Despite being a consumer of predominantly darker and stronger spirits, India’s craft beer revolution, albeit a tad late, surprised us all. With almost 100 breweries scattered all across the country’s urban landscape, it’s not unusual that in its wake, all eyes are set to chase whatever’s coming next. But within the broader gamut of craft spirits is another liquor that seems to be making an unexpected debut – or should I say comeback? The classic combination of gin and tonic suddenly seems to be back in style, with local craft gins making up the backbone of the movement.
Like many things that we now consider Indian, gin and tonic too is a hand-me-down of our colonial oppressors. The very first version of G&T as we now know it consisted of quinine (an antimalarial drug derived from the bark of a cinchona tree), water, sugar, lime, and gin. A medicinal concoction to save the lives of British officers. While this isn’t a very glamorous story, it does provide insight into a trend that’s slowly emerging.
This refreshing wave of craft gin-making and consuming in India is barely a year old but it’s already cementing itself as something we can depend on to grow beyond the ebb and flow of trends. Currently, there are only three craft gins in the country. In fact, India got its very first version just earlier this year with Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh (the duo behind Nao Spirits) who took it upon themselves to introduce an affordable indigenous alternative called ‘Greater Than’ in January 2018. Six months later, Stranger & Sons made its debut as another local gin to watch, featuring eight locally sourced botanicals. “There’s also Jaisalmer, which is also an Indian craft gin but they’re only exporting as of now. So technically, we only have 2 craft gins available for consumption,” says Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of India’s first company making artisanal tonic water, Svami.
“Walk into any bar or restaurant and you will see a dedicated Gin & Tonic section. Gin cocktails have always been around but recently, they’ve of course gained immense popularity because infusions are huge now too. In India, we’re moving towards gourmet infusions”, adds Shuchir Suri, who recently organised The Gin Explorer’s Club – a two-day festival dedicated to Gin.
Many factors have contributed to the re-emergence of gin which is a phenomenon being witnessed globally. According to Aneesh, the gin-wave abroad surfaced almost 5 years ago and has made its way to India only in the last couple of years. In fact in the UK, gin sales have only been increasing ever since 2012, with 2015 being declared as the year of gin by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. “People are now travelling more, witnessing the gin culture around the globe and bringing it to India. If you go to Europe, you’ll see how so much of the cocktail is about how it’s presented - the garnishes, the glassware etc.”, he tells us.
If you’ve ever tried gin and tonic, you’ll understand when I call it versatile. A drink well-suited for India’s tropical climate. Moreover, it’s G&T’s versatility that truly makes it stand out. Any restaurant or bar is much less likely to mess up a G&T as compared to any other cocktail. With its subtle flavours perfectly complemented by tonic water, gin is certainly the more superior of the white spirits. Yet, it comprises less than 1% of the liquor consumed in India – with whiskey and rum dominating the pie chart in question. As Pankil Shah, a Mumbai-based restaurateur explains, “In India, whiskey was always portrayed as a very masculine older man’s drink, as compared to whiter spirits which were considered more feminine. And this perception has lasted for so long.”
According to Shuchir, another much simpler reason for this bias in alcohol consumption is the cost disparity between gin and whiskey or rum, “Whiskey and rum are mostly consumed with water or soda, which are not only much cheaper than tonic water but also more readily available.”
Keeping these factors in mind, it’s surprising that the craft gin movement even took off in India. “Just going by India’s spirit market numbers itself, meant that this could have been a terrible idea. But we’ve seen the shift towards gin globally, and at the end of the day, we’re happy with the gin we have and just excited about getting something of greater quality out there,” Anand told Homegrown in the past, while talking about how it took them a good two years before they could come up with a recipe that they loved enough to not just serve at their own bar, but also take to the rest of the world.
However, for the craft gin-makers of the country, this movement is much more than just trying their hand out at craft spirits or making gin affordable. Across the world, the ‘Gin-naissance’, as it’s being called, is unfolding. While it’s difficult to trace the roots of it on such a vast scale, in India it can easily be narrowed down to the availability of a large variety of botanicals, fruits, and spices - things that are intrinsic to the gin-making process and are readily available around us. In Greater Than, 5 out of the 9 ingredients are sourced from India. Anand and Vaibhav’s second gin, Hapusa, is unlike the citrus-gins that make use of juniper berries sourced from abroad. It has a distinctly earthy flavour as its main constituent is Himalayan juniper, along with a range of botanicals that are native to the country. Like, Uttarakhand’s dried mango, West Bengal’s gondhoraj – a kind of lime, and turmeric from Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, a lot of our native botanicals are also appearing in newer gins in other countries.
Standing at the cusp of India’s craft gin revolution being led by passionate entrepreneurs and their homegrown distilleries, one thing is fairly obvious – India has the potential to be at par with the global craft gin movement that’s up-and-coming and heading in a similar direction to the craft beer movement that’s now comfortably exploding in all corners of the world. As Rahul Saigal, one of the three gin-makers behind Stranger & Sons, says, “Under The Third Eye Distillery, we want to create a range of spirits to showcase that India can make more than just whisky. Our space too is built around a visitor centre and a university, which will offer certified courses for distillation training.”
Aneesh, on the other hand, believes that a larger ‘craft spirits’ revolution is underway. One that’s going to expand from just beer and gin to vodka, whiskey and everything else in between – making locally produced spirits more accessible and popular, as compared to their more expensive counterparts.
In the meantime it seems, the craft gin wave is here to stay.
Feature Image Courtesy: naospirits.com
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