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Once had with anti-malaria tonic, gin is now a stylish Indian drink with a ‘huge tiny’ market

New brands set to launch this month join a growing list of Indian craft gins that have changed the liquor’s image from stodgy to trendy.

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When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation about the importance of aatmanirbharta and going vocal for local, he probably wasn’t thinking about gin. But it is a fact that the made-in-India gin story is one of the most exciting in the country’s F&B industry, with four game-changing craft varieties — Greater Than, Hapusa, Stranger & Sons and Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin — hitting the market in less than three years.

And now with Terai and GinGin set to be on shelves soon, a new chapter in India’s craft gin evolution is being written.

Indian botanicals in a bottle

The newest gin on the block is the first from India Craft Spirit Company, an arm of Globus Spirits, which is one of the largest ENA (extra neutral alcohol) producers in the country. This means that Terai comes with an in-built advantage — where most other IMFL brands buy their base spirit from an ENA maker like Globus and then redistil it (in the case of gin, with botanicals), Terai’s rice-grain spirit is made and distilled in-house at its craft distillery, which is right by its main one in Rajasthan.

Beverage consultant and educator Karina Aggarwal, founder of Gigglewater Beverage Concepts, has been working with India Craft Spirit Company on the branding and marketing of Terai, and will be its brand ambassador when it launches. She tells ThePrint that Shekhar Swarup, the MD of Globus Spirits, was keen to make a gin in the London Dry style (the high priestess of gin certification, it involves a certain distillation technique that originated in London centuries ago, while the ‘dry’ part of the name comes from the fact that there is no sugar). But he was also clear that it should showcase its Indian provenance.

That vision shows not only in Terai’s production, but also in its packaging and branding. The name, of course, references the lowland region that covers vast swathes of northern India across to West Bengal. Explains Aggarwal, “Barring the juniper berries that we source from outside, most of the botanicals are commonplace in Indian kitchens: tulsi, coriander and fennel for that green earthiness, rose and lavender for floral notes, lemon and orange peels for zest, almond for a slightly nutty bitterness and angelica and orris root, which are common in gin production, they’re good binders. It tastes lush and green, which evokes the idea of the Terai landscape.”

The Indianness shows in subtler ways, too. The grooves on the bottle are inspired by the pillars common in temple architecture, while the cotton paper label is embossed with a wreath of the botanicals used in the liquor and takes its cue from the floral patterns on Indian coins.

And for the stopper, the team spent days in Channapatna, a town in Karnataka that’s famous for its lacquerware, to understand the artistry. This desire to convey the made-in-India message coupled with practical concerns, such as what stopper shape would be bartender-friendly and what sort of label would stick on the grooved bottle, meant the product took two years to be made.

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A long overdue Indian ‘ginaissance’

India’s relationship with gin is actually not new. Around 200 years ago, British soldiers serving in India were told to add gin to quinine-rich tonic to keep malaria at bay — the juniper-based liquor would sweeten the otherwise bitter tonic and make it more palatable. And so, the G&T was born.

It soon became popular among educated, upper-class Indians, but it remained the preserve of the elite. Even after Independence, the G&T continued to have a colonial association and has often been called a Gymkhana Club drink, the uncool tipple of uncles and aunties.
But now, in just the last three years, India has witnessed the birth of a gin revolution, or ‘ginaissance’, if you will.

Anand Virmani is the co-founder of Nao Spirits, which has the distinction of making the first two Indian craft gins — Greater Than, which is also India’s only London Dry gin, in 2017, and Hapusa in 2018. He recalls that when he and his partner Vaibhav Singh (whose coffee and wine bar chain Perch is popular in Delhi and has recently opened in Mumbai) were working on their business plan, it was hard to explain India’s gin market to potential investors, because “it’s huge as well as tiny.”

He tells ThePrint, “Gin makes up 1 per cent of the spirit segment in India. 97 per cent is brown spirits — whisky, brandy, then rum. Vodka accounts for 2 per cent. But that 1 per cent is still two million cases, which makes India the fifth-largest gin market in the world. And 99 per cent of that 1 per cent is mass-produced low-quality stuff — cold compounded products like Blue Riband, which is not even redistilled, just infused with botanicals.”

What set Nao Spirits apart was the attention to detail and the drive to experiment. Made in a copper pot that Virmani and Singh brought from Hungary, Greater Than has seven botanicals apart from juniper and coriander seed, which feature in most gins. There’s lemongrass, ginger, chamomile, fennel, Spanish orange peel, German angelica and Italian orris root.

Hapusa, the first gin to be made with the Himalayan juniper berry, also stars gondhoraj lime, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, almond and mango, along with coriander seed. “India is so rich in ingredients for gin, yet no one was making use of that,” says Virmani.

A Gin & Tea cocktail with floral Earl Grey from PCO, a popular Delhi bar | PCO

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Party of gin makers

When they started, there was no model in India for craft spirits, only beer, which had really taken off a few years earlier. But beer has its own rules and licences. “We were clear we wanted to stick to small-batch gin, a few thousand bottles a year. We found someone who already had a licence and set up our facility within that, like a sublet. It’s in Margao in Goa, in a corner in the back,” laughs Virmani.

But they weren’t alone for long. Third Eye Distillery launched Stranger & Sons in Mumbai and Goa in 2018, which is now available in Singapore, London and Thailand. “Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bengaluru are the plan for this year, but, of course, Covid has delayed things,” says co-founder Sakshi Saigal.

Also made in Goa, Stranger & Sons gets its black pepper, coriander, nutmeg and mace from a farm just across the road from its distillery, while Macedonian juniper forms the base. But for the citrus element, they source different varieties from across India: Nagpur orange, gondhoraj lebu (lemon), Indian bergamot and lime from Goa. “Now we also grow our own botanicals on our distillery grounds,” says Saigal. “We started seeing the first vines this year.”

Around the same time, Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin was already making waves at gin festivals globally, and launched in India a year later, in December 2019. It is produced by Radico Khaitan, formerly Rampur Distillery, one of India’s oldest and most prominent liquor distilleries, set up in the eponymous Uttar Pradesh town in 1943. Coriander and vetiver from fields around Jaisalmer, cubeb berries and lemongrass from the southern states and Darjeeling green tea leaves are just a few of the 11 ingredients that give this gin a spicy kick.

And if there was any further proof needed that India is ready to experiment with the stodgy drink, one need look no further than hemp craft brand GinGin, set to be available for retail soon. The brainchild of 24-year-old Goa-based Shubham Khanna, GinGin is perfectly legal (hemp being the non-intoxicating cannabis that is harvested for industrial use) and includes other botanicals such as butterfly pea flower, caraway seed, lemongrass, cinnamon, lavender and rosemary. Khanna, who studied gin-making in New York, has had to source all his botanicals via suppliers he discovered on Amazon, because of the lockdown.

It’s a new way of making the age-old drink, but it also fits with what Eeshaan Kashyap of Passcode Hospitality (the name behind popular Delhi restaurants and bars Jamun, Ping’s Café Orient, PCO and PDA, among others) believes about gin’s new vibe. “Now the product, branding and packaging are young, fun, trendy … so gin speaks to millennials and Gen Z as well.”

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Versatility, accessibility, Instagrammability

India’s gin revolution hasn’t come in a vacuum. It is intrinsically linked to a sea change in how we eat. Gigglewater’s Aggarwal believes that the shift towards local ingredients has a role to play. “It’s cool to be homegrown again, and it makes you feel a lot more intimate with a brand,” she tells ThePrint.

Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of Svami Drinks (one of the first homegrown tonic water and mixer brands, launched in 2018), adds that because the concept of brunching has grown, day drinking has become a lot more popular than it was, which has led to a greater interest in white spirits, since brown ones are typically not drunk during the day.

Bhasin and his co-founder Rahul Mehra (also a co-founder of Stranger & Sons) tapped into another side of the gin story, namely tonic, because they saw a major gap in a market dominated by Schweppes. “We would drink gin with Schweppes and soda to cut the sweetness, and were like, why are there no premium mixers in India?”

There are now, with Sepoy & Co, Jade Forest, Bengal Bay and Fever Tree joining India’s gin party.

“Gin is easily customisable and not intimidating,” adds Bhasin. Whether you want to add a slice of orange or grapefruit or go green with mint, basil or coriander leaves, whether you want a straightforward G&T or a martini or negroni — the spirit lends itself to many varieties of drinks and moods.

Kashyap, who, as we speak, is making a mushroom infusion for his gin and often adds a coffee twist to his negroni, agrees, and adds that the relatively lower pricing of Indian craft gins (most don’t cost more than Rs 2,000) has also made what was once seen as elitist, a lot more accessible. Plus, the things people are doing with gin look great on Instagram, which has, undeniably, changed how we eat — what with restaurants doing camera-friendly lighting and pretty plating because they know that diners will whip out their phones as soon as their order arrives.

“I do 8-10 weddings a year, and I’ve done so many gin concept bars,” Kashyap enthuses. From an apothecary-themed bar where people could infuse their drink with botanicals of their choice to a farmers’ market concept where people could pluck fruit for the bartender to put in their drink, gin parties are gaining ground. “At one party, even fans and pillows were made of herbs and roots.”

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Plenty more space for Indian craft gins

There are a lot of platforms to showcase new spirits now, says Kashyap, whether it’s India Cocktail Week, clubs like The Vault and pop-ups and festivals. And right now, India is in that happy spot where the gin market is growing but there is plenty of room for more. As Virmani says, “To build a category, you need more players, you need people to talk about gin in terms of more than two or three brands.”

He explains that while Covid did hurt business in the first two months, they were able to pick up through retail after the liquor restriction was lifted. “Restaurants have been hit much harder, so we’ve temporarily hired people who’ve lost their jobs, and told them they can keep the entire commission of what they sell. It helps us expand our sales and build a community. You need a community for a product to thrive, and there’s so much further for us to go. We’ve not seen limited editions or flavoured gins yet, for example. There’s plenty more gin to make.”

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