(L) Varchasvi Shankar, Founder & President at Shankar Distillers (R) Sir Vivian Richards, Global Brand Ambassador
In a captivating journey from the tech sector to the realm of premium American whiskey, Mr. Varchasvi Shankar, the visionary behind Shankar Distillers, shares insights into his transition and the inspiration fueling his passion for the world of whiskey. Combining East and West cultures, his distillery, nestled in Michigan, stands out with its unique craftsmanship, distinctive packaging, and a commitment to weaving personal and historical narratives into every bottle. As Varchas Whiskeys make their mark globally, Mr. Shankar discusses challenges, milestones, and the exciting future ahead, including plans for expansion in India and the introduction of new, innovative spirits.
Mr. Shankar, can you share the inspiration behind transitioning from the technology sector to the world of premium American whiskey with Shankar Distillers?
For years, whiskey has been a true passion of mine. Whether sipping on a fine bourbon, savoring a rich scotch, or indulging in other whiskey varieties during special occasions, the experience is always cherished. My fascination lies in the rich history and time-honored tradition of whiskey-making in the US, with a particular emphasis on the captivating world of bourbon whiskey.
As an entrepreneur with a background in global software, how did your fascination with American whiskey products evolve, and what motivated you to pursue this passion?
What goes better together than software and whiskey? Just kidding. In 1992, I made the move to the U.S. to complete my education at West Virginia Tech. After a few years working as a programmer at Chrysler, my entrepreneurial spirit took over, leading me to establish my own business, V2Soft, Inc. and become a supplier to Chrysler. Throughout the years, my interest in American whiskeys grew, prompting me to delve into their origins and the stories behind the companies that crafted them. In 2020, my lifelong passion and dreams materialized as I founded Shankar Distillers and introduced Varchas Whiskeys to the market.
Could you tell us about the journey of establishing your distillery in the United States? What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
There were a lot of similarities between starting my technology company and the distillery, there were also a lot of differences. Starting the company was easy, the hard parts were finding the right building, in the right area, securing the equipment and renovating the building to fit our needs. I was able to accomplish this through leveraging resources in V2Soft and hiring in some experience from the alcohol industry.
Next was securing licensing and distribution that is required in each US state, starting with Michigan. Also, as we were expanding, we found out that each US state has their own rules regarding licensing and distribution. Once we figured out all of those challenges, we wanted to export to India. Since my tech company had offices in India already, I was able to leverage those offices and work with the US Consulate to complete the process and get our whiskey back to my homeland.
Shankar Distillery, Michigan, USA
Can you elaborate on the production facility of Shankar Distillers? What sets your distillery apart in terms of craftsmanship and techniques used in creating premium whiskey?
Shankar Distillers is in Troy, Michigan, and is one of the largest producers of craft spirits in Michigan. Our craft process starts with fresh grains that are ground to flour in our dry hammer mill, ending in our continuous still which produces over 1,000 gallons of alcohol per day.
Our Master Distiller is a chemical engineer from Michigan State and has a keen sense for whiskey mash bills, creating some very unique flavors from the different grains. Also, our favorite reason, Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, the largest fresh water source in the world.
Shankar Distillers is known for its unique packaging, featuring the double-headed eagle logo and a collectible metallic American Eagle stopper. What is the significance of these symbols, and how do they tie back to your personal and business journey?
With the development of Shankar Distillers and the Varchas Whiskey brand, we wanted to create a mix of East and West cultures. I was born in the historic city of Mysore in South India. The success of South India came from many wars won by the Kings of Mysore. My own business success as an immigrant to the US came from amazing opportunities that I found in coming to America and fighting my own “wars” in business, so I wanted to create something that would encompass these historical stories and my dream.
Our brand brings stories together through the intriguing packaging. Starting with the unique logo, the double headed eagle (Gandaberunda), a warrior symbol from the Kings of the Mysore Kingdom, and a collectible metallic American Eagle stopper, symbolizing my success in America.
Varchas Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Varchas Straight Rye Whiskey are two prominent offerings in your portfolio. What distinguishes these whiskeys, and how do they reflect American Heritage in taste and style?
Straight Bourbon and Straight Rye Whiskeys have a lot of rules in their making. In order to be labeled as a straight bourbon or rye, one main rule is it has to be made within the continental US. Bourbon and rye were first introduced around 1750 in the US. Our two whiskeys are made from that same traditional craft style, only we use a different mash bill (amount and type of grains) to give ours a little more flavor than others.
Given your roots in Mysore, South India, and the historical context of the city, how does the success of South India and the victories of the Kings of Mysore influence the storytelling aspect of your brand?
It’s built into our icon. We use the double-headed eagle icon on our bottles in the US. It is part of my history, and now part of our whiskeys. We have Indian culture and artwork integrated throughout our distillery. For example, our bar has a full brass back shelving piece (over 30 feet in length) that was hand made in Bangalore.
Could you share some insights into the significance of the name “Varchas” for your whiskey brand and how it aligns with the narratives you wish to convey through your products?
Sure, Varchas is a shortened version of my name, Varchasvi Shankar. We thought it sounded different than any other whiskeys in the market and made sense for us. In my home language, Karnataka, it is a Hindu Diety, also offers the meaning of light or energy. This adds to our East/West culture fusion that we have in our distillery and brand.
As an immigrant who found success in America, how do you incorporate your personal journey and the challenges you faced in the business world into the overall brand narrative?
This is really my “American Dream”. I was able to come to the US, finish my education, build a successful, global technology company, then build on one of my passions. I was able to incorporate my family name into the distillery and brand, integrate some of my home countries culture into our designs, and bring my passion back home to India.
With a focus on taking your premium American whiskeys around the world, can you share any exciting experiences or milestones in introducing your products to global markets?
Of course, our main excitement is bringing our whiskey back to India. To have success in creating a business from a passion, making something in a different country, and then brining it back to your home country to share with fellow countrymen, is a great feeling.
As for other targets, yes, we are targeting, Caribbean, Canada, Japan, and the UK.
Given your interest in bringing the whiskey back to India, what are your expansion plans for the Indian market? How do you envision Shankar Distillers making its mark in the home country?
We are in Karnataka, Goa and Delhi. Our plans include expansion to Maharashtra, Telangana and Haryana.
Making our mark will come from a combination of strategic marketing, product quality, branding, and community engagement. We are working with local influencers and businesses to cultivate our loyal customer base. Also, with the signing of our global Brand Ambassador, Sir Vivian Richards, the connection we make with cricket enthusiasts in India will definitely help.
Looking ahead, what are your future plans for Shankar Distillers? Are there new products or initiatives on the horizon that you can provide a glimpse of?
Our initial plans are to keep expanding to other states in the US, India, and introduction to other countries.
For new products, yes, we are always working on new products. A lot of them will be in the US first, then move to exporting. We have some barrels of bourbon and rye that have been finished in Oloroso Sherry and Port Wine casks, those are hitting the US market in January. We will be expanding to include other spirits in early 2024, including vodka, gin, and tequila.