Young entrepreneur dreams of countering the prominence of Scotch with rum
WHEN 35-year-old Gautom Menon set out to create India's first premium rum, he wanted to give the country a spirit it would be identified by. Soon after taking over his family's distillery business in Kerala, Menon was not satisfied by just being bottling partners for various liquor brands in his state. In fact, he was not even drawn towards alcohol as a business idea. "I was a teetotaller. My father and uncles would nudge me to try whiskey at parties. I never liked the taste." After dabbling in cars for a bit, he had to take over the family business, following a family emergency, "in true Karan Johar movie style". That was in 2006. Today, Menon is founder of Wild Tiger rum, that he hopes is the country's rum reply to premium scotch and vodka.
"When I visited drink fairs in Dusseldorf, Hamburg and London, I saw that every country, big or small, had its own pavilion. Italy would have it for grappa, Mexico had tequila, US would display its craft beers and bourbon whiskeys. India, a country with the second highest drinking population, was nowhere," Menon says. His research led him to the fact that the sugarcane used in rum had origins in ancient India. "We have been making it for thousands of years, whereas in the Caribbean, rum has been around only since the 15th century. Columbus did not know the existence of sugarcane until 1492, while Indians had discovered it ten thousand years ago. Therefore, whiskey, vodka and gin cannot be the real Indian story. As the land of sugarcane, India must show the way forward with rum."
It was the advent of British rule that influenced Indian fascination for whiskey. "That's why we don't mind shelling out the big bucks for it. The East India Company brought Scotch to India, and for our forefathers, it became an aspirational drink. That cultural imprint has lasted," Menon says. It's the reason why the idea of a premium rum many not be sold easily. "For most Indians, rum is Old Monk, which is made from molasses. It's popular because it is sweet and of course, easy on the pocket. The nostalgia associated with it helps too."
Lack of education around rum hasn't helped either. "There is barely any dialogue around rum in India. What beats me is how it is seen as a winter drink! Truth is, it is as heaty as whiskey or gin." Menon wants to introduce the country to a variety of rum that can be sipped on, and not just remain in the realm of a mixer. "Beverage giants here only want to promote the rum-and-coke concept. I feel, any rum, premium or otherwise, should be tried neat first to understand whether the notes agree with you. Our rum is infused with Kerala spices, so it cannot get more Indian than that. And, even if you mix it with a cola or soda, the spices don't fizzle out."
Here’s what you didn’t know about rum
>> Until 1970, the British Navy gave sailors a daily ration of rum, called a “tot”. The last tots were delivered on July 31, 1970 on a day known as Black Tot Day. To mourn the end of the ration, some sailors wore black arm bands.
>> Historically, rum was also called Kill-Devil.