March 29, 2020
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Rotgut Blues

The state's control deprives Chennai of quality liquor

Rotgut Blues
Srikanth Kolari
Rotgut Blues
When a bartender fixes a cocktail in Chennai, he's doing something illegal. As per the Tamil Nadu Rectified Spirit Rules, 2000, you can't mix spirits behind the bar. "To serve a Bloody Mary, I have to give you the tomato juice, lime, salt and vodka separately," says a distraught Spanish bartender in one of Chennai's most crowded bars. If you go by the book, almost every pub and bar in TN thrives on illegalities. On paper, Chennai has few real pubs or bars. Most are 'permit rooms', where only residents of the hotel can be entertained. For the record, the permit rooms maintain a ledger to show that guests in their mandatory 15-odd rooms have consumed alcohol that 400 people would consume in an evening.

Both retail and wholesale vending of liquor in the state is controlled by the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited (Tasmac), launched in 1983. During MGR's chief ministership, the state decided to control all wholesale vending of India-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). In October 2003, the J. Jayalalitha government took over retail vending as well, ostensibly to put an end to the "cartelisation in the liquor trade". The M. Karunanidhi-led DMK government has found no reason to reverse the policy since revenue from the sale of liquor has broken a 23-year-old record.

Before the takeover, Tasmac's turnover was Rs 3,499 crore. In 2005-06, with 6,697 retail outlets of which 2,963 have bars attached, its turnover has increased to Rs 7,335 crore: a growth rate of 110 per cent. Tasmac's phenomenal success has come despite its policy of selling only those IMFL brands that are brewed or distilled in the state. So consumers have access to Brisnoff vodka manufactured by Shiva Distilleries in Coimbatore, but not to Smirnoff bottled in Aurangabad. None of the international brands bottled in India can be retailed in TN. Pubs and bars have to procure premium brands and imported liquor from bonded warehouses in Mumbai or Delhi. For this, a bar has to make an indent with Tasmac and apply for a transport permit (TP). And Tasmac can take months to clear the permit. The result: even star hotels do not have adequate supply of quality liquor. And if a state does not deal with the wholesale supply of a brand, it has to be imported with all the extra duties and taxes, duly passed on to customers.

When the Taj Connemara's Distil bar sells a 30 ml peg of Absolut at Rs 275, only Rs 115 accrues to the hotel. The rest—70 per cent of the price—swells Tasmac's revenue. Most star hotels are glad not to push imported spirits since the margins on their sale are low. V.V. Giri, GM, The Park, believes the government should be a facilitator, not a regulator. "They should not make us wait three months to a year for issuance of a TP. Prompt permits would only boost their revenue."

Making matters worse is the Chennai police's attitude. On November 4, they raided three pubs and detained 17 women at the Thousand Lights police station. Not only were they lectured on their clothes, the ill-effects of drinking and clubbing, some women (aged up to 35) were allegedly slapped, and let off after the parents were warned. Following the death of a girl due to drunken driving in 2004, and the raid on The Park and the temporary suspension of their liquor licence in September 2005 "for permitting obscene dance programmes without permission", the Chennai police, abetted by a fringe morality brigade in the political class, has constantly sought to clamp down on nightlife in the city. "But I don't see the police enthusiastically booking people for traffic infringements which are so routine," says Stephen Gibbons, a Manchester resident working in a Chennai BPO for two years.

Consumers with disposable income can patronise premium bars and nightclubs. The middle class, though, has only a sad choice at Tasmac outlets which rarely stock even regulars like Old Monk rum and Kingfisher beer. Mid-range restaurants don't serve even beer. "The other day I took a friend to Benjarong, a premium Thai restaurant, but he was shocked when no alcohol was served," says ad executive Jennifer Chinnathurai. However, several restaurants serve beer on the sly in opaque porcelain mugs.

Not only are Tasmac outlets filthy, they also force brands like Cosmopolitan whiskey and Day & Night rum on buyers. Sometimes even Romanov and Blue Riband are unavailable. Says veteran journalist Sam Rajappa: "These rotgut, local brands are badly distilled molasses. Tasmac peddles arrack packaged as IMFL." Breweries in TN ensure that other brands don't get a foothold in the state.

The very experience of buying from a Tasmac outlet can be traumatising. Says documentary filmmaker Tarun Saldanha: "The salesmen stand behind iron grills. The buyer is made to feel unwanted, as if he's doing something shady. In Delhi or Bangalore one can walk through the shop and browse." He wonders how the government legitimises drinking on the streets at Tasmac outlets but goes moral on Chennai's few pubs. Even the working class has the right to drink in more hygienic conditions than what prevails in the government-run bars, some of which sell booze at 20 per cent above the mrp after midnight, with the moral police looking the other way.

All these hurdles boost the bootleggers' market. Brands sourced from neighbouring Pondicherry are home-delivered for an extra Rs 100 or Rs 200 on a phone-call. Or, as bookseller V.R.J. Prabalan says, "A contact in the defence services or an ex-serviceman is enough." Prabalan and his pals were about to start an Old Monk International Club "since it's the only international quality Indian brand. But with Mohan Breweries manufacturing Old Monk in TN, the quality deteriorated so much we abandoned the idea". In fact, not only does KF beer taste different when bottled by TN's Balaji Distilleries, even the shape of the bottles is not like the ones in Bangalore or Delhi, says Saldanha. "The snout tapers off earlier in Chennai's bottles." Worse, KF lager retails at Rs 53 compared to Rs 32 in Pondicherry. Regrets Anushka Meenakshi, 24-year-old filmmaker: "While the rest of the country savours a range of wines, in Chennai you get nothing except Golconda red which is like cough syrup." High-end bars charge a tax of 57 per cent on Grover and Sula wines and 70 per cent on imported wines.

Clubs in Chennai offer some solace. As Latha Kumaraswami, the sole woman committee member at the Presidency Club, points out: "It's comfortable and affordable at clubs." However, they serve just an elite few.

Says Giri: "Today, Chennai is part of a global village. It has thriving BPO and IT industries. The state attracts FDI from Motorola and Dell. Why not an open market when it comes to liquor?" He suggests that the annual licence fee (Rs 4 lakh) be hiked and bars and nightclubs be allowed to operate later than the current 11.30 pm. The South India Hotels and Restaurants Association recently urged the government to permit more bars and extend timings till 2 am to cater to foreign tourists and IT professionals.

The government's hardly on the same wavelength. As a hotelier puts it, "Politicians offers liquor for votes, but have double standards when it comes to opening up the liquor market."

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