Stranger & Sons Gin
There is nothing to not get excited by when it comes to Stranger & Sons Gin, a new and bloody delicious offering bursting out of Goa, India. It looks as great as it tastes, which helps, but it’s the cunning of its three young makers that mean it is poised be one of the names that take over its home country. And then maybe the world too, as this distillery has the kind of potential we’ve not seen in years…
The three founders, Sakshi Saigal, Rahul Mehra and Vidur Gupta have shrouded their distillery (Third Eye Distillery) in light humoured myth and legend – an angle that works particularly well with Goa’s status as a hippie mecca. That said, there are no secrets here – despite a vague website, these chaps are doing all of their own distilling and are merely poking a little fun at themselves and at the country’s obsession with ritual and folklore.
The trio came together to create a gin when they realised that, despite some clever labelling, most of the ‘Indian’ gins available had very little to do with the country, bar their ingredients. Theirs, in fact, is one of the first fully Indian gins to emerge since the ‘40s, with the country’s distilleries having dedicated all of their efforts to dark spirits for the past few decades.
Licensing, distilling, recipe creation and brand building aside, this is a far bigger task than you might begin to imagine. There just isn’t a huge audience for Gin in India yet, which means making your own (and setting up a whole distillery to do so…) is a risky manoeuvre. This risk is further compounded by the fact that even being a tiny brand by Indian standards means eclipsing the volume made by most of producers here in the UK. If you set up there, you have to go big to simply service a fraction of a population that size. Of course, you can’t create a thirst for Gin without offering any decent options, so it’s a real catch 22 situation with some very real issues to overcome.
The first step, then, to creating a thirst for Gin was to create a Gin worth thirsting over. Saigal explains: “the key to making a great gin is sourcing good botanicals, and we have the most exotic botanicals available in the local markets and household kitchen of India.”
There is a huge dose of juniper, along with a healthy hit of black pepper, nutmeg, mace, coriander seed, angelica, liquorice, cassia and swathes of citrus peels (four different kinds). You can look at that botanical list and see it repeated the world over, but the beauty of these botanicals is that the spices haven’t travelled anywhere to get to the still.
Exotic, fresh, vibrant, but whether they’ve been plucked from the spice market or their own garden, the majority of the ingredients packed into this luscious liquid are local. “You’ll always find us hunched over our still, throwing in the most exotic Indian botanicals,” Saigal explained. “If we’re not distilling gin, we’ll be out watering our botanical garden, where we grow our pepper, lemon and coriander. Or we’ll be sitting on the floor, chatting with the local women who come over to help us peel our citrus fruits.”
Stranger & Sons Gin is made in an I-still, in a one-shot process that sees the citrus peels get the longest maceration, followed by juniper, pepper, coriander and nutmeg. The cassia, mace and liquorice go in last, with the spices only requiring a light touch and the liquorice root there more for texture than flavour.
What does Stranger & Sons Gin taste like?
The first thing that pops up on the aroma is, unsurprisingly, the citrus. It’s not like others though, here the combo isn’t just orange and lemon, the Indian bergamot adds a perfumed edge, while the Gondhoraj lemon adds a note that is comparable to Kaffir lime leaves. It’s multifaceted, nuanced and layered onto of a medley of equally brilliant spice, where mace and cassia in particular give a warm backdrop.
To taste, bright citrus zings at the fore, handing over to juniper and coriander seed for a reassuringly ginny heart. The finish, is a peppery cinnamon (literally due to pepper and cassia) warms the palate and lingers beautifully. It’s genuinely delicious gin and one that manages to straddle the idea of having an Indian identity while not going so far off the path as to lose sight of what being a gin is all about. This would work comfortably in a Martini, G&T or Negroni, but also stirs up some unusual new ideas to harness the unique parts of its flavour profile.
Starting as they mean to go on, the Third Eye team have been working hard to reduce their environmental impact from the get go. The women who help them with fruit peeling take the fleshy citrus home, turning them into traditional jams and pickles which are then sold at local markets.
There’s no plastic on their packaging – not even a dash of tape – and botanicals are used hole, with no part discarded as waste. They’re also in the process of installing a solar roof, which will help to provide at least some of the energy that distilling uses.
“One of our biggest concerns is water,” Saigal said. “It takes a lot to distil gin, and while most distilleries use a constant flow of cold water (which is later drained out), we decided to invest in a recycling tank that reduces our water requirement to 25-litres instead of over 10,000 litres of water.”
The bottle itself is a dark black thing of beauty – a cloak, if you will, disguising the liquid within. A beautifully illustrated label, complete with copper foiling, smacks of quality – this is an eye grabber, alright, and one that looks like a pricey endeavour to boot. Their attention to detail goes much further that a bottle however, with small branded items and information presented in authentic and charming ways. For those wondering – the tiger depicted on the label is based on a mythical two tailed, three eyed creature who chanced upon juniper berries hidden in the secret pocket of a sari blouse. Slightly bonkers, slightly beautiful – we’re smitten to say the least.
A distinct, well presented and playful identity is important when trying to lead a revolution though – if you think of the way-pavers over in our part of the world, it was Bombay Sapphire with their regal blue bottle and Hendrick’s with their old, apothecary style bottle and unusual messaging that kicked off the idea of Gin being cool. The Indian market is entirely in its fledgling state, so Stranger & Sons Gin certainly has some cross-continental cousins to look to for inspiration as well as its work cut out.
Third Eye Distillery is canny enough to know this well and are working to make it happen for gin in India. It is true in many countries but particularly there, drinks trends leak down from the top, where bartenders are the start and an important foundation for ideas about what to drink to disperse into the wider population. They need to have an Indian gin that they can really get behind to have an interest in the spirit. Add Stranger & Sons to the other gins made in the country and there’s now three world class options on shelves.
With increased interest, it means bartenders will start creating serves around it, pushing them out to customers. Customers, in turn, will take an interest in the core spirit and want to get hold of full sized bottles, which links over into shops stocking more of it, and the whole thing will take off from there…
It’s partly because of that bartender lead movement that Gin has always flourished in lands obsessed with cocktail culture, but it’s not a given either. Someone has got to do the hard yards to educate, encourage and facilitate a new way of thinking amongst the trade.
It’s with the greatest of credit to them that we say that the Stranger & Sons Gin team have stepped up and have been waving their magic wands around, pumping huge amounts of energy into theatrics, immersive drinking experiences and creating some real excitement around their brand. They are not only seducing bartenders left and right by serving up Gibson Martinis – a key bartender (and Gin Foundry) favourite, they are also helping to empower what is still a reasonably raw bar industry that currently looks to London, New York and elsewhere for its cues.
Stranger & Sons are helping them see that it’s possible to look around not abroad for their inspiration and to think about how they can re-interpret ideas and adapt it with their own local style when looking for innovation. It’s a shift in mindset that will take years to flourish into a confident identity, but when it does and the Indian cocktail scene becomes a ‘thing’, it will create not just an augmented industry there, based on the breadth of culture, heritage, produce and forward thinking culinary juxtapositions already out there – it will be something the rest of the world will be looking to for ideas instead.
It’s also why we think this gin and this team have such potential. They make great gin, but they are also looking towards the picture picture – to showcase modern India to the world and elevate those around them to do the same. They are a team capable of creating an entire scene and are pushing boundaries already. Third Eye Distillery eventually want a whole portfolio of spirits in the roster, including some twists on gin using indigenous wood for ageing. Saigal herself sums up the intention succinctly: “We’re keen to prove to the world that India can make more than just it’s fair share of Whiskey.”
Whatever they chose to do, based on Stranger & Sons Gin alone, we’re already sold.
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