Indian gin’s young blood

Entrepreneurs in their 20s are pushing the Indian gin story, with six craft gins hitting the market this year. Experts weigh in on quality spirits, botanicals, and new experiments

October 23, 2020 05:28 pm | Updated October 24, 2020 07:05 pm IST

(Clockwise from top left) Samsara, Jin Jiji, Hapusa, Gin Gin, Pumori, and Greater Than

(Clockwise from top left) Samsara, Jin Jiji, Hapusa, Gin Gin, Pumori, and Greater Than

The pandemic aside, 2020 has to be the year of the ginprenuer in India. With barriers to gin-making (at least in small batches) incredibly low, many young ginto sippers — who grew to love the globally-trendy spirit while studying or working abroad — are settling in sunny Goa, where ‘spirited’ laws are at their friendliest and distilleries are for hire.

This year, India stands at the cusp of a boom thanks to six craft gins launched in the last few months alone. And there are at least a dozen more in the pipeline (with a few expected to release next month). It would seem that if you have about ₹50 lakh to ₹1 crore, a recipe and a taste for juniper, there is no stopping you. Gin is shining.

Incredibly, three years ago, Indian gin did not exist. Then Greater Than, Hapusa and Stranger & Sons found a gap in the market, between the well-made, big international brands priced upwards of ₹2,000 and the cheaper cold-compound gins (made by infusing artificial or natural flavours without distilling) priced at ₹300-₹400. Their success in bars, as well as the social media-fuelled rise of gin-drinking culture, gave a fillip to a market which, though miniscule in absolute numbers (gin accounts for only 1% of spirits consumed in India), is bursting with potential.

(From top left) Aditya Aggarwal of Spaceman Spirit Lab, Ansh Khanna of Jin Jiji, and Shekhar Swarup of Globus Spirits

(From top left) Aditya Aggarwal of Spaceman Spirit Lab, Ansh Khanna of Jin Jiji, and Shekhar Swarup of Globus Spirits

Some tulsi and cardamom?
  • In India, the story of local botanicals is being pushed by larger players too. Pumori, by Goa-based Fullarton Distilleries that produces 20 different alco-bev products (distributed in eight countries), is a small-batch gin with Himalayan juniper and 12 botanicals, including cardamom and aniseed. Then there is Tickle from the makers of Cabo rum. A cold compound gin, it has aromas of pepper and green mango, and is priced at the lower end of the spectrum at ₹650 in Goa.
  • Meanwhile, Terai, made in Behrore, Rajasthan, uses tulsi and fennel, amongst other botanicals, but is careful to position itself as not too overtly Indian in terms of its flavour profile. A brain child of the Swarup family of Globus Spirits, one of India’s largest distillers, it establishes its USP in being grain-to-glass, with the neutral spirit (usually bought by gin makers), made in-house. At ₹2,000 for 750 ml, it is priced as a more refined product at the higher end of the gin spectrum in India.

Is this then a coming-of-age for gin in India? The kind that London witnessed in 2016-2018, when the category grew by a whopping 44% (year on year) and numbers shot up to almost 100 home grown brands? The hashtagged excitement around the new brands and their experiments with botanicals as diverse as Goan cashews and hemp (legal and non-psychoactive) would suggest this. It comes with a caveat though. “This creativity is great but I hope all new spirits are quality because this is still a nascent category. Customers should experience well-made gin from India instead of getting used to inferior quality, which can ruin the market,” cautions Vaibhav Singh, co-founder of Nao Spirits that had launched Greater Than in 2017, the first made-in-India gin in the London dry style.

Spirited dialogues

Many of the new ginprenuers are in their early or mid 20s, full of passion and plans. Their liquor comes in fun bottles — topped by Channapatna ‘corks’ or reminiscent of our school water bottles. Samsara (that hashtags itself #contemporaryindiangin), one of the new spirits produced in a spanking new Margao distillery, is a project by 26-year-old UCLA alumnus Aditya Aggarwal, who had a stint with Price WaterhouseCoopers in Los Angeles. “As we entertained clients at trendy restaurants and bars, I was exposed to a creative dining culture and to gin,” he says. So taken in was he with the global gin renaissance that he moved to London, its epicentre, to study distillation.

Samsara gin

Samsara gin

In the test kitchen
  • Gin culture has been growing globally on the back of interest from new-age consumers in the provenance and stories about botanicals. Bombay Sapphire recently ran a social media campaign, ‘A Gin of 10 Journeys’, where 10 of the country’s top chefs, including Anahita Dhondy of SodaBottleOpenerwala, Dhruv Oberoi of Olive, and Amninder Sandhu of Iktara Mumbai showcased the culinary use of lost botanicals such as Orris (that goes in Chanel No 5 too), Angelica (used as an aromat in place of vanilla), and even cubeb , used traditionally in Lucknowi poti masalas. “Gin is the millennial’s favourite because of its historical tales and versatile flavours that can be paired with artisanal tonics, in cocktails, and even in food,” says chef Oberoi, who is working on an entire series of dishes infused with gin and its botanicals.

Samsara is infused with quintessential Indian scents such rose, cardamom and vetiver. But his interest goes beyond merely retail. He hopes his distillery and its adjoining lab, Spaceman Spirit Lab (named after his company), will become a collaborative space for fellow gin enthusiasts and professionals — enabling custom-made gins, experiments with botanicals, and even fun experiences for birthdays and weddings. Priced at ₹1,450 for 750 ml in Goa, Samsara is set to go to Mumbai this year, and then to the US, says Aggarwal, who invested ₹25 lakh from his personal funds, received seed funding of ₹60 lakh, and is now looking to raise $1 million to further the venture.

Then, there are the likes of Gin Gin, by 24-year-old Shubham Khanna. He experimented with 40 recipes over the last two years, before settling on “India’s first hemp craft gin”. Meanwhile, Jin Jiji, another new made-in-Goa gin, has cashew as a botanical for a smoother mouth feel, says its maker, Ansh Khanna, 27. Launched last year and primarily made for export, it is present in 21 states in the US, a market Khanna knows well having studied viticulture at UCLA and worked with a wines and spirits distributor in Chicago. This year, he has experimented with a series focussed on single-estate Darjeeling tea as a botanical. “Both wine and tea depend on terroir. I wanted to extend this idea to gin,” he says, adding that there are plans to do an entire series on various tea regions, from Assam to Coonoor.

Anne Brock, master distiller at Bombay Sapphire

Anne Brock, master distiller at Bombay Sapphire

Botanicals as storytelling

With the explosive growth in gin around the world attributed to experimentation by young, creative distillers, it is but natural that there should be a tension between what gin really is — the traditional English spirit led by piney notes of juniper, and governed by stringent laws — and the more ‘free spirit’, where individual makers choose diverse flavours to tell stories that appeal to local palates. This is a big debate internationally.

Dr Anne Brock, master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, who gave up medicine to work in bars, was appointed The Gin Guild’s grand rectifier last year (the first woman to hold the job). Brock admits to this being a tightrope. “I believe it is important that juniper remains the core, but we may need to relax and encourage difference. Gin is a global spirit with different botanicals and styles, and consumers are interested in the people who make their gin, its provenance and story.”

Terai gin with its Channapatna ‘cork’

Terai gin with its Channapatna ‘cork’

How viable is it?

While the current burst of creativity is welcome, industry watchers such as Vikram Achanta of Tulleeho, providers of beverage education and training, question the depth of the market as well as the potential of many players to go all-India. “The barriers to entry are quite low in Goa so anyone with a recipe can make a gin. But what does it mean to make 1,000 bottles or cases? The real test will come only when they exhibit deeper pockets to go national, into challenging markets such as Delhi or Andhra Pradesh,” says Achanta.

Anand Virmani, co-founder of Greater Than and Hapusa, however, is bullish about these new experiments. He argues that gin at the higher end of the spectrum has been registering 40-50% year-on-year growth in India in the last two-three years. “The UK went from a £750 million market to £3 billion between 2014 and 2018. What is to stop India from following the same curve?” he asks. This year, despite lockdowns, has seen phenomenal growth in retail sales for gins, stores across metros report. So the glass is only half full.

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