Gaurav Sharda, Director at Sharda Group, a family-owned conglomerate that owns multiple businesses ranging from trading to manufacturing, has vast experience handling multiple industries over the past decade. Currently, he oversees four verticals within the group and is primarily looking after their own bottled and made-in-Nepal alcohol brands like The Himalayan Reserve (a premium whisky brand), Xing Vodka and Old Monk Rum (which is a franchise agreement with Mohan Meakins, India). He looks after the imported wines and spirits business within the group where they represent companies like Pernod Ricard, Mast Jägermeister, Robertson Winery, Maison Castel etc. He is also in charge of the gases vertical where the group manufactures industrial and medical grade oxygen and nitrogen gas. Besides all the portfolios above, Sharda also serves as the President of Nepal Oxygen Gas Manufacturers Association. Under the technology vertical, his company represents brands like Xiaomi, Hikvision and a host of IoT brands.
"The liquor industry seems very glamorous from the outside, but it is just like any other trade with the added complexity of various taxes and regulations. "
How did you get into the liquor trade?
Back in 2010, I was given charge of buying alcohol for gifting purposes during Dashain. We were then not involved in the liquor business at all and I had very little idea about which brands were available in the market.As Iwas looking for a few bottles of whisky, I wanted to buy Chivas, one of the whiskies that I really liked. However, I realized one couldn’t find Chivas Regal easily. I tried to get in touch with the parent company with a plan to represent Chivas in Nepal. After some research I found out that Chivas is not just a one brand company but a collection of brands under the umbrella of Pernod Ricard which also included other brands such as Absolut, Beefeater, The Glenlivet etc. I got in touch with the company but their country manager unfortunately said they were not looking for a change back then. Fast forward to 2012, after meeting the company people over the years, they finally asked me to make a business plan after multiple meetings and finally nine months later, we eventually signed an agreement with Pernod Ricard to represent their International brands in Nepal. That’s how I got into the liquor trade.
What are some of the pros and cons being in the liquor industry?
Firstly, it’s the identity that the brand brings on board, the brand’s identity sort of becomes your identity. Further the brands also command a lot of respect and in turn my team and I also gain from that; you are treated in a different way when you are associated with a strong brand.
However, there are also a lot of issues that is associated with the trade. The liquor business has always been a punching bag, be it to increase taxes or to impose a ban. When the first lockdown happened in 2020 the first product that got banned was imported liquor. If you were to check the import data, you’ll be shocked to find that there’s very little foreign exchange that’s used to import bottled liquor and yet the amount of revenue it generates as taxes is almost five fold of what we bring in CIF value at customs.
Also, most brands that we represent are all bottled in origin only. They are not bottled anywhere else except for their country of origin. For instance, Absolut is only made in Sweden, Chivas and other Scotch whisky brands are only made in Scotland. There are a lot of people who advocate that Chivas should be made in Nepal, but that’s not possible.
How has the liquor market changed in the country?
I’m fairly young in this industry. Earlier there were very few international brands imported into Nepal, but now there are so many that have come in and they are doing well .Global brands have started educating consumers in our part of the world with what to expect from their brands of wines and spirits. Customers have also started to understand more about the products. We as a producer know that there is a market for good premium spirits and consumers are ready to pay; a lot of premiumization has happened over the past few years. It’s interesting to learn and understand how the consumer psyche is changing.
How has the perception of consumers changed towards liquor?
Predominantly people are looking for quality spirits. It’s no longer just about the price; in every price segment, if we analyze, we can clearly see that those who are serving the best quality products to the customers are winning in the long term. I believe this has changed in the last few years.
How do you think the alcohol vertical of Sharda Group is contributing to the country’s economy?
For imported spirits, nearly 60-65% of the entire turnover is paid in various forms of taxes. It’s a highly taxed commodity here in Nepal. Apart from that, we also bring in a lot of hygiene into the system ; we have also introduced various newer types of wines and spirits for the consumer in Nepal along with increased awareness about what people are consuming through tasting sessions and learning sessions for our consumers and bar partners.
Do you think trading liquor in Nepal is challenging?
Indeed, it is. Not only in trading, but also manufacturing. Taxation along with various rules and regulations associated with the industry are so stringent that there are still a few things that I’m learning even after being in this industry for almost ten years.
The liquor industry seems very glamorous from the outside, but it is just like any other trade with the added complexity of various taxes and regulations. Once your brands click, it is a smooth ride but till you reach there, it’s very difficult.
Something that was completely new for you after stepping into the liquor scene?
There are tons. Firstly, it is the glamour that comes with the association. Previously I used to drink whisky just to enjoy and have a good time. Now, I have started understanding the complexity of the drink and with every sip, I try to figure out what’s going on with the drink, be it the taste or the smell. I’ve started appreciating my drinks much more than I would have done ten years ago.
You seem to be more of a whisky person. When did you start appreciating whiskies?
I do enjoy drinking whisky. Back in college, me and my friends used to drink Old Monk rum; then we moved to Vodka and finally to whisky. I like whiskies that have floral and fruity notes with hints of spice; I was never into the smoky/peaty whiskies, I don’t really know what made me shift to whisky in the first place.
Anything worth-mentioning from your collection?
I have a small collection of bottles that I have collected over the years and some of them will become rare to find. These are from my travels to Scotland and some of them are limited editions; I have a bottle of Caperdonich 21-year-old single malt whisky which is bottled at cask strength. This distillery was closed down in 2002. Aberlour A’bunadh is another complex whisky in my bar. I have a bottle of 35-year-old blended whisky that was gifted to me when I visited the Strathisla distillery which is the spiritual home of Chivas. I have a 38-year-old Royal Salute which is amongst the most expensive whiskies I have in my home bar.
Your go-to drink?
I like quite a few whiskies like Aberlour, however my go-to drink would be Chivas 18 or a Glenlivet 15. When it comes to gin, hands down it’s Monkey 47.
You being a whisky aficionado, what would you choose: drinking a whisky or selling it?
I’ve enjoyed drinking a whisky much longer than I’ve been selling it. So, I’d rather go for a nice dram of whisky.
Advice to young whisky lovers?
It’s all about enjoying your bottle of whisky. Instead of investing in the bottle, invest in the experience. If you are paying for a whisky, do understand what the price is for, because sometimes it is just a good marketing gimmick. In general, a good barometer would be the age statement that the whisky carries which would sort of determine the cost of the whisky, but that’s not a cardinal rule.