Indian tonic water Food

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

Cucumber and sage infused water with lime.  

Indian tonic water seems like an odd drink for India to import. It originated here after all, in 1825, when British Army officers stationed in India began blending quinine with sugar, water and gin to create a multi-tasking, malaria-fighting, accidentally delicious sundowner.

In 2014, when popular UK tonic water brand Fever-Tree launched its range in the Indian market, it seemed the equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle, as British newspapers pointed out. Despite the gin resurgence across the world, India was not producing an indigenous tonic water at that time.

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

However, that is changing, and very quickly. Over the past two years, a clutch of small, feisty companies have created a range of high-quality Indian tonic waters, some of which have already garnered attention in the international market.

Svami moved fastest, with a mission to build on “provenance,” using recipes created in-house with a “zero colonial hangover.” The brand was launched in February 2018 by Sahil Jatana, Rahul Mehra and Aneesh Bhasin. Discussing their first-mover advantage, Aneesh says it also meant they needed to create a space in the market for tonic water, demonstrating how it works equally well with other spirits. Which is why Aneesh’s favourite drink, for instance, is tequila with Svami’s classic tonic. You can also pair tonic with cold brew coffee for a refreshing summer drink. And Svami will be launching a juniper-based, non-alcoholic tonic by February2020.

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

“We turn two next March, and have moved from 500 cases a month when we started, to 20,000 cases a month,” says Aneesh, adding that customers are now willing to experiment.

Svami’s clean, simple tonic, using quinine sourced from Congo and lime, is deliberately low on sugar. Its Light, Cucumber and Grapefruit variants contain 5 gms of sugar per 100 ml. Their bolder, sweeter original tonic water, which is high in quinine and lime, with 7 grams of sugar per 100 ml, however, is the best selling so far, not surprising since Indian customers have got used to the effervescent, crowd-pleasing sweetness of Schweppes, the most accessible — and sometimes the only available — mixer in many markets.

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

Svami recently rolled out in Hong Kong. “Being from India is helping us. Even in London, which is a very saturated market, people are interested in us because we have a story. Being from India works,” says Aneesh.

Even as Svami launched, Angad Soni was creating Sepoy & Co as an alternative to imported premium tonic waters such as Double Dutch, Franklin & Sons and Fever-Tree. “I worked with a consultant from East London. Our main challenge was to balance the sweet and bitter elements. It was critical to get flavours that resonated in India, and are unique to us,” he says.

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

They settled on a signature citric flavour, incorporating cinnamon, cardamom and cloves across the different tonics they offer, which include spiced grapefruit and mint. Stating that they use less than five grams of sugar per 100 ml in all their mixers, Angad says he was intent on creating a healthy, low-calorie drink.

Sepoy & Co, launched in December 2018, recently won the Superior Taste Award at the International Taste Institute in Brussels. Angad adds that they have recently been awarded a central contract with ITC hotels, which serves their tonics in Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur. “We now want to focus on moving to Bengaluru, Kolkata and Goa, as well as concentrate on penetrating deeper into the markets that we are already present in,” he says.

Why Indian tonic waters, created by British soldiers to combat malaria, are seeing a resurgence

Bottled in Punjab, the company works with small batches. “For the first six months, we sold only in Delhi. We wanted to build the product gradually: so far, the recipe has been the same, we have just increased the carbonation,” says Angad. Though they launched almost a year after Svami, Angad says the market for tonic water is still relatively untapped.

Like Aneesh, Angad says that part of the challenge is creating a product that appeals to the Indian palate, which is used to sweeter, bolder mixers. “For instance, our consultant set a level of bitterness that did not go down well with customers in Delhi, who wanted more bitterness because they are used to higher levels of quinine,” he says.

The other major challenge all the players are facing is logistics. So far, most of these products are only available in a few metros. Rishabh Gupta, who runs Bengal Bay, says, “It is hard to get into new markets, and keep the same price points.” Then adds, “But give it a year’s time. Once operations stabilise, then companies can go for scale and you will see a bigger footprint.”

Intriguingly, each company has worked on creating product with unique recipes, but with the same obsessive focus on high-quality ingredients and low sugar.

Rishabh says, “I started asking why gin and tonic taste good together.” He realised it was because the flavours unite harmonically, then amplify each other. “Tonic is a complex beverage with sweet, sour and bitter flavours. This balances the sharp, tart signature flavour of juniper berries in gin.” he says.

So when he decided to create a tonic in 2017, he sourced quinine from Peru, then started adding ingredients from farms around Delhi. “I use Peruvian quinine, because it is indigenous. I did the same thing with every ingredient I sourced, because I feel indigenous ingredients have the most flavour,” he says. After working his way through dozens of ingredients, he settled on Indian oranges, lime and cardamom, with organic sugar from Uttar Pradesh.

Branching out

Rishabh, like all the craft tonic makers, says it is important to think beyond just creating a mixer for gin.

The country’s craft gin movement will inevitably fuel tonic sales, with younger customers and trendy bars experimenting more, pairing Indian and imported gins with Indian tonic.

These brands are also expanding their portfolios. Svami calls itself a ‘progressive drinks company’ and offers ginger ale, flavoured with Indian ginger and lemon. Stating that Sepoy & Co will develop mixers for different spirits, Angad says, “We have introduced a ginger ale using African and Indian ginger, to mix with whisky.”

Jade Forest, another young tonic brand, has one classic citrus forward tonic water, and a ginger ale with a flavour described as “Gentle ginger with a touch of citrus and caramel.”

It is likely that the market will see more players emerge over the next year. Stating that there is space for multiple players, Rishabh says, “We have noticed that there is a buyer for all price points, right from Catch, which is ₹35 a bottle, to Fever-Tree, which is the most expensive at ₹150.”

As gins all over the world become more complex, he says they require an “evolved tonic water: one that can maintain the spirit’s unique flavour.” He pauses and adds, “But, it should also taste delicious on its own.”

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 3:07:04 AM |

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