The Indian Gin (and Tonic, for that matter…) game is picking up, with little pockets of the country seemingly waking up to realise the endless opportunities that its botanical diversity offers. Leading the charge is Nao Spirits with its quite brilliant duo of offerings, Greater Than and Hapusa Gin. The latter, using local juniper and other native botanicals, this is a fantastic adventure through our very favourite spirit…
It’s sort of mad that the G&T has taken so long to become the drink du jour in India, given that the most erstwhile of cocktails was born in the country. We’ve no doubt you’ve seen the word India stamped on a tonic or two in your time, and that’s for very good reason: the anti Malarial qualities of quinine meant that it was all the rage amongst British troops in the 1850s. Indian Tonic may well have began a muddy coloured, bitter and earthy medicine back then, but it did indeed form the bare bones of the crystal clear, carbonated wonder drink of the modern age.
Gin has been through a thousand revolutions (and will go through a thousand more), and while it’s very much shaken off its Granny tag in Europe, America and Australia, it’s not quite the hipster tipple of choice in South Asia. Not yet, anyway. Nao Spirits founder Anand Virmani is just one of many hoping to change that perception. “The Indian drinks industry is confusing, inconsistent and massive. It’s also mainly geared towards beer and brown spirits,” he told us. “Gin has been seen as an old-person’s drink, and one that holds it rightful place at Gymkhana and the likes. Local Gin is also seen (often quite rightly) as a mass-produced, industrial product.”
Back in 2015, Virmani and his Nao co-founder, Viabhav Singh, started a bar in New Delhi called Perch. They were constantly lamenting the lack of a decent Indian Gin, and with experience working at William Grant’s, Remy Cointreau and the likes, had the wherewithal to try to seek out someone who would make an interesting, tasty and thoughtful local product. Their hunt produced little fruit.
“The Indian industry is so focused on the high-volume model that no one would give us the time of the day,” Virmani recalls. “A craft spirit was just too much of a bother for them, so it became clear that if we were going to do this, we were going to have to turn into distillers ourselves.”
The duo, bought a copper pot still and began experimenting with every herb, fruit and spice they could get their hands on. It’s a sizeable still, mind, and while it was a case of trial and error, with a great deal of dead ends along the way. After a while and, as far as we have understood, after seeking help within the industry to bring in some insight and experience, they honed two recipes. One was a modern classic that recalled the entire history of Gin and paid great respect to the category, which they called Greater Than. Made using a multi-shot process and with a strong juniper forward note, complimented by an orange twang, we’ve consistently said that it is one of the best classic gins you will find. It is however, a story to tell on a different day, it is their other offering that is the star of this very review: Hapusa Gin.
Virmani explains the influences behind the gin: “When we started off, something that struck us was the number of ‘Indian-themed’ gins in the market that had almost nothing to do with India itself. It was strange that the country in which the Gin and Tonic was invented – one that prided itself on its botanicals and spices – would not have a single Gin to its name in a world where hundreds of Gins were being launched every year. Hapusa Gin is our answer to this anomaly.”
With juniper taken from the Himalayas and the rest of the botanicals (turmeric, mango, ginger, cardamom, coriander seeds, gondhoraj limes and almonds) plucked from within the country, Hapusa Gin is not just representative of its home but of its people: these are the ingredients you’ll find in every kitchen, spice cupboard staples that form the meals around which life and laughter is shared.
Hapusa Gin is made to a one-shot method on Nao Spirits’ 1000-litre copper pot still, Agatha. All of the ingredients are added to the pot alongside a neutral wheat spirit and driven gently through the copper by distiller Jay Dhawan. Dhawan, incidentally, joined the team by pure chance: he happened to bump into Virmani during a bar training session and they formed a bond that would see him swap the shaker for an altogether more challenging vessel.
Hapusa Gin to taste…
On the nose, the green tinge of juniper rises quickly and depicts a vivid picture of pine forests leading you toward the Himalayan mountains. Hapusa means juniper in Sanskrit, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that sipping the gin is akin to putting an entire forest in your mouth and biting down hard. This is a good thing, too, as the botanical line up that it’s been combined with is packed with bold, confident flavours. To taste the lime bursts bright, but quick, and kicks off proceedings in style before the juniper strides in and takes centre stage joined with its favourite partner, coriander seed which add a clear an instant nutty citrus to the mid journey. The turmeric, ginger and cardamom add some significant botanical piquancy to the finish in what is, overall, a spiced flavour profile that never loses sight of juniper and its predominance throughout.
Lucky for Hapusa Gin (and Nao Spirits in general), Virmani’s wife, Aparajita, is an incredibly skilled graphic designer so has driven the evolution of the brand from the very beginning until now. “Through the process we have had a lot of fun with defining and redefining both brands. With Greater Than, we have gone full circle and ended up quite close to what our initial idea was, whereas with Hapusa we have really had to build up, break down and build up again. There was just so much to communicate on the label that we had to really reign our dreams and aspirations in,” explains Virmani.
The end package for Hapusa Gin (or, perhaps, the current package, given the constant evolution) is as handsome as they come. Blue-black glass, an embossed, gold foiled label and a squat, taper neck bottle shape absolutely scream of the premium liquid inside. This isn’t just any old gin to taste and the bottle it’s reflects its status as a strong contender on the global stage.
When we spoke to Virmani at the start of the year we couldn’t help but get the impression of innocence. And by that we don’t mean naivety – he is a man who knows how to build and grow a brand and he is working incredibly hard to push Hapusa Gin out there. It appeared at Junipalooza London, made a splash at Bar Convent Berlin and will continue to worm its way into the international scene. Rather, we mean that he hasn’t made a Gin to cash in on the trend. He’s done it for a love of Gin and of India.
It’s a good thing too as sparking a revolution takes enormous amounts of passion, enthusiasm and effort over a long period of time. More importantly, just as it was the case for Sipsmith in The Uk, Four Pillars in Australia, it needs to be matched by an equal amount of humility and self awareness in order to appreciate that nothing happens overnight. India, in particular, with its gargantuan scale will take a long time to bubble up as a market for gin and require numerous craft voices in order to do so. It’s simply too big for one producer to be able to turn the tide, no matter how great an offering they have. Nao Spirits have all the potential to become a marquee name in time, but critically for Gin and Gin fans, they are the kind of distillery that should inspire many more to join in and follow in their footsteps and emulate their success.
We obviously love Gin, so we get excited about it easily, especially when it is juniper forward and distinct, but this is one of those rare times when our excitement isn’t an overshoot. We heard about what Nao Spirits were trying to do long before we tried Hapusa Gin. We’d locked eyes with the bottle, fallen in love with the branding and failed miserably at managing our expectations.
We expected the world of it. Luckily, we got the world and more. Not only is Hapussa one our top picks of 2018, its sister, Greater Than is something we would also drink anytime as for all it’s classism (and cheap price domestically), it shares something that only the very best gins have; it is impeccably made and hits the mark each and every time.
All of this high praise isn’t said without one hard hitting truth, though. For any of this to come true, we feel they will have to move faster than they are if they want to benefit from being one of the first out of the starting blocks and to capitalise on having done all the right moves for all the right reasons.
Yes, this point directly contradicts our words about needing humility and patience, we know. It also contradicts our statement that Virmani knows what he’s doing. We state it merely because of the reality of today’s interconnected world and that everything moves so rapidly now. Slow and steady is actually more like running flat out but somehow grasping enough air to continue…
Already, since their launch the UK and US markets have seen four other Indian craft gins emerge. With no social media (or barely any), no real imagery out there, limited information on their site and limited distribution to get hold of a bottle, Nao Spirits currently risk to have been at the B of the Bang, yet no-where to be found once everyone hears the noise and takes notice that something happened. We feel that it’s all there but it needs a gear change to generate traction.
It is a fear that we hope that in time will prove completely unfounded. Perhaps we are too impatient. Perhaps we just want India and all of its potential for beautiful botanicals and flavours to be turned on to Gin too soon. Regardless of it, we’d strongly recommend you go out of your way to get hold of Hapusa Gin – there’s something that’s just quite brilliant about it as a package to support and as Gin to savour.
At present, Gin Kiosk is the sole UK retailer, but it won’t be long before this little beauty is mainstream.
For more information about Hapusa Gin, visit naospirits.com
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