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Greater Than Gin, yes, what can be?

In the last couple of years, there has been a count of nearly 15 new gins entering the market, reviving the gin spirit, so to say. Of that 11 are from Goa. “It started off as a fluke as we decided that Goa had the best bottling partners for us. Since then, it seems quite a few others have taken that to be the precedent set and got to work,” that is Anand Virmani, the founder of Nao Spirits, manufacturers of Greater Than and Hapusa – premium crafted gins that are making waves in the markets available.

Virmani has his own take on how the crafted gin segment is evolving. He believes that Goa is not any more liberal than many other states in the country when it comes to excise policies. He dismisses it as a factor for launching Greater Than in Goa. Similarly, for the availability of botanicals, he states that the main ingredient for gin has to be either imported our sourced from the Himalayas in the north and that Goa is no different than any other part of the country when it comes to sourcing botanicals. As regards to water quality which Goa touts about, he is of the view that since all water in the production process has to be demineralised, the oriGinal water quality should not really matter.

But when it comes to Goa as the watering hole, he believes so that it is a great marketing tool. “The spirit of trying out new things is certainly important, especially since so many tourists come to Goa and take back gin bottles with them.”

Ambrosia: What is the reason for resurgence of gin which had taken a beating when vodka entered the Indian market?

Virmani: Vodka did this to gin in the 1950s globally. Gin has come back primarily because of the resurgence of cocktail bars which propagate classic cocktails, many of which just happen to use gin as their base. Ambrosia: There is a talk about uniqueness of the botanicals that goes into gin making. From a consumer perspective, what does botanicals signify?Virmani: Botanicals are what separate one gin from another. They are the main flavour components in any gin. Also, only high quality gins like ours use actual botanicals as opposed to artificial flavouring used by the cheaper, cold-compounded gins.

Ambrosia: What kind of growth are you seeing in the overall Gin market in India?

Virmani: The premium+ gin market in India (which excludes the low-end mass produced gins) are growing phenomenally well; easily around 30%+ CAGR. Ambrosia: We see a lot of premium brands being launched, is it because they are not meant for the masses?Virmani: Craft gin can only ever be premium. A low-priced gin, will not ever be a craft product. Even so, we aim to make our gins as accessible as possible.

Ambrosia: Could you tell us about the spark that led to the creation of Greater Than?

Virmani: The spark was quite simply the growing disbelief that India was not able to produce a single brand of gin that we could proudly call our own. It did not make sense to us, especially since India was the birthplace of the Gin & Tonic as well as the heart of the world spice trade.

Ambrosia: Which are the markets it is presently available now and what are your expansion plans?

Virmani: Our gins are present in seven different states across India currently as well as in over 15 countries outside India. We continue to grow as far and wide as we can without over-stretching ourselves. Assam has been our newest addition within India while New Zealand has become our most recent export market to come online.

Ambrosia: How is Hapusa different from Greater Than?

Virmani: Hapusa is a very small batch produced gin. It is primarily made with Himalayan juniper along with other botanicals found and sourced from across the country.

Ambrosia: Which are the markets it is present in – how do the two compete with each other – what is the USP of both?

Virmani: Greater Than is a classic London Dry Gin and is ideal for making cocktails or Gin & Tonics. Hapusa however, is far more characteristic and best enjoyed as a sipping gin or included in stirred cocktails like the Negroni or Martini.

Ambrosia: What next from ‘Nao Spirits’?

Virmani: Lots more

‘Black Jewel’, Goa’s first Craft Gin

One common thread among all the craft gin makers is that they are kind of globe trotters and well-heeled. And these journeys make them richer (I am not talking financially here). Take for instance, Cedric Vaz, Director of Global Spirits and Foods and the creator of the arguably the first craft gin from Goa – the Black Jewel.

It was on one of his trips to Europe between 2010 and 2012 that he noticed that gin was becoming popular and blooming in some of the European markets. “I could see it coming to India very soon which motivated me to work on creating a brand of premium yet value for money, which will appease those customers who really have a craving for a good Gin and are ready to pay a reasonable price for it. After a lot of work, research and sleepless nights, we zeroed down on the concept and creation of our gin brand which we named ‘Black Jewel’. Our first batch was manufactured on December 18, 2018. Our gin was first amongst the gins produced in Goa as well as first amongst crafted Gins.”

Hand-picked Junipers

Black Jewel Gin is meticulously hand crafted from hand-picked juniper berries that are grown in the highlands of Italy. These berries along with other botanicals such as Cilantro, Wild Celery, Carum Carvi etc. are infused into the premium grain spirit through a double copper pot distillation. The result is a gin with distinct and remarkable zesty citrus flavour.

For gin to be called gin it needs the juniper as one of its ingredients that is what makes gin unique from vodka. From the perspective of a consumer, herbs other than juniper are a personal preference and palate-friendly. A manufacturer is compelled to compulsorily add Juniper to call it gin, but is free to add the herbs and flavours of their wish, making gin a diverse drink; and this allows the customers to be choosy about their taste and style of gin.

Superior quality of water in Goa

Mac Vaz of Global Spirits and Foods which manufactures Black Jewel Gin states that, besides friendly excise policy, Goa has the perfect water quality for spirit manufacture. “Coming under the Dharwad super group, largely dominated by the laterite rock as its soil which is highly porous and permeable, the quality of ground water is clean and sweet. This, with the heavy rains of nearly 330cm, makes Goa a region with good amount of potable water. We believe water of Goa has its own brand equity.”

On Black Jewel’s reasonable pricing, Sanath Bharne of Sales says, “While there is a general perception that premium pricing has a pull factor with certain Indian consumers, we resisted that suggestion from the trade and came up with an MRP of `675 for 750 ml as we were clear that we wanted Black Jewel to be within the reach of the consumers who are accustomed to regular molasses-based flavoured Gins.”

Goa, the Gin Capital of India

No, we are not saying move on Feni which is unique to Goa and mind you growing in its own way. Suddenly, in the last two years, despite the pandemic, about 15 brands of Gin have been crafted and launched across the country and 11 of them, yes a full team of brands, have their oriGin s in Goa. What is brewing over here in this beautiful coastal state? A lot ! And what warms the cockles of the heart is that young entrepreneurs, in their 20s and 30s, are the craftspeople. Cheers to this young brigade.

And it was a Goan – Cedric Vaz, it’s in his genes, right, to launch the first truly crafted Indian Gin by the name ‘Black Jewel’ and believe you me crafted Gin has turned out to be a connoisseur’s delight, irrespective of the brand.

There has been a resurgence of sorts for Gin . No, the pandemic has got nothing to do with it. Though the British East India company created the drink in the 1700s, it was a military cocktail, devoured by the troops to stay healthy. The British residents in India added Gin , sugar, ice and citrus and thus was born the Gin and Tonic. The witty statesman Winston Churchill words remain for eternity “The Gin and tonic drink has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.” Somewhere along the way, Gin lost favour and it was perceived as a ‘ladies drink’ and everyone with some knowledge has some reasoning for that. Around the same time, vodka and tequila captured the imaGin ation of the world and these spirits kind of drowned Gin. It was circa 2016 that in the United Kingdom there was growing interest in Gin which reportedly grew 44% year on year with about 100 home grown brands hitting the market. India is the fifth largest consumer of Gin after the UK, USA, Germany and Spain, but within the country Gin accounts for just about 1% of spirits consumed.

Young entrepreneurs driving craft Gin segment

But it is growing. In the recent past, it has caught the attention of the Indian spirit maker and consumer. The young co-founder and director of Stranger & Sons, Sakshi Saigal says “Though its presence in its current form is limited to the main metro cities, Gin is going through an extremely exciting phase and still transcending into the mainstream. There aren’t just new consumers every day but new Gin s too! As people travel, they have slowly started to understand India’s rich history when it comes to Gin and agricultural bounty when it comes to ingredients, so it has become an obvious choice for Gin makers alike.”

There are several reasons for this resurgence, one of which certainly is the drinking culture which is getting nuanced, thanks to the new generation which likes to explore, experiment and be expressive. The Chief Operating Officer of Radico Khaitan, Amar Sinha states “The Gin market appears very promising in the country as over the years people have been open to move beyond the regular brown spirits. They have started developing and appreciating the fine taste of the white spirit for the botanical infusions. There are many factors behind the popularity of this category such as increased exposure to global culture, the growing trend of cocktail culture, and Generation Z’s inclination towards experimentation with white spirits.”

Craft Gin comes with a price and why not?

If one looks at the drinking profile, these crafted Gin s seemingly are not for the hoi polloi. Almost all of them (Stranger & Sons, Greater Than, Hapusa, Samsara, Jin Jiji, Pumori, Jaisalmer and a few others) are priced in a way attracting the upwardly mobile. This is the segment that these manufacturers are looking at and not for nothing most of them are produced in small batches. “Craft Gin can only ever be premium. A low-priced Gin , will not ever be a craft product. Even so, we aim to make our Gin s as accessible as possible,” states Anand Virmani, Founder and CEO of Nao Spirits and Beverages (creators of Greater Than and Hapusa).

However, Mac Vaz of Madame Rosa distillery and the founder president of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, has another take on it. The first craft Gin , Black Jewel, from Madame Rosa stable is reasonably priced as to make Gin drinking accessible and affordable. All of them in some way or the other are working in that direction, coming up with a distinct touch of their own. It makes sense in a market which is slowly opening up, thanks to the many bartenders who are peppered across the country and ever open to experimentation.

Botanicals are at the core of this revolution

Botanicals are coming into that experimentation while Juniper is the predominant botanical ingredient in Gin , there are other accompaniments, most of them sourced locally. States Sakshi Saigal “Our botanicals are crafted together, taking inspiration from India’s culinary heritage which is centred around spices. Spice boxes are commonly found in almost all Indian kitchens and for centuries, they have been manipulated in different ways to create flavour in food, liquid, sweets and scents. Our Gin goes beyond the customary juniper and highlights inherently Indian botanicals and spices that are indispensable to every Indian household and form the backbone of India’s culinary heritage.”

In an article in The Hindu, Anoothi Vishal cites Dr. Anne Brock, master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, “I believe it is important that juniper remains the core, but we may need to relax and encourage difference. Gin is a global spirit with different botanicals and styles, and consumers are interested in the people who make their Gin , its provenance and story.”

Goa, India’s watering hole has friendly policies

And it is all happening in Goa, India’s watering hole. That is good enough a reason for many of the distillers to descend upon Goa, an investment-friendly state in the hospitality industry. Mac Vaz emphasizes “Goa being the apex tourist destination of the country gives smaller players a cost-effective advantage due to the consumer watering hole ! Also unlike in most other parts of the country, in Goa there is no hypocrisy and taboo quotient connected to liquor consumption in moderation. Lastly, Goa has a brand, has a natural USP in perception. Everything that is produced within Goa has its exotic positioning – Feni is a classic example of this.”

Why Goa? And Sakshi Saigal has the perfect answer for that going beyond the friendly excise policies of the state which has been eulogized at various forums. “We often hear a lot being said about Goa having more liberal excise laws and so on, making it easier to start brands there but honestly, that undermines what Goa truly has to offer. A former colony, Goa adopted a lot of the Portugese way of life which adds to its own unique charm. The roads wind through green fields, the people speak Konkani with as much ease as they do Portuguese; colonial bungalows and local spice markets all co-exist with some of the most progressive hospitality and restaurant establishments. Further, the Goan way of living life to the fullest inspires us every day to strive for innovation and keep experimenting with various spirits and expressions of our Gin .”

She adds “A truly special place for most Indians where you’ll find the cuisine, architecture and culture of India & Portugal come together, Goa is home to Stranger & Sons. Tucked away in a corner of South Goa, you’ll find us, hunched over our still, throwing iconic Indian botanicals into our Gin , while the local women peel fragrant Indian citrus outside. Goa indeed has its own strange ties to Gin , having been the heart of spice trade for centuries. Our wonderfully strange roots in Goa where cultures, societies and spiritual beliefs stand united under a liberal approach to life translates into the invisible essence in our bottle. When we aren’t distilling, you’ll find us sitting on a porch sipping on some Gibsons made with our pickles! “

Strange it may sound, can you believe it, there are over 3,000 registered micro distilleries in the coastal state and they have enough capacity and more to allow for manufacturing of any spirit. If you have an idea, some capital and a good recipe, just head to Goa.