The Happy High is a wine & spirit education and consulting firm founded by Ajit Balgi in 2014. The firm works with hotels on staff training and bar menu development; liquor companies for trade and consumer advocacy; country wine and spirit boards on building awareness about a liquor category or brand, and with importers on wine selection and wine tasting. Balgi spoke to Akshay Nayak to unfold The Happy High’s deep rooted motto of exuding quality wine & spirit education in India
What inspired you to pursue a career in spirits and alcobev industry?
My love for beverages started when I used to work as a freelance bartender in 2001 during my hotel schooling at IHM Mumbai. I kept my passion alive by focusing on beverages during my stints at The Orchid and Renaissance, Mumbai, by managing bars at both hotels. Another turning point came during my tenure at the Soho House London where I topped a wine course curated by a consulting Master Sommelier. I was the only Asian in that group and my inhibitions about Indians not understanding wines were overcome. I pursued my studies in wine, a level 3 from WSET (London) and have been teaching their courses in India since 2010.
What were the initial challenges and opportunities faced during the journey?
I was away from the industry from 2012 -2013 pursuing my MBA from S P Jain, Mumbai and then worked in services marketing for a year. The love for wines and spirits prompted me to quit my job and then was the challenge, I found no job worth its salt for a year and I became an entrepreneur by chance. Education was a clear opportunity as the industry and the consumers were accepting mediocrity and at The Happy High we aimed to raise the bar with quality wine and spirit education. We began in 2014 by taking assignments on an adhoc basis with liquor companies and when they realised that we were here for a long run did they move meatier chunks of business to us. We now have been working with major liquor companies, top hospitality companiess like Taj and Marriott, and a host of corporate houses.
At The Happy High how do you educate patrons about the array of wine and spirits whilst also promoting responsible drinking?
We operate in three verticals – professional education, consumer education, and brand advocacy for beverage companiess and country boards. For professionals, we offer bespoke wine courses like the Wine 101 and Wine Pro and do it exclusively for hotels and hospitality management institutes. For consumers, we do short sessions in wine tastings, whisky and cognac appreciation and also cocktail mixing. Through The Happy High Wine & Spirit Circle, a wine and whisky club of sorts, we offer curated experiences at the best of dining places in the city of Mumbai.
Lastly we work as ambassadors for different liquor brands and help them be their face in the trade and in consumer circles. As an education company, responsible drinking is our foremost priority as the darker side of liquor cannot be ignored. We believe that teetotallers aren’t missing anything and the people who drink must do so in a knowledgeable fashion.
You have recently garnered the feat of being India’s first Cognac educator. How do you see the Indian market in terms of Cognac consumption?
I am India’s first wine educator who is also now a Cognac educator. As one of the 90 in the world, I am extremely elated to bring the story of Cognac to India. Cognac is happening in India but is delimited to the southern states where brandy is the primary tipple. Cognac being the best known brandy in the world, the cream of the society devours the same. But this consumption is just a scratch on the total potential, given the whisky market India is. I believe Cognac suits the Indian palate and can be pan-India but certain beliefs of it being a cure for cold, a night-cap drink, a drink for winters only, etc, is restraining people to take to Cognac. Cognac can be enjoyed with mixers, in cocktails or neat depending on the time of the day and we will see how slowly Cognac can become mainstream.
What is the way forward for The Happy High?
Our success story is something that has been slow and steady. In the last five years we have been invited and hosted by seven countries in different capacities as thought leaders; as a judge; and as media. This has reinforced our belief of us being the major shakers and movers in the wine and spirit industry. We plan to do more work with more regional wine and spirit boards across the world to showcase them in India. We endeavor to do more Wine 101 and Wine Pros in Indian hotels to uplift their wine culture thus increasing their revenues and earning them a better brand image. Lastly we are planning to go brick and mortar with a bar school in Mumbai if the feasibility study works.