of consumption. For that we’ve transformed the way consumers look at scotch. Our attempt has been to make the category more accessible, open and vibrant through our pack renovations, play in culture and content partnerships. We also know that this segment is a marker of status and we’ve focused on re-invigorating scotch with modern codes of luxury. Getting consumers to taste our brilliant liquid has also been a key endeavour through on-trade, events, and experientials. Johnnie Walker Black Label Speyside Origin 750 ml

What can we look forward to for the rest of this year – in terms of new launches in India from Diageo?

We have rolled out the Hipster pack on our scotch portfolio in 2020 and it has done exceedingly well. This innovation is in service of reinvigorating scotch and presenting it in a way that shakes up the traditional view of scotch and makes it cool. The SKU format also drives accessibility for young adults who are looking at enjoying a brand that meets their vibrant style.


Priya Kumari Rana

Lifestyle Insider is a kind of junction point, connecting people with diverse interests that touch on the more luxurious aspects of lifestyle – fashion, design, travel, food and spirits, art, watches and jewellery, cars, yachts, and aviation, and technology. People today don’t fit into boxes and categories. In our individual ways, we are interested in diverse themes, products, and the challenges that face our world today. You will judge how well this effort of mine caters to your passions and proclivities.

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A luxury and fashion journalist with 25 years of experience in publishing and magazine journalism, I have edited some of India’s top fashion and luxury magazines. I got my BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive my Master’s in English and French from the University of Strasbourg, France. I have also studied German and Film. I live in Gurugram, India, and look forward to once again exploring our world with a new-found freedom.

Priya Kumari Rana

Founder and Editor

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