Make it a large in lockdown! How to beat a virus with a brandy in hand
With brandy sales seeing a surge during the lockdown, the makers of a trusted Indian brand discuss why it's a drink that's more than just an anti-bacterial potion
In 1986, Amarlal Bajaj was in Goa setting up a distillery when his family asked him to return to Mumbai and take over the family business. His father, Giridharlal, one half of the Mohan Brothers, was a leading importer of premium liquor in India and longtime associate of Mohan Meakin, India's oldest brewing company. Bajaj's job, however, was to helm operations for the relatively young spirit, Doctor's Brandy Reserve No.1 Pure VSOP. "I thought my father would offer me a cushy post. Instead, he asked me to fill in for a tempo driver. After three months, I was upgraded to a godown keeper," he laughs. He was later given a sales job, where he had to meet retailers and develop marketing channels. After 18 months of work, Bajaj was told to head the business. "I must say, I really got my hands dirty and learnt the trade inside out, from distillation and maturation to blending and bottling."
Brandy is made from wine (fermented fruit juice), whether from grapes or another fruit, and aged in oak casks. Almost every country has its own national brandy; grappa in Italy, slivivitz in Poland, shochu in Japan and pisco in Peru. Doctor's Brandy Reserve No.1 Pure V.S.O.P happens to be the first-ever homegrown brandy to carry the Very Special Old Pale designation—a guarantee that it has been aged for at least four years. Aged for over six years in oak barrels, the grapes that go into the spirit are sourced from Nashik and Baramati and are of the same variety that are used to make sparkling wines. "I believe the secret is the high quality grape spirit and the way it is blended," says Bajaj, who went on to become the director of Mohan Brothers. "We still make the brandy the way we did back in 1972. Of course, with better technology, we are able to deliver a smoother blend."
It is universally acknowledged that the finest brandies are the French cognacs that are distilled from wine. Which is why at the turn of the '70s, Bajaj's father sent a team to France to learn the art. His idea was to create a fine blend with locally sourced grapes. "He chose the name Doctor's because he was a firm believer in brandy's health benefits when consumed in moderation. His personal doctor's advice to have a shot every time he suffered from a cough or cold only reinforced his view." When his staff returned from France with the requisite expertise, Giridharlal approached Mohan Meakin to distill and launch the brandy.
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, the sales of brandy has shot up significantly, observes Bajaj. That its antibacterial components and high proportion of alcohol helps combat cold and cough, has lent it a reputation of a trusted immunity booster. In fact, to cater to the growing demand, the company recently relaunched the spirit in a new diamond-cut bottle (375 ml and 1,000 ml) as well as in a limited edition diamond-cut decanter (750 ml and 1,000 ml). Incidentally, the brain behind the makeover is his daughter, Pooja Bajaj Chadha, who has taken over as the CEO. Prior to joining the family business, she was heading an employee engagement firm. "I realised it was running auto pilot and that I needed to diversify my interests." And what better than to start with a drink she grew up sipping. "I had my first brandy when I was three years old. Of course, it was a medicinal potion." She's now here to shake off the drink's image as strictly utilitarian. "People think of it as a tipple for the father and grandfather, but we are trying to educate consumers that it's more than that; why not enjoy it with triple sec and lemon juice [the way I like it], or as a Manhattan? " Changing taste is not a cinch considering a lion's share of the alcohol market—75 per cent—is occupied by whiskey. But Chadha has done her homework to know that it's possible if marketed right. "Look at how gin managed to change its identity. It was introduced by the British as a cure to malaria. But over the past five years, gin and tonic has become the young, cool, hipster drink. We're trying to see if brandy can have a similar appeal." She's clear that the target audience is not the 20-year-old. "It's still going to stay a mature drink and for those who enjoy the finer things in life." Before the pandemic, Chadha had begun collaborating with restaurants and clubs to conduct brandy and food pairings and educate bartenders on experimenting with the spirit. She believes aged brandies have more muted fruit flavours and go well in cocktails. "A splash of brandy elevates the flavour of desserts, too." The response from the hospitality industry has been encouraging, she adds. "It's an exciting time because your new age drinkers are interested in knowing the crafting techniques, culture and history behind the drink."
Amarlal Bajaj with daughter Pooja Bajaj Chadha
Along with new swanky bottles of brandy that sit delightfully in Chadha's Bandra home is a clipping of mid-day that goes back to 2008. The report is about 11 men from Raigad who were admitted to JJ Hospital after consuming adulterated alcohol. The patients were treated with Doctor's Brandy that was purchased for Rs 280 for 750 ml for its high potency and cheap cost. "The best part is all 11 survived. It's stories like this that make you believe in your product all the more," she says.
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