This week, Mumbai's popular nightclub Athena closed down for renovation. It will re-open three months later in a brand new avataar: a night club dedicated to vodka.
While Ssteel in Delhi and Czar in Mumbai's InterContinenal already have vodka counters, the Aura bar at the capital's Claridges Hotel has literally made vodka its USP.
The recently renovated bar boasts of having the largest selection -- at least 36 vodka brands from all over the world -- at its counter.
"While we do have guests who want their regular whiskies, vodka is in demand among the younger crowd," says Manoj Kanojia, captain of Aura.
Kanojia's consumers perhaps still don't ask for the specialty Polish potato-based Luksusowa vodka or Zubrowka, another Polish vodka infused with bison grass, but taking vodka shots or asking for a vodka platter that serves four different kinds of the white spirit for Rs 699 is becoming trendy.
The market is high on new products. Two new super premium vodkas -- Belvedere and Grey Goose -- were brought in last year. Four months ago, Seagram India introduced its first vodka brand Fling in the country.
Kyndall India, which imported its premium brand Absolut in November 2003, plans to add more flavours next month. That is not all. Come May, the Rs 727-crore Radico Khaitan Ltd will launch its first mid-premium brand called Magic Moments Vodka.
Liquor industry experts claim that young drinkers between the age group of 25 and 30 are driving vodka sales and the category is growing at the rate of 20-25 per cent a year.
Kashmira Chadha, assistant vice- president, Seagram India, says about 80 per cent of the vodka consumers are young men.
"Since it's a good mixer, it also is preferred by women. But the young people are getting into vodka as it's a trendy drink to start with," she says. Fling is currently being bottled at Seagram's Nashik factory.
Santosh Kanekar, director, marketing at UDV, which bottles the popular premium vodka brand Smirnoff at its Aurangabad factory, pegs vodka consumption to be even higher at between 35 and 40 per cent this year over the previous year.
"Our growth rate is faster than the industry average. The underlying social change is driving the growth. Drinking is shifting out of the domain of homes into public spaces such as bars and restaurants," he says.
Agrees Abhishek Khaitan, MD, Radico Khaitan Ltd, "Either new consumers are getting into white drinks or dark spirit drinkers are turning to white drinks. Trends indicate that day-drinking has also gone up."
Compared to spirits such as rum and whisky, the total vodka market is still minuscule, at a conservative estimate, not more than 500,000-800,000 cases (one case has 12 bottles).
The white spirits segment, including vodka, white rum and gin comprises 5 per cent of the total 9.4 million IMFL cases sold in the country.
But as consumer interest in vodka grows, thanks to vodka-based cocktails being promoted in restaurants, not less than 40 imported brands or BIOs (Bottled in Origins) are available in India today as opposed to three brands five years ago.
According to Moet Hennessey's market estimate, about 15,000-20,000 vodka cases were imported last year.
Says Ashwin Deo, managing director of Moet Hennessey India, which launched the Grey Goose (Price: Rs 2,800-Rs 3,500) brand in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore recently: "The response has been heartening in the metros as people who are well-travelled are already familiar with the brand".
According to him, luxury vodka is the fastest growing segment in the world.
Kanekar says Indian consumers also want a share of the "international experience." Vodka bar chains are becoming popular in the US and Europe, and this is one reason, says liquor promoter Aman Dhall who imports Grey Goose and Finlandia, which is also making the market specialised and fragmented at the same time.
"The vodka market is getting more fragmented as it has added more flavours and ready-to-drink products to capture a wider market," he says.Companies, meanwhile, are working hard to boost sales. While Smirnoff has been promoting vodka through the Smirnoff Taste Maker's workshops in different cities, Seagram has been organising Fling Wicked Nights with channel MTV.