When your master’s dissertation involves making whisky using a particular kind of rice, you know your career is brewing in the right direction!

Nikhil Varma, our next pathbreaker, is a Consultant Distiller and Director at IBS Group, which is about to launch India’s first Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur.

Nikhil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his post-graduation (Brewing & Distilling) from Heriot-Watt University in the land of Scotch (Scotland), and his experiences distilling the Amrut Nilgiris Cask Aged Gin at Amrut Distilleries, best known for their single malt whisky.

For students, the AlcoBev industry has ample space for exploration, especially for creative minds who want to create something new and unique even within the same scope of work.

Nikhil, what were your growing up years like?

I grew up in Bombay with a diverse set of friends that mostly enjoyed playing sports. Even today, I try to find the first opportunity to play any indoor or outdoor sport to maintain my work life balance. Apart from general academics, my school exposed me to a variety of extra curricular activities like plays, dramas, elocution and even art competitions allowing me to grow in confidence on stage and in public speaking. 

Honestly, I was more of an outdoor boy than a studious one. Though I liked to study, I liked playing and extra curricular activities more. A lot of my interests evolved in college where I read more, got exposed to a lot of information, met people and experienced different cultures which I would say laid the foundation of my knowledge and a lot of my interests today.

My parents are extremely creative people themselves. Mom, through her delectable dishes, instilled in me an early curiosity for flavours and food styles, while Dad, through his writing, poetry and paintings, that I believe has genetically percolated in me a little bit too. Having a younger sister has also shaped my upbringing. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated in Microbiology from Wilson College, Mumbai and completed my post graduation in MSc, Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University, Scotland.

Tell us about the primary influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

When I was in school, Dad read an article in TOI by Jug Suraiya on brewing and fermentation sciences and saved it as a clipping. When I was in 8th grade, he found that lost clipping between his files and discussed the prospects of such a career with me. I simply went along with his idea because it sounded unique and most importantly, he was extremely keen for me to do this. Eventually, of course, my interest in this field grew as I delved deeper into it. 

My Internships at Radico NV Distilleries and United Breweries were the key turning points in my career in distilling.

I would regard Surrinder Kumar, Master Distiller at Piccadilly Distillery as my mentor.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I was quite certain that I wanted to pursue a career path in making beer or spirits. My foremost approach was to equip myself with the knowledge and coursework required to pursue such a career. I recognized during my junior college (11th and 12th grade) that Microbiology is a faculty that would lay the foundation in this field as it is also a prerequisite for life sciences. Microbiology is a versatile subject, as it offers a holistic understanding across various fields of biochemistry, industrial, genetics, immunology, medicine as well as applied branches.

Right after graduation, I wanted to work at an industrial plant and understand its functioning and so I decided to apply, interview and eventually intern at a distillery and brewery i.e. Radico NV Distilleries and United Breweries in Aurangabad. In both places, apart from the production aspects, I spent time in every sector of the plant like the bottling unit, the CO2 plant – where CO2 vapours are concentrated for commercial use. I also worked with raw materials and performed laboratory work, even understanding the working of the boiler that generates steam and the Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) where the plant waste is treated before it is let out. It was a holistic opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.

After my internships, I was ready to take the next step by pursuing Masters from Heriot-Watt University. I chose Heriot-Watt because it was the only university that was offering a comprehensive course in brewing and distilling. Since it was a self-funded course, it was my only choice as the other universities were mostly focused on brewing sciences, while I wanted to be involved in both the faculties.

Even as I was fresh out of United Breweries and had eventually gotten into Craft Beers which seamlessly coincided with the first semester at Heriot-Watt on brewing sciences, I wanted to keep my avenues unrestricted and wider. It was not until the second semester (during my masters) when I absolutely fell in love with the world of spirits, primarily brown spirits.

As a part of the coursework, we not only studied the specific processes of brewing and distilling but also brewed and distilled our own batches of beers and whisky/gin. We also studied the marketing, packaging and various other aspects of the AlcoBev industry.

My MSc dissertation was to develop a whisky using Vietnamese sticky rice, a particular kind of rice from Vietnam. I had to set parameters on mashing, fermentation and distillations. Studying in such a developed market for drinks aided my understanding of the industry and gave me the exposure to a variety of career networks and opportunities. 

I graduated with time and that simply opened-up options for me to work towards my goals. 

Shortly after returning to India, I started working at Amrut as a Gin Distiller and Brand Ambassador. It was a multifaceted role where I delved into On-Trade sales, Brand Collaborations, Marketing executions along with R&D and distillation of Nilgiris Gin. The job responsibilities were diverse with immense scope for learning and building a great career path as I was involved in a variety of roles.

How did you get your first break? 

It was as much a matter of chance as it was about keeping my options open.

My first job also happens to be the place I recently moved on from, which is at Amrut Distilleries, Bangalore. Interestingly, I first heard of Amrut in Edinburgh, two days before returning to India at a whisky tasting event. All the whisky at that club were from different parts of the world and one of them was Amrut Fusion, the most famous in their range. I was extremely intrigued and impressed with the whisky and I immediately wrote to them. They responded and provided me a chance to interview with them and rest as they say is history.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Amrut is a family owned business and they are very modest in their marketing strategies. Therefore, I had to innovate through social media tools and whisky masterclasses to spread awareness about the brand.

Challenge 2: Working in a medium to large distillery that makes a variety of spirits has numerous production challenges, troubleshooting them on a daily basis is a key aspect of being a hands-on distiller.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role.

I have started a new role as a Co-Founder and Director at a startup organization called Indie Brews and Spirits (IBS Group). We are about to launch India’s first Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur made with 100% Arabica coffee from Chikmagalur. I lead the production and R&D with overlapping roles in advocacy, marketing and sales. I also work as a distilling consultant, currently at a distillery in Sikkim to launch a new gin.

The skill set required for such a work profile is the ability to multitask and be open to creating a new brand, which comes with a lot of learnings and opportunity.

A typical day includes executing marketing strategies, coordinating with various stakeholders within the business, production planning and ideating scopes for new product development.

What do you love about your work?

I love that these jobs are similar yet different from each other. One allows me to continue my passion for distilling and the other enables me to innovate to create newer brands for the bar and drinks industry.

How does your work benefit society? 

The AlcoBev industry has ample space for exploration, especially for creative minds. The work that I have put in these years into launching gins and liqueurs is an extension of that. I draw a lot of inspiration from wanting to create something new and unique even within the same scope of work.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Amrut Nilgiris Cask Aged Gin is perhaps my most ambitious work so far. It took me more than a year of active research and its development. I first studied and trailed the impact of gin flavours on different wood and their char types, across varying maturation timelines. The final product shows maturity and depth much beyond the experimental results. I am extremely satisfied with the outcome.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Keep trying and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. However, when you do, genuinely learn from them. 

Be the best version of yourself. We all need empathy and goodness around ourselves. 

Future Plans?

I hope to create and launch more products across various AlcoBev categories.