How Johnnie Walker became India’s whisky of choice
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.