Varun Jain (39) is riding high, and deservedly so. His label, Smoke Lab Vodka, a home grown, small batch vodka range, the first of its kind, has been expanding in the Indian market over the past two years, and which made its international debut in the United States and Singapore in late 2020 amidst the pandemic, recently won a range of international plaudits.
The label's Classic and Aniseed variants won both Gold and Best-in-Class Master Medals at the prestigious Spirits Business Asia 2021. The Smoke Lab Aniseed and Classic were also awarded a Double Gold, Gold and Silver medal respectively at the World Spirits Design Competition in San Francisco earlier this year.
Excerpts from an interview:
Could you take us through the journey of SMOKE, from conception to execution?
Smoke’s inception was a decade long one. I always knew we had the know-how and capacity to deliver world-class vodka. While our parent company NV Group (owned by father Ashok Jain) has been producing quality spirits for global conglomerates for years now, and we do have a successful portfolio of spirits catering to the local markets, I saw the gap and demand in the premium Indian liquor industry for a premium vodka.
But, I wanted the flavours and distillation to be spot on. I am a certified ENA taster, so I took on the task of creating a blend and recipe that would delight the changing Indian consumer. I used friends and family as guinea pigs and this helped refine our techniques and distillation.
Clear spirits have been really en vogue for the last few years, but it is gin that’s most popular. What made you pivot towards vodka?
We believe that our consumers are seeking authentic Indian brands and products, and we want them to move away from the notion that vodka can only come from Russia or Scandinavia or Eastern Europe. Multiple gin brands were making a foray, and we already have one mid-segment gin in our portfolio that is a 21-year-old recipe. We did enough R&D before we came with this blend and entered the premium segment.
What has the response to SMOKE been so far? What are your brand expansion plans?
The response has been fantastic, and our national and international expansion is testament to the brand's growing popularity. We were very conscious of alcohol advertising being convoluted in India, so very early on in the branding process we created surrogates for Smoke - a clothing line, packaged drinking water being sold in recyclable cans, as well as sanitizer because that was the need of the hour soon after we launched.
In late 2020, Smoke went international and launched in the United States and Singapore, amidst a global pandemic no less. We hope to set foot in Europe and the UK by early next year as well, so there’s definitely no stopping us from becoming an internationally recognised spirit brand to reckon with.
Are you looking at subsequently venturing into other spirits and or introducing new brands?
From very early on in my career and upon joining my father in his business, I was clear that I wanted to develop a home grown portfolio of products. We plan to launch a few more premium spirit brands over the next few years. My vision and that of the company is to be a leader in the premium, artisanal home grown liquor space.
Is it still as difficult to navigate the excise laws of each state or have things started to become more uniform/less headacheinducing?
Unfortunately, yes. India remains a very complex and diverse alcohol market. Different states have different rules and taxation - hence our marketing and sales plans differ in different regions. We also have to be conscious to be competitively priced as the direct point of comparison at our price point is that of international brands.
Culturally and socially too, each region is distinct. The consumer preferences, food and drinking habits differ from state to state and zone to zone. So we adapt our sales and marketing strategies to suit local preferences and demands. What remains constant is our endeavour to focus on quality and ease of access.