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How NV Group CEO Varun Jain plans to bring its premium Smoke Lab Vodka to the world

India's massive domestic spirits market never gave local distillers much reason to look overseas before – but things are changing.

India is one of the largest consumers of spirits in the world – and a proportionately sized distilling industry serving the domestic market. These distillers though, largely produce bottom to mid-shelf booze that cater to the mass market. It’s only within the recent years though, that India-made spirits have been embracing the craft side of things, and making headways around the world – like Stranger & Sons gin from Goa-based boutique distillery Third Eye. There are also a couple of acclaimed whisky producers – including Amrut and John Paul. Now, one of the country’s largest distillers, NV Group, is joining the fray with Smoke Lab Vodka, a spirit is distilled from basmati rice and Himalayan spring water. The Peak speaks to Varun Jain, CEO of NV Group, about growing trends, exploring new markets, and the brand’s sustainability efforts.

(Related: Here’s what industry experts in Singapore say about non-age statement whiskies)

India-made spirits have historically been a largely domestic business; are you aiming for Smoke Lab to lead the way in the export market?

That’s definitely the plan. There is a lot that goes behind establishing a successful brand, and NV Group is proud to have a hardworking team, products that go through strict quality checks,  and strong marketing. With the right mindset and teamwork, NV Group and Smoke Lab spirits have emerged as a leading and well-established brand in India. 

We have expanded the vision of the company and ventured into the US market, where Smoke Lab Vodka is now available in around 20 states. We’ve also debuted in prominent bars in Singapore which is one of the key cocktail cities in the world, allowing us to showcase India’s finest quality ingredients and skilled craftsmanship on the global stage. Additionally, we consider ourselves lucky to have pitched our products in  Berlin before COVID hit, and have received positive responses. 

In our second phase of expansion, we plan to target the rest of the South-Asian Market, UAE, Europe and Canada, and foresee our global footprint strengthening by the end of 2022-2023. 

The Old Man x Aarika Lee (3)

A cocktail of Smoke Lab Vodka Classic, Cucielo Bianco vermouth, and coconut essence. Created by bar The Old Man, inspired by entrepreneur Aarika Lee.

What are some of the main challenges you see breaking into the international market? 

Venturing into uncharted territories can be daunting but I love a good challenge and it provides a great opportunity to showcase the brand. A good product definitely lay the groundwork — with Smoke Lab Vodka being India’s first homegrown premium craft vodka made using pure Himalayan spring water and locally sourced, superior-quality Basmati rice. We sre confident that these points will be instrumental in  overcoming some challenges when entering the international market.  

Having said that, there are other barriers to entry when breaking into the international market that should not be underestimated, and always keep in mind that there are differences between building a brand on a local scale versus a global scale.  

Other than having a keen understanding of the consumer landscape like their behaviour and needs, it also helps to work with trusted partners (distributors in our case) to establish a presence and reputation in the market that we are expanding into.  

(Related: Here’s what industry experts in Singapore say about non-age statement whiskies)

 What are some of the sustainability efforts undertaken by Smoke Labs and NV Group that you are most proud of? 

The dream of living a conscious lifestyle that serves to protect and sustain our world’s fragile ecosystem drives the guiding spirit of Smoke Lab’s mission. We are continuously  experimenting with resources to actively pursue an aggressive, environmental and civic-minded approach to producing our vodkas and other lifestyle endeavours. 

We are very proud to share that we produce our own energy with renewable resources, achieving a zero/neutral carbon footprint at our Rajpura plant. Steam generated from our plants is utilised to produce energy for production. This steam is then converted back to water and sent to the energy plant again. This cycle ensures the water is always reused and never wasted. 

(Related: Suntory has created a vodka using premium Japanese rice)

What are your thoughts on the dropping rates of alcohol consumption worldwide? What do you think about the rising non-alcoholic category? 

With a shift in lifestyle and attitudes, the number of non-alcoholic drinkers has definitely risen in the past couple of years. While there is a trend towards healthier living, eating and drinking, there will always be a group of consumers who enjoy alcoholic beverages. We are confident that there will continue to be demand for alcohol as more people are drinking and appreciating spirits in its purest form, without the need for mixers,  which also help them cut back on the calories. For instance, our Smoke Lab Vodka Aniseed is  best served on the rocks, and Scotch tastes the best when drunk neat. 

What’s your favourite way to have Smoke Lab Vodka? 

Smoke Lab Vodka Aniseed on the rocks.