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For India's newly rich, it's time for happy hour

India's growing upper class wants high-end liquors and fine wines that define "the good life" they've seen on European vacations and in Hollywood films.
A man shows a cocktail he prepared at a how to party. Distillers, limited in how they can advertise, have sponsored some similar events.
A man shows a cocktail he prepared at a how to party. Distillers, limited in how they can advertise, have sponsored some similar events.Mustafa Quraishi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They're wealthy, well-traveled, cosmopolitan — and thirsty.

India's growing upper class wants high-end liquors and fine wines that define "the good life" they've seen on European vacations and in Hollywood films. The old habit of slinging a measure of cheap local rum into a cup of cola simply won't do.

"Life is swinging! If we can afford the best, why not have it?" says Vikrant Nath, a 49-year-old event planner in New Delhi.

To share the spirit, Nath has booked a cocktail-mixing seminar at his three-story home for about 25 friends — a well-heeled group of professionals who see themselves as new, modern Indians. They sport chic, casual Western-style outfits, belted mini dresses and cashmere sweaters over jeans. There isn't a single sari in the room.

"We want new experiences, to know more about a good living, maybe even to be able to entertain better," says Nath's wife, Alka.

For many in India, that means learning about prestigious labels only in stores in the last decade as the booming economy puts more money in people's pockets. The number of Indians worth at least $1 million rose 51 percent in 2009 to 126,000, according to a study by Merrill Lynch and the Capgemini consulting firm.

They shop in shiny, new malls stuffed with boutique brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cartier. They attend clubs for wine drinkers, cigar smokers and Harley-Davidson owners and visit the posh restaurants, bars and health spas popping up alongside Delhi's cardboard slum dwellings and crumbling apartment blocks.

Tulleeho Beverage Innovations, organizer of the cocktail seminar at Nath's house, holds 15 to 20 such events a month. This one is sponsored by the maker of the French liqueur Cointreau.

"There is a certain set of people that are becoming more discerning," says 26-year-old Rohan Jelkhie, a bartending instructor with Tulleeho. "They know what quality is. With drinks, there was a time when people would have anything they were given, but not anymore."

There has always been a market in India for low-quality booze, mainly among men, despite religious and cultural taboos. (Independence hero Mohandas K. Gandhi called alcohol "the enemy of mankind, the curse of civilization," and the constitution demands the government promote prohibition.)

While some Indians are abstinent, 5 percent — roughly 60 million people, the population of France — are alcoholics, most of them poor and hooked on cheap, village hooch.

India is Asia's largest alcohol producer, but two-thirds of the 700 million or so cases consumed annually is undeclared — made in remote villages or bought by bootleggers from embassies or smugglers.

Now, old local favorites such as Old Monk rum and Bagpiper whiskey are sharing shelf space with world-class scotch from Johnny Walker and Macallan. The competition has forced Indian distilleries to up their game, and last year the industry-standard "Whisky Bible" named an Indian whiskey — Amrut Single Malt — the world's third best.

"It's pretty exciting, because a very large chunk of consumers who are getting into the legal drinking age every year are upwardly mobile," says Pramod Krishna, head of the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies. "For them, drinking is like making a statement, showing they've arrived."

India's wine makers have been similarly challenged by French chardonnays and Italian pinot noirs, leading local vintners to improve their blends.

Nanda Gupta, a member of the Delhi Wine Society, remembers her family investing in a bottle of Indian wine for special occasions.

"I could never drink the stuff now ... But at the time, there had to be that bottle on the table. And we would all enjoy sharing it," says Gupta, 52, during a recent four-course, five-wine tasting event organized by Tulleeho at a trendy and dimly lit Delhi eatery.

For a small but growing group of wine connoisseurs, there is an industry magazine, Sommelier India. Publisher Reva Singh says that when she launched it six years ago, she had full confidence in the fledgling wine market.

"When I first started, I would have to write down the name of the magazine for people, as well as the pronunciation and what it meant. No one knew!" she says at the wine-tasting event. "But I thought, none of these men know more about wine than me. There are still a lot of people who have a lot to learn."

Singh's magazine, as a trade publication, is one of the few places alcohol companies are allowed to advertise in India. Many have adopted creative alternatives to get their brands known, packaging bottled water and juice under the same name or sponsoring wine tasting and bartending events.

The doctors, lawyers and executives attending Nath's cocktail seminar are a clientele that has foreign alcohol companies very excited.

India is one of the world's fastest-growing markets for spirits, according to the London-based International Wine & Spirit Research marketing group. While whiskey still dominates, white spirits such as vodka and gin are the fastest growing segment, and liqueurs are increasingly making a mark.

"The people in this room are perfect for this," Tulleeho founder Vikram Achanta says. "They'll go out and talk about the brand, and recommend it to their friends."

Giggling like kids in a science lab, the guests follow the trainer's example, crushing ginger stems, squeezing limes and dropping ice into concoctions already swirling with spirits. When they are finally told to "give it a good, hard shake," their pink shakers become a rattling blur.

"We're having our Tom Cruise moment!" Nath says, alluding to the actor's bottle-juggling, drink-slinging role in the 1988 flick "Cocktail."

They pour their murky yellow mixtures into tall glasses, topping them with tonic and thinly sliced cucumber.

"I just love the sexiness of a cocktail!" says Puneeta Khanna, 43.

But, she admits, she would never drink in front of her mother-in-law.