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How Johnnie Walker Became India's Whisky of Choice

And found a fanbase among Indians around the globe.

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Johnnie Walker is the number one selling Scotch whisky brand in the world. While the spirit is available in over 180 countries, it's particularly popular among Indians — within India and around the globe. It’s a fixture in Indian households, and the drink of choice for men, especially. Daniel Leahy, the Global Director of Johnnie Walker Content Creation, reveals that in India, Johnnie Walker is the "leader in imported Scotch whisky" and makes up nearly 56 percent of the market share. The spirit is so common that it is often referred to as "Uncle Johnnie" — a term of endearment that has become a meme. Hemant Pathak, the head mixologist Junoon, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in New York City, admits that he often jokes with co-workers that Johnnie Walker is the "national drink of India."

Johnnie Walker bottles are featured so prominently in Bollywood movies that they could be mentioned in a film’s credits. According to Bollywood Food Club, a blog that started documenting movies in which the drink makes an appearance, Johnnie Walker is easily found in at least 25 films, and likely many, many more. Leahy explains that this is not due to paid placements, rather "more as an outcome of the brand’s place in Indian popular culture." Bollywood became so taken with the drink that popular Indian actor Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi even changed his screen name to "Johnny Walker," after playing the character of a drunkard. But how did a very Scottish spirit become the preferred spirit of Indians?

The spirit is so common that it is often referred to as "Uncle Johnnie"...

It all starts with India’s general love of whisky, not just Johnnie Walker. Time notes that India’s drinking patterns differ significantly from those of "any other major market." The country has a far greater preference for hard liquor than beer and wine, and spirits account for nearly 70 percent of the market. Combine that with a population of over a billion and its easy to see why India is the biggest whisky market in the world. Researchers from the Bank of America Merril Lynch found that in 2014, Indians consumed 1.5 billion liters of whisky. By comparison, the United States only managed to drink 462 million liters.

Frank Coleman, the senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, told Time, "Indians are preordained whisky drinkers. They’ve developed a taste for whisky." Kevin R. Kosar, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and author of Whiskey: A Global History, agrees adding that their palate is due in part to English imperialism. He explains, "Wherever the Empire went, Scotch whisky would go to." However, Irish whisky "was not nearly as popular [in India] despite the fact that there was more of it being produced in the late 19th century than Scotch whisky. This is because the Irish did not get along well with the crown." While the Scots he continues, "had a positive working relationship with the mainland early on."

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Photo: Shutterstock/Milleflore Images

Johnnie Walker became a big whisky brand by "aggressively marketing itself," says Kosar. "It was everywhere, the way Budweiser is everywhere. Budweiser is drunk a lot in part because it is always available. You go to a ball game or something and when you want a beer, they have Budweiser, so you just drink Budweiser." That is how ubiquitous Johnnie Walker was. However, unlike Budweiser, Kosar notes, "Johnnie Walker is also an exceptionally good product … and the quality was there." While the whisky has been around for over 200 years, the drink really took off in 1908 when it underwent an art direction shift, which resulted in its very recognizable logo known as "the Striding Man."

Johnnie Walker bottles are featured so prominently in Bollywood movies that they could be mentioned in a film’s credits.

The Striding Man was a crucial part of Johnnie Walker’s rise to the top. The Pittsburgh Post- Gazette notes that while most other brands played up traditional Scottish imagery like bearded men, kilts, and bag pipes, the Striding Man was a "gentleman on the move." The logo solidified Johnnie Walker’s place as an "aspirational brand," says Kosar. "[The rise of Johnnie Walker] fits in neatly with India as a rising economic power over the course of the twentieth century. Everybody was going up brand." Plus, the logo was easy to identify, says Junoon's Pathak. Combined with the "simple color coding of the blends" — i.e. Johnnie Walker Black, Johnnie Walker Blue, and Johnnie Walker Red — the logo "helped the brand resonate with, and be understood by, everyday people."

Serving as a luxury drink also helped Johnnie Walker overtake gin — another popular British export. "There was plenty of gin sloshing around in India thanks to the British Empire," Kosar explains. But gin was sold at a lower price point and it didn’t quite "carry the same cache as Scotch whisky." He adds, "It wasn’t seen as luxurious." Essentially, gin didn’t have the marketing campaign around it that Johnnie Walker had.

Johnnie Walker continues to advertise itself to the middle class as an aspirational brand, even today. Diageo, Johnnie Walker’s parent company, created "The Step Up" campaign, which Leahy explains as a "digital mentorship program [in India] … that encourages individuals to take their first big step and move forward in life."

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Assorted Johnnie Walker bottles via Facebook.

The brand became even more elite in India thanks to steep taxes on imported liquor that date back to at least 1990, but likely around since the 1970s. Basic import duties on foreign liquor start at 150 percent of a bottle's price, and additional state taxes can increase that by another 150 percent, which means a bottle of Johnnie Walker in India can be quite pricey. While a 750ml bottle of Johnnie Walker Black will cost an American consumer around $30, at bare minimum another $45 dollars will be tacked on to the price (though it usually is more) meaning the same bottle runs at least $75 in India. While Indian residents have turned to local whisky brands for an affordable alternative, Johnnie Walker is still considered a drink of choice among those who have greater access to it after emigrating to countries like America, the UK, and Australia.

Johnnie Walker has always had a good reputation and it's a spirit that "... at least three generations of Indians are familiar with," says Kosar.  "The company itself has generally operated in a way that is above the board. It has not had any major scandals, or any incidents that would sully its reputation. Johnnie Walker has not been implicated in any bribery schemes, either." He explains, "This is not often true about other companies in the spirits business." In addition to having a pristine moral reputation, Johnnie Walker is also considered to be a "safe" spirits brand.

While a 750ml bottle of Johnnie Walker Black will cost an American consumer around $30 ... the same bottle runs at least $75 in India.

India has a major issue with bootleg liquor, and "illicit, poisonous moonshines are a real peril in India," states Kosar. In June, toxic moonshine killed 102 people in Mumbai and "sickened scores of others," writes CNN. Just a few months earlier, 25 people were killed and 125 were hospitalized in the state of Uttar Pradesh after drinking an illegal home-brewed spirit. These deaths from "cheap, illegally brewed liquor," which often contain methanol — a toxic chemical — are unfortunately not uncommon in the country. Johnnie Walker, however, has never had such issues during its "long footprint" in India. Per Kosar, this is what has enabled the company to "not have its spirits pulled from the shelf."

But perhaps most importantly, Kosar notes that above all, Johnnie Walker appeals to the Indian palate. "Scotch whisky puts a lot of people off," due to its potent flavor. "But in India? Scotch whisky is not going to strike as overwhelming." The bold flavors common in Indian food means that generally Indians don’t have to "overcome" the taste of the whisky.

Even though it's been decades since the end of British colonial rule in India, Johnnie Walker remains a popular drink with Indians around the world. Pathak reveals that even though there are "thousands of whiskys available" in the U.S. market, and that Junoon offers a number of them, his Indian customers still frequently turn to Johnnie Walker. The brand is no longer the humble company from a small town in Scotland: Johnnie Walker is now owned by a major booze conglomerate which has thousands of employees. But that hasn’t affected Indians' penchant for the spirit. So raise a glass because it doesn’t look like Uncle Johnnie is going anywhere, anytime soon.

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