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Stranger & Son's Vidur Gupta stirs things up

The co-founder of Third Eye Distillery aims to create a house of spirit brands that disrupts the liquor space in India and abroad

Vidur Gupta, co-founder of Third Eye Distillery, 'always knew' he would be in the food and beverage industry.
Vidur Gupta, co-founder of Third Eye Distillery, 'always knew' he would be in the food and beverage industry. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

It’s 7pm on a Wednesday, and some would say it’s gin o’clock. But in the Mumbai offices of Third Eye Distillery, co-founder Vidur Gupta asks for a black coffee and settles down for the interview. Third Eye Distillery is in expansion mode—in India and abroad—and Gupta, who leads the investments, international business and new projects, has spent the past month travelling.

The company owns gin brand Stranger & Sons, the liquor brand Short Story Spirits with rum, vodka and gin in its portfolio, and the cocktail consultancy Countertop India. It also holds a 51% stake in the tonic and mixers brand Svami Drinks. Established in 2018, the company is run by Gupta and his two co-founders: his cousin Sakshi Saigal and her husband Rahul Mehra, who is also co-founder of Svami.

Also read | Svami's Aneesh Bhasin on taking Indian tonic water mainstream

In the overcrowded Indian gin market, Stranger & Sons is not just another option. It has created a niche and a cult-like following, both for home consumption and at bars. When it launched in end 2018, the botanical-forward spirit, with hints of black pepper and coriander, tapped into the premium category at the price of 2,500 a bottle and went on to win multiple international awards. In 2020, it secured a gold-outstanding medal in London at the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC), considered to be the Oscars of the spirits world. The following year, it brought home another gold at The Drinks Business Asia Summer Tasting in Hong Kong.

Participating in renowned drink competitions is key to the brand’s strategy of gaining international recognition. When they launched, Gupta, 31, says, they paid equal attention to the domestic and the global market. This stance has held them in good stead. Stranger & Sons is available in bars across the UK and Asia and had a soft launch in the US last year. As per market research company Insight Fusionist Market, the global gin industry is valued at $13,590 million (around 1.1 trillion) in 2024 and is expected to touch $18,220 million by 2031.

In the domestic liquor space, gin’s share is just above 1%, but it is the fastest growing segment, notes Anjali Batra, founder of the Gin Explorer’s Club, which organises gin festivals in India. Research by the market advisory firm Allied Market Research, points out, “India’s gin market was valued at $914.7 million in 2020, and is projected to reach $1,598.2 million by 2030.”

While Stranger & Sons targets the premium market with a distinct Indian identity, products from the Short Story Spirits stable are priced below 2,000, and positioned for the affordable liquor segment. When Third Eye started, the founders had a clear objective: creating a “house of brands” that was distinctly Indian with a global appeal. “With these bottles, we can communicate with a person who talks and looks like us,” says Gupta. He is referring to Indian millennials or Gen Z who are proud of the made-in-India label, have had international exposure and are curious about new experiences.

Gupta embodies these traits. Born in Mumbai, he spent a few years in London as a toddler when his father, Mohit Gupta, moved there for work. On their return to India, the family shifted to Goa where his father set up a construction business, Palacio Group. Gupta shuttles between Mumbai, where he has a home too, and Goa. Third Eye has a distillery in south Goa.

Growing up, Gupta changed six schools. “One of the reasons for this is that I am dyslexic, and at that point it was considered a learning disability. My whole team has realised that if my texts come wonky, it’s their problem, not mine. You just have to own it and move on. I don’t think it makes us special; I don’t think it makes us not special either.”

While pursuing his master’s in economics and management from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Gupta interned at various places, working in the impact investing division of consultancy firm Intellecap, in business development at Indian multinational company Essar, product development in UK food brand Eat Natural and being a fund-raising caller for his college. “I used to call Americans through the night and was paid £11 an hour, which was great. A day’s shift was seven and a half hours and I had this great ability to not sleep. So, I could work through the night,” he recalls. After college, he joined Eat Natural full-time as a business development manager in Essex, UK, in 2014. “I always knew I would be in food,” he says.

In 2016, he returned to India to help his father with the family business. Meanwhile, his mother sold healthy brownies and chikkis from home under the brand Gouri’s Goodies. Drawing on his experience from Eat Natural, Gupta saw growth potential. He moved the production from her kitchen to a commercial manufacturing unit and grew the brand exponentially between 2016-18. One-and-a-half years into the business, it came crumbling down when a fund-raising effort fell through. They had to roll back operations. Gouri’s Goodies now runs as a small-scale business.

In hindsight, he feels managing Gouri’s Goodies was “like an MBA education”. “It came at a high cost though,” he laughs. Coincidentally, around this time his cousin, Saigal, had returned to Mumbai in 2017, after studying at IESE Business School in Barcelona. She was dating Mehra who co-founded beer brand Gateway Brewing Co. in 2011 and Svami Drinks in 2016, both in Mumbai. The three of them began to notice a market gap: there were no homegrown gins in the premium segment with a global appeal. It seeded an ambition to start a company.

For decades, gin in India was synonymous with the pocket-friendly Blue Riband. In 2016, the bar and restaurant Toast & Tonic opened in Bengaluru and gave the spirit a premium makeover with sophisticated cocktails. Meanwhile, botanical-based gins were trending in the West. In India’s spirit industry, those with international exposure in food and beverage—Manu Chandra of Toast & Tonic, Anand Virmani of Greater Than and the founders of Third Eye—pioneered the gin revolution.

Also read | Anand Virmani: Getting the gin out of the bottle

“In the UK, we were drinking a lot of gin. Sakshi and I met at a bar in Mumbai in 2017. There were hardly any gin options; and nothing from India,” notes Gupta. “Rahul had enough experience in building alcohol businesses, Sakshi had quit her job (in the business development team of a shipping company) and I had retail knowledge. I think I was also trying to get over the loss of failure (with Gouri’s Goodies).” The trio started the manufacturing unit of Third Eye Distillery in Goa in 2018. In the beginning, there were just six-seven employees, including the founders. It is still a small business—they are a team of 120.

The company was largely self-funded with investments from a few high net-worth individuals (HNIs). A 2023 Mint story lists Third Eye’s marquee investors as Priya Sharma Ranjan, an angel investor, and Ashish Hemrajani, founder and CEO of BookMyShow, among others.

“The three of us are extremely ambitious and we are India proud. We wanted to create a company that reflected these qualities,” he says. They also noticed that gins like Bombay Sapphire and Jodhpur, both made in the UK, were selling the India story. “India needed a homegrown gin with botanicals from here. The ingredients are here, the margin is here. You could make a brilliant product in almost any category of food manufacturing segment that can compete in the international market.”

By 2019, Stranger & Sons travelled to London and started participating in international spirit competitions. Being listed on the Savoy in London that year was a milestone moment.

When they launched, gin was still a new drink in India. Beverage consultant Dimitri Lezinska, who used to be the global brand ambassador for Grey Goose by Bacardi for eight years, designed their initial advocacy programme and helped them create a brand-driven, polished cocktail experience. Now, they have hired bartenders like Jitender Rana and Feruzan B to visit bars and create cocktail menus. In line with this strategy, they sponsor bar takeovers. Last year, when one of Spain’s best bars, Paradiso, was in India, Stranger and Sons was the official sponsor.

As part of their domestic expansion, they acquired the beverage consultancy Countertop India in 2022, which specialises in crafting unique drinking experiences through their cocktail programmes and has launched its own bars as well. Since the acquisition, Countertop has designed the menus for some of the buzziest new bars in India, such as Spirit Forward in Bengaluru and Bandra Born in Mumbai.

Although the gin space has seen a fair amount of interest from homegrown startups, and several international brands have entered India in the recent past, Gupta believes they haven’t scratched the surface to reach their full potential. “We are almost at 100% year-on-year growth. We are looking at an 150% growth for the next financial year, and clocking an annual revenue of 120-130 crore,” he says. In terms of volume, they will close the current financial year at 60,000 cases across their two spirit brands, and 140,000 cases across Svami’s non-alcoholic portfolio. Goa, Mumbai, Delhi and Gurugram are the biggest volume-drivers for the company.

“Premium gin, though a small segment of the overall spirits industry in India, continues to dominate the mindspace of aspirational consumers,” says Gupta of gin’s role in the Indian alcohol industry. “Recently, Indian whiskies have garnered attention and there’s a steady rise in consumers preferring rums.” For the next phase of international expansion and to improve domestic distribution, Third Eye is aiming to raise growth capital.

So far, the global market has been the playfield of Indian brown spirits such as Old Monk rum and Amrut single malt. Third Eye’s biggest impact has been disrupting the white spirits industry as a homegrown company, and they believe they are unstoppable.

Also read | Amrut Distilleries MD Rakshit Jagdale is making angels happy

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