In India, until recently, gin " barring those who travelled and appreciated it " was just a white spirit that bartenders used to make martinis, or worse, typecast as "a ladies' drink". Over the past three years, however, there has been a significant shift in this perception. In 2020 alone, India has seen the possibility of almost eight new local gins releasing, with some already in markets around the country and overseas. So what has helped bring Indian gin to the forefront?
The launch of Greater Than gin in 2017, industry insiders say, changed everything. Nao Spirits, founded in 2015 by the very enterprising Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh, launched the London Dry gin two years later and the response to it has been deeply encouraging. Until the advent of Greater Than, which was quickly followed by Stranger & Sons and Hapusa (Nao Spirits), the choice of gin (or lack thereof) had been restricted to the local Blue Riband, and some international regulars like Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Hendricks, Gordon's and Beefeater.
"So one had to make do with either a Rs 500 bottle, or the next best option would be no less than Rs 2,400," says Karina Aggarwal, brand strategist for Terai Gin. "Competitively priced in the Rs 1,500 slot, Greater Than paved the way for local gins that were rich in botanicals and did not cost too much. It became a gin drinker's gin as well as a bartender's favourite."
The goodwill that Nao Spirits generated in the industry also encouraged others to take their experiments with juniper seriously. Gin Gin's Shubham Khanna, owner and creator of the recipe, is grateful for the role they played in the early stages of his research. "The guys at Moonshine Meadery and Nao have really been so encouraging. They've been honest with feedback; they've helped with so many decisions of planning and strategising. They have never looked at us as competition and this really helps in us contributing to building this nascent scene," he adds.
THE MORE THE MERRIER
Greater Than's launch in India ran parallel with distributors supplying more international gins in the retail markets across Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Goa. So gins one would find while travelling abroad or at the duty-free sections at airports such as Monkey 47, Le Gin, The Botanist, Bathtub, Roku among others, started appearing in wine shops in these places. Even those who didn't travel much were slowly being exposed to a wider range of gin flavours.
The versatile nature of gin itself made it an exciting new spirit to experiment with in a country that was slowly waking up to microbreweries and craft beer. "Globe-trotting Indians have been well-aware of the trends prevailing in other markets. Any party in India today is incomplete without a gin. We wanted to rejuvenate this category in India and offer the discerning Indian consumers the finest Indian craft gin. We are extremely pleased to see more and more Indian players offering gin today," says Sanjeev Banga, president, Radico Khaitan. Radico Khaitan is behind the award-winning Jaisalmer gin that was launched last year.
THE INDIAN-NESS IN GIN
The drive to create something inherently Indian has been a common story across these new age gin innovators in the country. Banga's trip to showcase their new single malt whisky Rampur in 2016, made him realise how untapped the gin market is in the country. He adds, "There are lot of international gin brands that have Indian names but there was no authentic Indian gin. That got us thinking and we decided to launch an Indian craft gin using mainly Indian botanicals." With 11 botanicals ranging from coriander, vetiver, orange peel, cubeb berries, lemon grass, Darjeeling green tea leaves, and lemon peel holding their own alongside angelica roots, liquorice and caraway seeds, Jaisalmer exudes the best of India's verdant nature.
Another fresh tasting gin from India's arid Rajasthan is Terai. This interpretation of the London Dry gin celebrates the sensory experience of the lush Terai region, renowned for its herbaceous forests. Distilled from rice spirit, it uses 11 botanicals " juniper berries, Tulsi, coriander, fennel, lemon peel, orange peel, lavender, rose, angelica and orris root. Even the label is made of 100 percent Indian cotton paper while the cork is set in Chennapatna ivory wood. Karina says, "We wanted to create a gin that was Indian in spirit yet looked and tasted perfectly international. People are now realising how customisable gin can be, how their palates are deciding what gins they prefer and that drinking an Indian gin is something to take pride in, not be diffident about."
DISCOVERING A PALATE
Whisky and wine drinkers are often asked more questions about what specific kind of whisky or wine they'd prefer to have. This spate of gin launches aims to change one's preconceived notions about the spirit, widen its audience, give them a range to choose from and in the process, find their own gin identity.
Pumori Gin that was hotly-awaited in Mumbai thanks to the wonderful word-of-mouth publicity of Goan tipplers, launched its flagship gin that offers a bouquet of spices to the palate. It is an all-natural gin made using Himalayan juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamom, coriander seeds, liquorice, nutmeg, rosemary, aniseed, cinnamon, almond, and vanilla. Robust and delicate, spicy and cooling, Pumori offers something for every kind of gin drinker. "People are today more aware of how they want to have their gin. It isn't just about adding splashes of soda or tonic. The Indian gins today have so much thought behind what goes into their flavour profile. The gin drinkers today are discovering what works for them, and perhaps what doesn't. My recommendation for Pumori would be to have it with ice and maybe a little bit of water," says Aman Thadani, owner and creator of Pumori from the house of Fullarton Distilleries in Goa.
FLORENCE OF INDIA's GINAISSANCE
Pumori is among the many gin brands to have originated from Goa. While Greater Than, Hapusa, Stranger & Sons, were already of Goan origin, 2020 has seen Pumori, Gin Gin, Jin Jiji, Tickle gin, Samsara finalising their launch plans.
Says Solomon Diniz, director, Adinco Distilleries that makes Tickle gin, "Goa has a very friendly excise policy when it comes to liquor thereby simplifying matters for entrepreneurs to experiment at not much cost. This is possibly the main reason why many have chosen Goa to start their gin projects."
The beach state's craft culture too has been growing and by opening up earlier than the other locked down states, Goa has seen a steady stream of tourists return. "This effectively means that you have a more varied audience yearning for newer gins and spirits. Goa is pro-business and its supportive excise department encourages anyone with a business plan to give it a go," adds Thadani.
Although Goa and Rajasthan lead the 2020 roster of gins, a proud produce of Kerala, Gindia, is set to launch in retail stores by the turn of the year. With 23 botanicals in its mix, Gindia too aims to capture the best of Indian flavours.
Cardamom, for many of these new gins, is as common as juniper itself, as a flavour to reassert Indianness. While gins like Samsara have kept it in focus, others have found ways to let other botanicals stand out alongside cardamom. Goa's Jin Jiji is set to launch two variants: tulsi and Darjeeling tea. Tickle is banking on its raw mango flavour to appeal to the Indian palates.
"We worked on various permutations and combinations of botanicals over two years. The raw mango taste reminds us of our childhood; it's so nostalgic that some say they got goose bumps with the smell alone," Diniz adds.
A unique gin among the 2020 releases is Gin Gin, whose USP lies in being India's first hemp gin. "I tried out over 42 botanicals before narrowing down my recipe. Gin Gin has hemp, juniper, coriander, lavender, cinnamon, lemongrass, rosemary, carraway seeds and butterfly pea flowers. Here the butterfly pea flowers are not used for their natural blue colour but for the taste itself. The hemp too works well without exhibiting its typical oiliness. I just wanted to make a gin that I'd be happy to drink. And I must admit, I'm very pleased with the results," says Shubham Khanna, the 24-year-old owner and creator of a spirit who isn't legally of age to drink his own produce yet.
We can expect many more gins to hit the markets over the next two years. Industry experts believe we're far from oversaturation given that only recently have people realised the sheer complexity, depth and versatility of the spirit. As brands recover from COVID-19 lockdown delays and prepare for their launches, we'll soon realise that gin is indeed the tonic for these unprecedented times.