Keshav Prakash started his career as a cinematographer working on films directed by the likes of Nagesh Kukunoor and Kamal Haasan before giving it all up to set up an alcohol business in Mumbai. It was something that was always in his `DNA’, he says, as he comes from a family that owns restaurants and bars in Bangalore. He, however, took a different route. He and his wife Anjan set up a whiskey appreciation society called The Oak League, and eight years ago launched The Vault, one of India’s earliest companies devoted to the import of expensive fine spirits. Its success and his desire to create a `fine spirits culture’ in the country led him to launch the hugely popular The Vault Biennale a two-day festival in 2019, in Mumbai. But when it came to the second edition, he changed tack to turn it into The Vault Home Bar Festival, the country’s first festival devoted to entertaining at home. The festival will see the presence of some of the best-known names in the world of fine spirits, both brands and people, and pop-ups by the world’s leading bars like Barcelona’s Paradiso, Lost & Found from Nicosia, Cyprus, and Le Club of Matsuyama, Japan.
We spoke to Prakash about the festival and his experience in the rarefied world of fine spirits:
You started out as a filmmaker turned spirits importer. What then led to The Vault Biennale in 2019, and now to The Vault Home Bar Festival?
A lot of my learning has been at alcohol festivals around the world. You meet people who are passionate, you meet brands that you never knew existed. That was our experience library. In 2019 when we launched The Vault Biennale, it was perhaps the first serious spirits-focused festival in the country. We wanted to bring brands and consumers together and put it out as a nice experience over two days. We wanted to create an experience leading event. The biggest takeaway from that event was our discovery about how knowledgeable the consumers were, their preferences, and how much of an opportunity lay in the niche segment of directly serving the consumers by connecting with them.
Why the shift from The Vault Biennale to a home bar festival?
The festival is called The Vault Home Bar Festival. I believe it is one first of its kind anywhere in the world. Its origins are serendipitous. Covid stirred the pot for our business. It shifted the balance for us, from a restaurant-focused route to market, to a home-bar focused route to the market. Consumers sitting at home started calling retailers to say they wanted something new, something fresh, something with which they could surprise themselves and others. Then retailers started calling us. That’s when we realized that finally, we got the wave that we were waiting for. An ecosystem to support us as an importer of fine spirits did not exist in India till then. I can’t function alone as an importer. You need distribution and retailer support. A gap that existed between us and the consumers of niche spirits is finally being bridged.
Thus, during Covid, people changed the way they entertained. Intimate gatherings at home became a norm. And after a while, they wanted to do better. They wanted to express their personality through the food and alcohol they served. When you invite people home these days you are probably thinking of what drink you are going to serve. Earlier when we had a limited choice for entertaining at home, we had a few bottles of whiskey, vodka and an odd rum and gin stashed away in your home bar. Things have changed remarkably in recent times. Today, you’re probably thinking, okay, am I serving a Negroni or am I doing a Margarita? What do I serve? Do I have the ingredients? Do I have the glassware? So, the first point of entertaining guests at home is the home bar. We are seeing the creation of a large new market around at-home entertainment. India is poised to be one of the world’s largest at-home consumption markets for craft and fine spirits.
With people celebrating their home bars, flaunting their home bars, and projecting their personality via their home bars led us to think in terms of creating a festival that would bring together a community of such people. And thus, was born The Vault Home Bar Festival.
What can we expect to see at this festival that we didn’t see at The Vault Biennale? At the end of the day, both are alcohol-related festivals.
True. We’re keeping the experience format the same because it worked so brilliantly for us, which is where people taste all kinds of spirits that are being presented by brand owners. The festival will revolve around four themes, Taste, Discover, Listen and Indulge. There will be an actual physical theater called the Discover theater where you will discover brands and categories of alcohol that you’ve never tasted before. You will be able to meet and engage with world-class distillers and industry experts. Then there will be many exciting experiences involving collaborations between the likes of coffee makers, cheesemongers, chocolatiers, pastry makers, etc. and fine spirits. There will be sessions by Aroma Academy, UK, the global leader in developing sensory skills in the drinks industry. Then there is one of my favorite sections in the whole festival where there will be talks about spirits, about lifestyle, about entertainment. You will also get advice on curating your home bars with handcrafted spirits, picking up the right barware, etc. Finally, there will be the gala night, called Indulge, for which we will have some amazing mixologists fly down and do a nice cocktail party. It is on a much larger scale this time. It’s a lot more experience thrown in, and it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.
You’ve often talked about creating a fine spirits culture in India. How do you define that, and how far do you think we have gone in that direction?
I think we have arrived at the doors of sophistication, at slowing down, and not just drinking but appreciating. That is what I mean by a fine spirits culture. It’s a culture of appreciation. And, by no means do I intend that it be a culture or behavior of being snooty or snobby. My personal thought and mission is to spread the word of having to slow down, appreciate, and enjoy; that is what the culture of appreciation is about. You can’t eat fine food in a rush.
Similarly, you cannot engage with fine spirits in a rush. Even if it’s that one cocktail that you’re serving, get to know about it, get to know the right way of enjoying it, the right glassware, the right temperature, the right balance, and do a good job of consuming it, as you would do with the food that you put out for your guests. The creation of the culture also extends to going to restaurants and being choosy about your cocktail or drink. To me, it is a sense of an informed audience making an informed choice. If you want to order pasta al dente, that means you know how you want your pasta. It’s about indicating to the waiter or the bartender what kind of martini you want, whether it should be dry or a little dirty, and so on. It’s about building a culture of awareness.
You have been importing fine spirits for many years now, and you have a vast portfolio. What is it that you discovered about the Indian consumer which you didn’t know earlier?
There are so many new consumers coming into the drinking age creating a culture of entertaining at home, setting up new homes, and taking pride in their home bars on an everyday basis. India is a vast country, and with our fast growth every day a decimal percentage is being added to the consumer market. This presents both a challenge as well as a great sense of excitement for people like us. The knowledge that our new consumers possess these days, thanks to the digital information available on their phones, never ceases to amaze me. They’re quickly Googling things; they are quickly catching on to world trends. Newer trends that are happening in US or London and other global hotspots are coming to India much faster than they used to.
Because of the proliferation of digital media, you don’t really need to travel to understand that perhaps tequila and mezcal could be the next big thing, or specialty rum would make a big comeback and find its rightful place in a bar. So, this is what I think is happening with the consumer. And with regard to our portfolio, we try our best to keep ahead of the curve. We are constantly working towards pushing the boundary a little bit and people are loving it. Price doesn’t seem to be a barrier. I think we have earned our position very strongly in the Indian market, I mean definitely in the Mumbai market as purveyors of something fine. People are willing to trust us when we put things in our portfolio and are willing to engage with us even though our price points seem a little higher than average.
There is a big buzz around Indian-made gin right now. How does it compare to what is available in the international market?
Using the global market as a reference standard, I think the homegrown Indian single malts have done predominantly well. I have seen bottles of Indian single malt confidently selling way above their counterparts in Europe in terms of pricing. Even in India, you will see these malts priced much higher than an average imported single malt. So, there’s a lot of confidence. There seems to be a lot of acceptance. Even in the gin category some of the brands have done very good work. But we need to raise our own benchmark to be taken very seriously globally. We have had an excellent start, but this is only the beginning. If we have to further grow as a reliable supplier of world-class products we still have to put in some more work.
What big changes have you seen on the alcohol front over the last eight years that you have run The Vault?
What I have seen is this revolving door of consumers seeking new brands, spinning faster every year. There are lots more coming in, so there are lots more experiencing a brand, exiting, and then coming back to experience something new. We have to run faster now. When The Vault first started, we were among the only ones in our market. Now there are many others with similar portfolios to ours. The market probably had eight gins when The Vault started. Today we ourselves import about 20 gins, and I am sure there are at least 30 or 40 more in the Mumbai market alone. The choice has increased dramatically. And we can say that, at least definitely, Mumbai is on par with any mini-global hub in terms of choice available, be it in the whiskey or gin category especially.
Where do you think the Indian alcohol industry is headed over the next decade?
Within India, I think it is going to be driven predominantly by consumers seeking new experiences. Eventually, I want to see the day when our bar industry would drive what consumers need to drink. This would mean flipping around the position of hierarchy from what is happening currently.
If you go to bars overseas, the mixologists tend to behave more like chefs. They give you something and say this is my offering, please take it. He is not going to change it for you. You cannot go to a fine-dine French, Norwegian or Danish restaurant and say please change this dish. You can’t do that. There is a clear hierarchy. You subscribe to the creation of the chef. That is what I would love to see happen in India sooner than later where our so-called star mixologists create specific drinks for people to enjoy. That’s what we should try and achieve.