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MUMBAI (Reuters) - Women who drink, long portrayed as less than respectable by Bollywood movies and still wary of entering most watering holes, are becoming big business in socially conservative India.
Makers of alcoholic beverages, including global No.1 Diageo, are taking notice of this small segment of India's $10 billion drinks industry that is growing more than twice as fast as the overall sector and presents a significant, if delicate, market opportunity.
With more women in the organized workforce, gaining financial independence and interacting with their male counterparts in social and professional settings, the idea of them drinking is slowly gaining acceptance.
"As recently as in my mother's generation it was frowned upon, and it is now perfectly acceptable to have a glass of champagne or white wine," said Rajeev Samant, founder and chief executive of Sula Vineyards, the largest domestic wine maker.
Two years ago Sula launched Dia, a light, slightly sparkling wine aimed at female drinkers that comes in a slender bottle with pastel-colored labeling and has a lower alcohol content. The company is adding more low-alcohol options and expects women to account for roughly one-third of sales this year.
French drinks group Remy Cointreau, whose Cointreau is an ingredient in a Cosmopolitan, the signature cocktail of the TV show "Sex and the City", launched the orange liqueur in India three years ago to tap the burgeoning women's market.
"There is a rise in the cocktail culture and a significant part of that is because of women," said Rajesh Grover, marketing manager for the Indian subcontinent at Remy Cointreau, which holds promotional events that offer steeper discounts to women wearing higher heels.
Still, despite boasting the world's largest whiskey market, Indians are overall among the world's lowest consumers of alcohol. Only 30 percent of men and 3 percent of women have at least one drink a year, according to the India Centre for Alcohol Studies (INCAS), a government research body.
By comparison, 60 percent of women in the United States drink at least once a year, according to another study.
The women's market in India is expected to grow 25 percent over the next five years, faster than the 10 percent rise projected for the overall industry, INCAS said.
Rising incomes and changing social habits give India the growth potential that recently prompted British-based Diageo to enter a deal to buy a controlling stake in United Spirits Ltd, India's biggest alcohol maker.
France's Pernod Ricard SA last year signed a bottling agreement with Tilaknagar Industries and is in talks with the Indian company for a strategic partnership. India's No.2 spirits company, Radico Khaitan Ltd, has held talks with international players about a joint venture after its partnership with Diageo ended last year.
At The Big Nasty, in the Khar suburb of Mumbai, the lights are dim, hip-hop music pounds and a popular song raises a loud cheer. It's Thursday night, and a table of 20-something women have left their boyfriends and husbands behind to party together.
"We girls normally hang out once a week at some joint or the other. For us, it's a stress-buster," said Preciosa D'costa, a 29-year-old advertising executive. But she also has friends who are more guarded about their drinking.
"I know people until today who are hesitant, guys for that matter, who are hesitant to go home (after drinking)."
Despite its rapid modernization, India remains deeply traditional. Even in cities, most women choose to marry a partner selected by their parents. Incidents of thugs beating up women at pubs are not unheard of.
The New Delhi gang rape and killing of a young physiotherapy student who was out with a male friend provoked outrage about attitudes towards women in India, which was found to be the worst place to be a woman among the world's biggest economies in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll.
Bars in India are typically male-only bastions. Women who drink in public would typically do so in high-end restaurants or bars in upscale sections of cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore. The trend is seen spreading to smaller cities, albeit cautiously.
"Your marketing program has to take into account the city's sensitivities," said Sharda Agarwal, a director at Mumbai-based MarketGate Consulting.
A ban on alcohol and cigarette advertising forces makers of alcoholic beverages to be creative, using their brands on water, soda and even music CDs. Many sponsor fashion shows and music festivals, while some have hired Bollywood stars for related promotions.
Jack Daniel's maker Brown-Forman said that while it does not target women exclusively with its Finlandia vodka, it often serves it in cocktails at fashion show after-parties.
India's burgeoning retail revolution, which has seen supermarket chains sprouting up in major cities, has also made alcohol more available to women.
Before supermarkets, a woman wanting to buy alcohol for home consumption would have to brave the stares or comments from men, not always sober, jostling in line at liquor stores.
"It's more accessible for a woman to drink, it's more accessible to buy. When she is doing her grocery shopping she can go ahead and buy alcohol," said Sunitha Barlota, an analyst with Euromonitor.
While vodka and ready-to-drink beverages such as Bacardi Breezers are still among the most popular choices for Indian women, they are increasingly turning experimental, according to research firm Mintel.
"India and whiskey are joined at the hip. But women and single malts aren't too far either," said Gaurav Bhatia, marketing director at Moet Hennessy India, a part of French luxury group LVMH.
Diageo says its Scotch brand Johnnie Walker Platinum and single malt Singleton are increasingly popular with women.
"Their rising affluence, aspirations and exposure to different lifestyles appears to be driving this desire to have newer experiences and that includes experimenting with alcohol," Zanita Kajiji, Diageo India's marketing and innovation director, told Reuters.
Back at The Big Nasty, 24-year-old Nisha Khetani, who works in the merchandising department of a retail chain, was on a second round of vodka shots with two female colleagues.
"We work as hard as the men in our office and need to de-stress just like them," she said.
Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson