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Craft gins are coming of age in India



Mary Poppins said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. That piece of advice translated into a gin and tonic (G&T) for the British in India, who were looking for a more palatable way to down their quinine.

Alcohol markets in India are often dictated by aspirational values; hence whisky, the drink of the colonists, rules supreme even to this day. This was followed by rum, which was a cheaper alternative. Gin, in India, was largely an afterthought and considered to be an afternoon drink, to be had with a twist of lime. But surprisingly, it did not curry favour in the country, despite G&T originating here, perhaps due to the poor quality available and the lack of nuance.

While gin did well in the West, the tipping point came about 10 years ago in Spain, a country that led the revival, says Manu Chandra, chef partner, Toast and Tonic (T&T), Bengaluru. “Madrid is still where you go to have a G&T; Italians with their aperitivo concept and the negronis followed, and soon the micro-distilling trend started off in a big way in London. A lot of small producers began creating small batch gins and spent a lot of time and energy differentiating the quality of the spirit, and that is when the market took notice. Gin has had its coming of age and it’s taken a good decade to reach where it is. The fact that we have had a seven times spike in gin sales at T&T in the last year is telling of consumption patterns.”

Craft leads the way

Industry observers agree that there is a gin explosion in the market right now and that brands are at the top of their game with cocktails, while new craft makers are focussing on the gin itself.

The country’s stringent alcohol regulations discouraged most distillers and brands earlier, but not any more, believes Shuchir Suri, founder, Food Talk India, creator of the Gin Explorers Club, a two-day festival celebrating gin. “The launch of Greater Than in Goa, points to opportunities to expand craft credentials from beer to spirits in India. Indian consumers have finally started to appreciate quality over quantity in terms of alcohol.”

The Indian audience seems to be moving away from basic citrus and fruit flavours. “They seem to instead be favouring complex floral notes like chamomile and elderflower, as well as spices like rosemary and cardamom. What’s important as well is the depth and intensity of flavour, which is where it helps to be a London Dry Gin,” says Anand Virmani, founder, Nao Spirits and Beverages, makers of India’s first craft gin Greater Than and the world’s first Himalayan dry gin, Hapusa.

“Craft gins occupy an important space in bringing in new consumers to gin with approachable pricing and a value-for-money proposition,” believes Payal Nijhawan, head of marketing, William Grant & Sons, makers of Hendrick’s gin. “The rise in popularity and demand for gin in the past two-three years has resulted in exciting times for craft gin makers as well as premium imported brands who see this as a great way to a consumer base building up for the category.”

Craft gins are coming of age in India

The cocktail route to popularity

Bartenders in India enjoy an unprecedented influence over the spirit that becomes a part of their bar. With the rise of maker culture and an overwhelming emphasis on carefully chosen, high-quality ingredients, a restaurant’s cocktail menu is fast becoming a significant contributor to why people visit it in the first place. This will definitely change the gin consumption styles in India, says Sakshi Saigal, co-founder and CEO, Third Eye Distillery, Mumbai, makers of Stranger & Sons, one of the first gins distilled in India.

“In fact, this increasing popularity of gin is why a new establishment like us has chosen to have a dedicated G&T cocktail section,” says Sonalika Pawar, general manager, Nevermind Bar & Social, Bengaluru.

“When compared to vodka or any other white spirit, gin has a greater impact on the whole cocktail experience, be it classics or modern-day renditions, acting as a binding base spirit for a balanced cocktail. More gins are breaking away from traditional styles and venturing into experimental territory, which bodes well,” Pawar adds.

At T&T, now three years old, with its dedicated G&T menu as well as tonic waters section, the idea was to ease consumers into gin drinking through cocktails, which has now become the USP for the establishment. Chandra says, “I have been a firm believer in not trying to force a drink which the population does not have a palate for yet. One should always try variations of it, as the transition is more important.”

Craft gins are coming of age in India

Going forward

India is, by and large, a price-conscious market. “It will be relatively easier for craft gins (aside from the licensing and excise struggles) to garner consumer acceptability based on price points,” says Ajit Balgi, founder and beverage consultant, The Happy High, Mumbai. “There has always been a huge gap between an under-500 Forbes gin and a ₹2,000+ English London dry and this is the opportunity the local craft gin makers can cash in on. The marketing bit will be an interplay of brand imagery and a minimum viable product. The rise of good Indian craft offerings in the ₹1,000-₹2,000 category will steal the show.”

“Gin being so experimental in nature, especially contemporary gin, I think there is equal scope for Indian craft gin as well as its global counterparts,” says Keshav Prakash, founder and curator of The Vault, Mumbai and organiser of The Vault Biennale a two-day festival celebrating distilled craft from across the world. “What I see is the current consumer in India experimenting with flavoured gins as well. Value gins will grow due to the overall demand.”

“With the advent of craft options, greater social media exposure and great tasting cocktails, gin has definitely made a comeback. It’s now increasingly being seen as a discerning, sophisticated and confident drink. I think afternoon drinking on weekends is seeing an uptick, and nothing better than a G&T or Gimlet to keep you refreshed. I expect to see a lot more bespoke gins entering the market, albeit at premium pricing — brands like Sipsmith, Citadelle, Fords, Lone Wolf. New entrants in the Indian market like Greater Than come at a very accessible price with all the basics done right,” says Madhulika Dhall, founder, La Cave Fine Wines & Spirits, with outlets in Delhi and Bengaluru.

Gin, around the world, is going through this renaissance, where there aren’t just new consumers every minute but new gins too. So, expect to see a lot more craft distilleries coming up in India, as well as an increase in imported gins.

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