Culture

That's The Spirit: Why Indians Prefer Strong Beer, Liquor

A bartender pours Haywards 5000 strong beer into a glass at a restaurant in Mumbai. Strong beer, with alcohol content of 5 to 8 percent, accounted for 83 percent of all beer sold in India last year, according to research firm Mintel. i i

hide captionA bartender pours Haywards 5000 strong beer into a glass at a restaurant in Mumbai. Strong beer, with alcohol content of 5 to 8 percent, accounted for 83 percent of all beer sold in India last year, according to research firm Mintel.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters /Landov
A bartender pours Haywards 5000 strong beer into a glass at a restaurant in Mumbai. Strong beer, with alcohol content of 5 to 8 percent, accounted for 83 percent of all beer sold in India last year, according to research firm Mintel.

A bartender pours Haywards 5000 strong beer into a glass at a restaurant in Mumbai. Strong beer, with alcohol content of 5 to 8 percent, accounted for 83 percent of all beer sold in India last year, according to research firm Mintel.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters /Landov

Sometimes we at Parallels see a story that's so compelling, we make an extra effort to chase down the facts. So it's in that spirit, this story from Reuters caught our attention:

"Strong beer, with alcohol content of 5-8 percent, accounted for 83 percent of all beer sold in India last year, according to research firm Mintel, a figure industry players say is the biggest strong beer share of any major market. Brewers expect that to grow to 90 percent over the next three to five years."

Alcohol consumption isn't high in India, mainly for religious and cultural reasons. Only a third of the country's 1.1 billion people drink regularly. And when people do drink, Samar Singh Shekhawat, senior vice president of marketing at United Breweries, told Reuters, it's to get buzzed.

That explains why strong beer outsells its low-alcohol counterpart; it also helps explain why spirits — like whiskey — are still the drink of choice in India, as this chart shows.

Chart comparing beer and spirit consumption by adults in India between 2000 and 2009. The data are from the World Health Organization.

hide captionChart comparing beer and spirit consumption by adults in India between 2000 and 2009. The data are from the World Health Organization.

Source: WHO

Of course, India isn't the only country where the consumption of spirits outpaces that of beer.

Russian vodka, French wine and rum in Caribbean nations outstrip the consumption of beer in those places.

Alcohol consumption in India remains low — but it's growing fast. That makes it an attractive destination for Western brewers and distillers.

Diageo, which makes Johnnie Walker, has a $2 billion stake in United Breweries, the world's largest liquor company by volume. As The Wall Street Journal noted in November 2012:

"Sales of such local whiskeys — which are dominated by United Spirits — doubled India's whiskey consumption to 1.2 billion liters between 2005 and 2010, making India the world's largest whiskey market by volume. Meanwhile, the market for imported liquors such as Diageo's Johnnie Walker has remained tiny because of India's high alcohol import taxes."

India's locally made whiskies dominate global whiskey sales, though few people have heard of them outside the country. For example, United Spirits' McDowell's No. 1 lives up to its name; it's the world's top-selling whiskey.

But India isn't the only country where local drinks dominate the market — and the world.

As NPR's Tom Dreisbach reported on weekends on All Things Considered, the the best-selling spirit in the world is one you probably haven't heard of: It's South Korea's Jinro soju, a rice-based drink that's about 20 percent alcohol.

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