Paying for expensive alcohol can be considered a reluctant norm here, but former journalist, alcohol rights advocate, businessperson, and self-proclaimed celebrity drinker Deepak Gill has had enough. In response to the ridiculous alcohol prices, he wrote an article on his blog The Thirsty Blogger entitled ‘The Real Cost of Booze’, in which he illuminates the stark mark-ups that many F&B outlets practise unethically. JUICE spoke to Deep about his article that debunks the atrocities of marked-up alcohol prices, his various endeavours, and more.
You were featured on Nat Geo a while ago in an episode about toddy. How did you feel about being contacted by National Geographic for your expertise? Did you feel a sense of validation?
I had no idea the show would be headed to Nat Geo, but it was fun. My main objective was to educate folks about the most basic alcohol on the planet – toddy. And to drink it. Beer and other drinks take many weeks or even decades to produce. The fermentation process [of toddy] takes days; coconut flower sap turns to toddy by the afternoon thanks to some super-efficient wild yeast.
You started your blog as a fun hobby and to pursue your goal to be a celebrity drinker. However, what made you become interested in the serious aspects of drinking such as educating people about the real cost of booze and setting up Alcon?
Goal achieved (laughs). I started Alcon because I didn’t want to accept major bullshit and say nothing. Some people thought I was nuts, [I was] calling for press conferences and going to Putrajaya. ”Alcohol rights?! What are you? An alcohol activist?!” Maybe. I’m pretty sure the campaign had an impact. Malaysians know about our alcohol tax now. I think the reason alcohol taxes kept going up was because the previous generation did nothing. When you don’t say anything, of course governments are right to assume everybody is fine with any changes.
What motivated you to publish that article – ‘The Real Cost of Booze’?
The way restaurants and bars price their drinks. They routinely mark-up up to 300% on the cost of the drink, which is extreme. The more you travel, the more you realise that. When I was in Prague last year, I remember paying one Euro for a pint of beer at a bar. Other bars were also reasonably priced. Take into account the fact that their salaries, rental, utilities and renovation costs are a lot more than ours. However, they’re not in the business to make a quick buck in order to open other outlets as soon as possible. To them, it’s a long-term career.
What is your aim in establishing Alcon?
Gosh, multiple aims. We have a manifesto on the group page. Basically, to ensure drinkers – who probably spend the most in the country’s F&B industry – don’t get screwed all the time. We get screwed most of the time by high taxes, and by bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and at events.
You’re quite enterprising as well, for instance, you have Huggaz – a company that produces these insulators for beer cans and wine bottles – is your company one of the first to create such a device? How did the idea to create Huggaz come about?
I think in Malaysia, yeah, the first. It was to fulfil a need. We live in a tropical country, meaning our drinks warm up too quick. And especially beer, drinking it when it’s not cold is a crime! We do retail as well, but customisation of beer koozies and wine bags is quite popular.
Another one of your ventures — The Locker and Loft, which we patronise often — is seemingly doing quite well for a business that just started its operations. Has it been a dream of yours to own a bar?
Nope. The whole thing – from a spark in the head to the physical entity – took mere months, so there was no dream beforehand. Well, maybe there is… to have a cocktail bar on a tropical beach – it’s time to start planning. As consumers, all we wanted was an outlet that had drinks – including cocktails – [that are] priced reasonably, that had a good kitchen, a unique theme, a friendly atmosphere, and good, non-commercial tunes. So we went and created it.
How did you come up with its concept?
The idea was to have a modern restaurant that also served great cocktails and a wide selection of spirits and wines. We did almost all the interior design ourselves, and the aim was to have a contemporary speakeasy, as most are done in the classic, traditional way. We went industrial; one, because our hood is industrial, with engineering companies and workshops for neighbours, and two, we wanted the joint to feel like an underground, distillery bar. We also have a copper distiller that’s on the way.
How did you come to concoct the delicious Kelapa Rock cocktail – an apparent signature of yours and the house cocktail of The Locker and Loft?
(Laughs) That’s hazy. It was maybe eight years ago for one of my legendary house parties. I’m always looking for new ways to abuse regular stuff with alcohol. And Kelapa Rock was born – it’s a favourite as it’s real easy to drink, gets you there, and it rehydrates your body too. Another old no-brainer of mine was Brown Brown; Milo Ais and vodka – coming to our cocktail menu shortly. In fact, we’ll be doing toddy and tuak cocktails next month.
Has the recently increased excise duty impacted the pricing of your alcohol menu?
It was more of a restructuring rather than outright increase. It has had a little effect on profits, but no changes to our prices. Some outlets would use these occasions as an opportunity to raise prices disproportionately. However, if we at Locker and Loft need to raise prices, we’ll do it when we want, and we won’t look for excuses like this to do it.
As an alcohol consumer rights advocate and a proprietor of a bar that serves reasonably priced alcohol, have you discovered that it can be challenging to balance your ethics and your business sense?
There’s no conflict. There’s such a thing as an ethical business, that’s what we plan to be. A business is happy when all its stakeholders are happy, including the customers. More people can enjoy cocktails now, so they must be happy!
We don’t mean to be rude, but with all the drinking over the years, how’s the health of your liver?
It’s still there. And healthy. I do take care of my health, and really watch what I eat, and usually drink on weekends only. Although there’s the occasional midweek mayhem…