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Hello bartender, there's basmati rice in my vodka

A new crop of craft liquor brands, no pun intended, are using rice instead of wheat and barley to produce spirits, and more brands are set to join the bandwagon

Because rice is abundantly available, it has been used to make ENA for a long time. (Photo: Mae Mu, Unsplash)
Because rice is abundantly available, it has been used to make ENA for a long time. (Photo: Mae Mu, Unsplash)

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In the past, the formula to produce spirits was pretty straight-forward. Producers would pick barley for whisky or wheat for vodka, gin and most beers. Recently, a significant change has come about with the rise of rice, India’s staple grain, as the chosen ingredient to distill spirits.

The transformation is across the board: Be it new homegrown craft spirits such as Terai and Tamras, big guns like Diageo with rice whisky Epitome Reserve and multinational beer companies. What caused this shift?

First, let’s talk about ENA

One of the biggest factors leading to the rice revolution is producers today don’t shy away from talking about extra neutral alcohol (ENA). ENA is an essential raw material for alcoholic beverages. Typically, it has over 95% alcohol by volume, is colourless and has a neutral taste and smell, hence the term ENA. It is derived primarily from sugarcane molasses but grains are also used.

Because rice is abundantly available, it has been used to make ENA for a long time. In fact, one distiller said that over the past eight years, molasses have gone from being 15% cheaper than grain spirits to becoming 10% more expensive.

ENA is still the best way to make spirits as it is the purest form of alcohol that has no colour or flavour. Hence, many non-licenced or smaller brands simply dilute ENA, add caramel and other blends and sell them as brandy, whisky and other spirits. Which is why it’s been a bit of a taboo to talk about ENA openly – until now.

“People don’t want to talk about it but rice-based alcohol is used in India. In my opinion, at least 50% spirits are made in India using rice ENA,” says Shekhar Swarup, Founder, Terai Gin.

Swarup must know. He is the Joint MD of Globus Spirits, a listed company incorporated in 1993 that also produces ENA for a vast majority of spirit makers in the country. This gives Terai a distinct advantage over other brands as the rice-based spirit is distilled in-house at its craft distillery in Behror, Rajasthan.

Another brand that took advantage of rice ENA is Smoke Lab Vodka. “Our distillery at Rajpura, Punjab has been processing rice since its inception in 2008. With our team's know-how in processing this grain, we were very comfortable developing our own vodka,” Varun Jain, CEO of Smoke Lab Vodka shares, adding they are the pioneers of using rice for base spirits.

India’s newest gin Tamras found rice ENA as the best amongst all the other base alcohol, says co-founder Devika Bhagat. She shares, Indians are pre-conditioned to think of wheat for spirits because of the British. “We were shocked to find wheat doesn’t have neutral taste and aroma. When we got our distillery licence in 2019, we tried all ENA samples and rice came out shining,” Bhagat says.

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How Rice Became A Preferred Grain
Rice thrived because of its familiar taste profile. Alcohol producers predict its use in spirits will increase because of its abundance in the country.

The consumer is one of the biggest reasons why rice-forward spirits have succeeded. “Consumers have gotten wiser and they do in-depth research of new products. Drinking lesser but better is the pattern observed since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Jain of Smoke Lab Vodka, before revealing why premium basmati rice goes into their vodka. “We chose it for its aroma and flavour.”

For gins like Tamras, what stands out is the manner in which botanicals mix with rice ENA. Bhagat says, “Our rice-based spirit is exported to bigger alcohol companies such as Pernod Ricard for example. They also conform to export and EU standards, so why can’t we use it for our home-grown gin?”

Swarup of Terai gin draws a poetic comparison with a blank canvas saying rice ENA is more accepting of a variety of botanicals.

New Age Rice Beers
In India, one of the most interesting rice beers was pioneered by Mumbai’s Asian diner Foo as part of a lockdown experiment. Keenan Tham, Founder and Managing Director of Pebble Street Hospitality that runs it, is a big fan of Japanese Asahi beer that is partially made from rice. He wanted to introduce an alternative for the Indian market and partnered with Pune-based Great State Aleworks to launch Foo Brew, a lighter, creamier and crisper beer style.

“Everyone was going with more acceptable flavours but when we got our rice brew, we were so confident that we branded it with Foo. It paid off brilliantly and we’re already working on Foo Brew 2.0,” Tham says.

Foo Brew was different because it elevated rice beers to an aspirational level. Earlier rice beers were predominantly considered harsh and sharp concoctions from the North-East, Foo Brew is considered to be one of the firsts to break the myth that India couldn’t make great rice beers.

Nakul Bhonsle, Founder of Great State Aleworks says compared to drinking a stout like Guinness “that feels like having a milkshake”, rice beers are lighter and make for easy drinking, and adds, “Another reason for its popularity is breweries want to use local ingredients, and favour local rice varieties, like Ambemohar or Konkan Rice.”

The success of Foo Brew, in fact, led Karan Jain, Co-CEO of Ace Aloha Hospitality, that runs Brewdog in India, to work with rice brews. “Whenever I visited Foo with family, Foo Brew was always out of stock. So, I decided to make our own version and we sold out in two weeks with our first batch in December 2021.”

Today Brewdog’s latest outpost in Mumbai’s Bandra has launched Brewdog Rice Lager, a bestseller according to Jain.

Another encouraging aspect of this trend is the rise in awareness of spirits like sake and soju that are made with rice grains. Ravi Joshi, Co-Founder, Sake Club India, observed youngsters becoming more experimental with spirits. “A friend of mine who is not aware of sake at all tried it because his daughter urged him to do so. My 22-year-old son is a big fan of Japanese cuisine and is a sake enthusiast,” he says.

The Way Ahead
While rice-based spirits created a market for themselves, there’s more to be done. Jain says, “I hope there's deeper research done to explore a variety of flavours as they do in the West with corn, barley, among others.”

Bhonsle of Great State Aleworks has the last word: “The more breweries do, the more consumers taste and we are encouraged to experiment more. It's a cycle. If we don't do enough, we will never know whether a consumer wants us to innovate or not.”

Going by early trends, the consumer has clearly spoken in favour of rice-based alcohol, leading to an exciting new phase for homegrown craft spirits.

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