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The Colourful Future of Indian Gin

Indian Spices
Indian Distilling
Written by Gin Foundry

All eyes were on Indian Gin over 2019, as the country went from sleeping juniper giant to bright and alert behemoth. India really has been the place to look to for Gins that are not only filled with intense, unusual and brilliant ingredients, but that are of the most incredible quality.

More than cultivating just a taste for juniper juice, a Gin revolution represents the proper birth of craft spirits in the country – something its never really been known for, nor that its had any interest in pursuing seriously until now.

Indian drinkers not only tend to be Whiskey fans, but Indian spirits to date have been known more for their astronomic volumes than for their craft credentials. While there are now enormous brands like Amrut and Paul Jean placing domestic distilling on both the local and international map, gaining accolades and respectable status while doing so, outside of top end bars and a couple of brand names, drinking decisions are price and convenience orientated as opposed to driven by quality credentials.

It’s true that a love of whiskey has helped make valuable inroads into changing the mindset, but we think Gin may be the vehicle on which all of this changes, just as it was in the UK, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. It is the ideal spirit to showcase the wealth of craft practices many spirits share in common – celebrating the provenance of ingredients, the process of distillation, the creativity of the maker and the flavours being brought to life in innovative cocktails.

Gin has been at the heart of spirit education for almost all countries that now have a distilling ‘scene,’ because it is inclusive enough to have something for everyone while somehow combining two mutually exclusive truths – being fiendishly complex when you look closely, yet incredibly simple and direct to enjoy.

Step in the three current players propelling this movement, each playing a different role and not all of it happening in the country itself. Distilleries like Third Eye, which creates Stranger and Sons, and Näo Spirits, which makes Grater Than and Hapusa, have created gins that delight and challenge in quick succession.

They use native spices, fruits and flavours that can be found in every market to create gins that combine the very essence of the spirit and its history with their own fragrant, beautiful culture. They also show just how untapped that culture has been so far when it comes to translating it into spirit form.

With each Indian state having unique botanicals, culinary idiosyncrasies, preferences and individual heritages that can be harnessed to create compelling narratives and flavour combinations – it’s a mystery as to why there hasn’t been more already. There’s so much to delve into, so much to explore for Gin makers. India is a region that is almost bound to create truly spectacular spirits should a craft revolution begin there.

There’s also the likes of Jaisalmer, made by the Radico Khaitan Group, a company with over a thousand employees that sells over twenty million 9L cases of other spirits per year already. Theirs may be a small gin now and broadly perceived as a craft offering, but while this might currently be true, they have the ability to scale up at a pace that few outside the big names of Diageo and Chivas could hope for.

Even though Jaisalmer may become the establishment soon, in the story of India’s Craft Gin birth, they have an important role to play – that of supplying the demand and doing so at a price point that’s hard to attain for the other two start-ups on a shoe-string budget.

Let’s not forget, wherever there is a Gin boom, there are the foundations set by bigger players that serviced the market and invested millions in visibility in order to make it happen. Jaisalmer is showing that the same creative thinking, transparency and celebration of provenance can be applied to larger production and larger brands.

All three of the named distilleries may have wildly different circumstances and ambitions, but all three are showing that a rising tide floats all boats, and that working in unison is the best way to harness it.

With such an emphasis on the gins bringing education and excitement to the masses, it’s easy to forget just how important a role the bars play and, even more so, how important drinks like the Gin & Tonic have been in furthering the category around the world.

Without the likes of Fever-Tree or the rise of the craft cocktail movement, there just wouldn’t be anywhere near the interest in Gin from drinkers. While the bar scene develops at pace, here, India also has the answer in Svami Tonic – the first Indian ‘Indian Tonic Water.’ It’s a seemingly odd occurrence that a company that began as recently as 2017 has created the country’s first tonic water, given that the G&T has its origins in the country centuries ago.

With them on board the factors are now in place for a boom to follow. There’s true craft spirits, a celebration of provenance and heritage, a pursuit of excellence in both the distilled spirit and end drink being consumed, as well as a diverse group of companies putting in time, money and clever marketing savvy to bring it to the masses.

The national papers have already taken note of the uptake and incoming trend, the international scene can see it in their peripheral vision and the growth these three distilleries have achieved in their early years is a testament to a massive thirst that’s only set to increase.

From our perspective, the products made so far and the people behind them add up to an instant win – love at first try. No doubt millions will, in time, share our enthusiasm. The Gin movement, however, is bigger than that and a spark in India has global repercussions.

It’s obvious that Gin producers everywhere will benefit from a huge surge of interest from a market with potentially tens of millions of drinkers, but the exports that emerge, assuming they are the best of what will be created, will have both financial muscle and complex brands rich with engaging identities, stories and layers that will rival many on the international stage.

The international bar scene will be far richer for it too, once there is a more confident voice emerging from the Indian on-trade as well. Currently, India’s bar scene is one where most, if not all, of its influences come from bar scenes elsewhere in the world. It’s a central reason why Hapusa and Stranger & Sons have looked overseas for validation of their excellence, and just why so much of their domestic story is defined by work done abroad. It’s also part of the reason why it was possible to buy Jaisalmer in London, months before it was possible to do so in New Delhi.

However, with the growth of local spirits comes the growth of local trade education that builds confidence and pride in provenance. Once that sets in, trade and spirit enthusiasts will start to look more closely at the country’s wealth of assets (culture, ingredients, history) as unique points to celebrate, rather than downplay in favour of international, often westernised, perceptions of what bars should look like. Just as it has been everywhere in the world in which there’s been a cocktail renaissance, local heroes, flavours and techniques all start to emerge as a result.

Take a look at how Singapore and Hong Kong are now influencing bars across the world, same too for the long-standing respect and influence drawn from Japanese bars and bartending styles. If these smaller but excellent cocktail destinations can influence the world, just what could happen in one with over a billion people, dozens of major cities and – in time – possibly hundreds of world class bars and local distilleries?

Also note just how many gins there are now from places such as Singapore or Hong Kong; that’s not a coincidence – where cocktail culture is strong, so too is gin and the two feed each other’s growth. From a global perspective, what’s at play therefore is not just a more dynamic domestic drinks industry, it’s trends and brands that will ripple out into the wide world.

As with everyone trying to comment on India’s future, there are a lot of if’s, how’s and what’s to contemplate. It’s a big pot to bring to the boil too so patience and perseverance will be key attributes to hold onto!

For us as super Gin nerds however – we’re simply excited to see such a bright potential for the category flourishing there. If craft distilling develops in India with juniper being embraced, there won’t just be a new beacon for gin, but an entirely new landscape.

Sakshi Saigal, Stranger & Sons, Indian Gin