Whatever happened to Horlicks? Patented in Chicago in 1883 by British-born brothers William and James Horlick, the malted milk drink was manufactured in Slough from 1908 and came to be thought of as a British product — but disappeared from most of our kitchens half a century ago. It lingered only as a figure of speech, as in foreign secretary Jack Straw’s 2003 description of Downing Street’s dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as ‘a complete Horlicks’. Meanwhile the product itself found a huge market elsewhere — in India, where it had first arrived in British troop rations during the war.
Under the ownership of Beecham, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, Horlicks became one of India’s most popular beverages, especially for children. But having closed the Slough factory last year, GSK has put the brand itself up for sale to raise cash for its £9 billion buyout of a minority stake held by Novartis in a healthcare products joint venture. Coca-Cola, Kraft Heinz and Nestlé have been named as potential buyers of Horlicks; £3 billion is evidently a price worth paying for a foothold in the high-growth Indian marketplace.
If Horlicks is passing out of UK ownership, then at least the repositioning enables GSK, our biggest pharma group, to play to other strengths. But the story is also a reminder that one of our few non-EU overseas trade advantages is India’s love of retro British brands. Let’s face it, we’ll always struggle to compete in global technology; but in unperished 1950s consumer goods, we still have markets to conquer.