Shreyas Kulkarni

Jack Daniel’s coming of age in India

Marketing head Vinay Joshi pours over tales of luring white spirit consumers with flavoured whiskey, blaming the Brits for ruining India’s whiskey knowledge, and why "JD" is Tennessee whiskey and not Bourbon.

Growing up, few brands always succeeded in creating an inexplicable lust towards them inside me. A Zippo lighter, a Marlboro cigarette, an Omega watch, the complete works of Tintin and Asterix, the oval-shaped headlights of a Mercedes, a Sony boombox, they were the torchbearers of my childhood zeitgeist nurtured by worn-out copies of foreign magazines and TV shows I wasn’t allowed to watch. Half parts cool, half parts unattainable.

One such brand was Jack Daniel’s. I, during my childhood, recognised it as “JD” and was clueless about the contents inside that eye-catching square bottle. Today, I do and like all those years ago lust not only for the bottle but for the sweet Tennessee whiskey inside it.

Founded in 1866 in Lynchburg, Tennessee in the United States, Jack Daniel’s is known for its whiskey and even today, each bottle is made in the same place.

Jack Daniel’s coming of age in India

Jack Daniel's Facebook

The most famous of its offerings is the Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 that qualifies as a Bourbon; a premium form of whiskey made only in the States primarily from corn and must be stored in charred oak barrels among other qualifiers.

The ‘No.7’ christening is a mystery. Jack, the founder, never revealed why he choose 7. The conspiracy theories range from the seven women in Jack’s life to his belief in superstition to have perfected the liquor on his seventh attempt.

But, the makers of this drink would rather have you call it Tennessee whiskey than Bourbon. Why? Because "we filter our Tennessee whiskey through 10 feet of sugar-maple charcoal before we put it into ageing... Called the Lincoln County Process, it is what gives it its unique taste because it takes away all the bitterness the whiskey gets during the distillation process. Tennessee whiskey is one plus on bourbon," remarks Vinay Joshi who leads marketing for Brown-Forman (Jack's parent company) for the Indian sub-continent and the Maldives.

The drink, over the century, has garnered a cult following rivalled by none. Which other brand can count the likes of Frank Sinatra and Keith Richards as regular consumers? It is no wonder the Jack Daniel’s went on to become an uber-cool and something of a rebel for many young kids.

Jack Daniel’s has flowed into the livers of countless world citizens and India is no different. It has come to life in India. Joshi says the country is the world’s whiskey capital and “more than 50 per cent of whiskey volume sits in India. It is big in volume terms and will catch up in value terms.” He explains it is due to the vast volumes of low-priced whiskey that’s consumed here and this very volume attracts global and local companies.

While the Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 drink has legends among its ranks, who made a beeline for the square bottle in India? It cannot be college students or young workers because the brand is premium and not many can afford it easily.

“Jack Daniel’s is a brand that is served in fine establishments as well as questionable joints,” quotes Joshi from one of the brand’s popular global campaigns and uses the statement to explain the drink finds tipplers from “bankers to bikers”. The brand is for anyone who wishes to enjoy good quality premium whiskey remarks the marketing lead.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Vinay Joshi</p></div>

Vinay Joshi

He, however, relents and reveals the “consumer is anybody who's above legal drinking age and up to 40-45 and we, internally define them as next-generation independent spirits”; folks who relate to Jack Daniel’s core values of independence and authenticity.

And speaking of folks, I poured him a stereotype of the consumers of the Tennessee whiskey hailing mostly from Punjab or the north of India. He refused to sip. In the past couple of years, the brand has seen healthy growth from Tier 2 markets like a Poona or a Nagpur along with the Indian metro cities and not just a single state or region.

What’s your poison?

India’s poison is whiskey with a vengeance. The country guzzles the drink more than anybody in the world but unfortunately, it is not too well versed with the diverse world of whiskey. For instance, most drinkers’ knowledge of whiskey is limited to Scotch whisky. Then there’s also the fact that you can write whiskey or whisky (the US prefers the latter). Jack Daniel’s despite its popularity must have faced this issue.

Joshi blames the British who introduced Scotch whisky (whiskey distilled in Scotland) to India and despite Jack Daniel’s mammoth popularity and more than 50 per cent share in the western markets, “the awareness levels for our whiskey is low.”

Jack Daniel’s has invested a lot of effort, through activities and initiatives, in educating trade folks (bartenders and F&B staff) about its offerings, its history, what makes it special because these folks help influence the choice of a consumer. “We had cut down(brand building) in the last two years because of Covid,” he reveals.

It is not completely bad news. The B2B channel is back he remarks and “we've seen good footfalls, numbers, across cities since restrictions have lifted. And in some of the outlets, the feedback we've been getting is that they're doing more than pre-Covid level business.”

The flavours of whiskey

What, I found surprising, was Jack Daniel’s diversification into flavoured whiskey. Yes, the brand offers Tennessee Honey, Tennessee Fire, and Tennessee Apple being the newest flavour in town. I wondered if the flavours were nothing but a carrot to dangle in front of young drinkers to lure them towards whiskey.

It is for everyone who wants to try something different says Joshi and remarks, “it makes Jack Daniel’s more accessible as a brand to people who don't consume whiskey; they are white spirit consumers or people who don't have a palate for the hard taste for whiskey.”

Jack Daniel’s coming of age in India

Jack Daniel's Facebook

If you thought these flavours were a hit then you have not met the most selling item from the house of Jack Daniel’s after Old No. 7—T-shirts. “Globally, the second-largest SKU for us after the Old No. 7 whiskey is a Jack Daniel’s T-shirt,” says Joshi and reveals how some people tattoo the brand on their bodies too.

I assumed Jack Daniel’s sold its merchandise online to keep the brand recall fresh in the minds of underage folks who, once of legal drinking age, might try and flock to the brand. Turns out, it was a move to grab eyeballs and “an additional revenue stream for the trademark.”

And speaking of grabbing eyeballs, there’s not much in terms of marketing or communication from the brand unless you count an international Jack Daniel’s ad on Spotify. Where does the India brand spend its media monies? On GQ spreads or social media. The latter it is.

“A good part of our money goes in digital and social media and that's where we do consumer education,” says Joshi and gives us an interesting insight on in-store advertising. In the world of alcoholic beverages, the stores are a media space in themselves. “In our categories, there are about 20,000 stores out of which there are 10,000 relevant stores for a brand like Jack Daniel’s… you can communicate, advertise, and engage with consumers without any restrictions.”

Secretive origins, poison-in-chief, and one of the world's leading sellers of T-shirts, Jack Daniel’s is a hypnotic brand and has come of age in India at the right time when people want to reclaim their lives with some high spirits.

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