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It’s gin time in India

Sell-out tastings, locally developed cocktails, big-brand entriesthe global trend finally comes to India

Tanai Shirali at 212 All Good, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Tanai Shirali at 212 All Good, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

From booming sales for the big brands, a slew of micro-distilleries making small batches with local botanicals, dedicated cruises in Scotland and even a G&T Easter egg being introduced this year by a luxury chocolate brand in London, gin is having a moment—again. 2016 was the “year of gin" in the UK, with sales topping £1 billion (around Rs8,000 crore). Across Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia, the white spirit has seen phenomenal growth, especially among the younger demographic and in the premium gin category.

But can gin make its mark in India, traditionally a whisky and rum market?

“For the last four months the highest selling cocktail was our G&T with tulsi and egg white in it," says Yash Bhanage, partner at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai. “In a country where people prefer sweeter, more fruit-forward cocktails, it’s a great thing that we are seeing this shift. Our new cocktail menu (launched early March) does not have a single vodka-based cocktail, and people haven’t complained as yet," he says.

“The easiest way to enter a growing market like India is through the cocktail route," agrees Manu Chandra, chef-partner at Toast & Tonic, Bengaluru. The restaurant has a signature G&T menu, and Chandra says 70% of their liquor sales can be attributed to gin. “We have kept it simple, no smoke and mirrors, no crazy garnishes, just elegant, flavourful cocktails; and they are potent—our pours are 60ml instead of the standard 45ml."

At The Fatty Bao outlets in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, brand head Nakul Chandra sees a similar trend. “Though we have very limited gin brands in India right now, we are slowly seeing more interest in the spirit. For the past year, I have been working closely with Beefeater to come up with interesting gin cocktails and G&Ts," he says.

Among the white spirits, gin is far more complex than vodka and its quality has a greater impact on the cocktail experience. “There are definitely more people experimenting with gin and liking it, especially people who have perhaps been averse in the past because they have only had it in its cheaper, non-refined iterations," says Manu Chandra.

Keshav Prakash, director of The Vault, concurs. “The difference between correctly distilled, high-quality gins and mass-market gins made with botanical concentrates is the same as the difference between an espresso and coffee made with concentrate and hot water," he says. Prakash’s company imports artisanal, small-batch gins (and other spirits) and curates experiences around them. “We recently organized a gin tasting at The Table, Mumbai, and the event sold out even before we announced it across all social media," he adds

New offerings

Gin has had its boom and bust periods throughout history. In the 16th century, it provided Dutch courage to the English troops during war (gin derived from the Dutch drink jenever); in the first half of the 18th century, London’s “gin craze" led to extreme drunkenness and death, cementing the notoriety of the spirit. It was the drink of choice for both Charles Dickens and Ian Fleming (hence James Bond’s favourite martini). And as the national drink during the 1920s Jazz Age in the US, it was also the preferred drink of F. Scott Fitzgerald (remember the Gin Rickey in The Great Gatsby?).

While big brands such as Hendrick’s and Tanqueray have been available in India for a while now, a true craft gin is yet to make an appearance thanks to the country’s stringent alcohol regulations. “Gin is the tail end of the alcohol distillation process and the good stuff in the middle is used to make whisky. So, as an example, one can approach, say, Paul John, which makes whisky in Goa, to use the tail of their distillation and redistill it to make gin. But, according to current laws, you will have to do it on their premises, you cannot take the distillate and set up a small-batch distillery elsewhere," explains Bhanage.

“Gin is not explored to its potential in India and it has a minuscule market share, less than 1%," says Susan Dias, owner of Native Brews. Dias is developing indigenous Indian liquors and is also working to get a quality gin into the market. “I want to introduce a good, properly distilled gin in India at an affordable price range. Our proprietary recipe has been developed by a London-based distiller, who will distil the gin for us. We will get the concentrate here and bottle it in India to make it price-efficient," says Dias. The gin is slated to launch in May-June.

The irony is that most of the spices that are making an appearance in new gins across the world are indigenous to India. “With the exception of juniper berries, all the common botanicals are basically masalas—peppercorns, coriander seeds, etc. While developing our recipe, we experimented with everything from saffron to curry leaves," says Dias.

“With the kind of ingredients available in India, you can make stunning gins. I’d definitely experiment with mango, that will be a unique India proposition," says Nakul Chandra. For an India-inspired gin, Bhanage suggests sweet basil or turmeric. Manu Chandra recommends local fruits and flowers, something as simple as marigold buds or Nagpur oranges when in season. “I certainly wouldn’t make a chaat-flavoured gin," he quips.

A big entry this year is the award-winning Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin from Germany’s Black Forest region that will be available in India from July. No fewer than 47 botanicals go into making this complex gin, including acacia flowers, bramble leaves, spruce shoots, chamomile, lingonberries, and more. “Monkey 47 will be available in high-end craft cocktail bars in the metros, and later in hotels," says Arijit Bose, regional manager and brand ambassador of Monkey 47 (the product will soon be acquired by Pernod Ricard). “India is a big market and a lucrative one; though the current tax laws have not been super-friendly, people are working on it. Also, people who are well travelled and have tasted craft gins abroad are keen to see them in India," he adds.

Popular gin brands. Photo: Kunal Chandra

The perfect Wingman

Mixers can make or break a cocktail. The classic gin and tonic remains the most popular gin cocktail, combining the spirit with tonic water, often balanced with lime juice and sugar syrup.

G&T was invented in India in the early 19th century when British soldiers mixed quinine (their anti-malaria medicine) with lime, sugar and, eventually, a dash of gin. “Unfortunately, the tonic we get in India commercially is too sweet and does no favours to the G&T," says Tanai Shirali, beverage and cocktail developer at 212 All Good in Mumbai. Shirali and team started making their own tonic minus any chemicals and stabilizers. “The colour is different because we use citrus rind, spices and herbs," says Shirali.

Spotting the gap in the market, a Mumbai-based company recently started making tonics as well, and Svami artisanal tonic water will hit the market in a couple of months. “We are not using anything made in a lab. Our base version is a regular tonic water, which has less sugar than commercially available tonic water, and then we are doing a couple of variants of flavoured tonics such as grapefruit, and yuzu and juniper," says Sahil Jatana, co-founder of Svami Drinks. “We have had a lot of interest from bartenders and F&B managers; we are looking to launch in the metros as well as the export market," he adds.

Signature G&Ts at Toast & Tonic, Bengaluru. Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran

Pricing is important, since it has a direct impact on what the customer pays for their cocktail. “In India, we have Schweppes priced at Rs45-50 or Fever-Tree (imported) at Rs150-200, which becomes too expensive. We want to introduce a good-quality tonic water but at the Schweppes price point," says Jatana.

The gin revolution may be a while coming to India. But the bugle has been sounded, and a few gin enthusiasts are rallying.

4 Gin cocktails to try right now

Green Fields.

Green Fields, from The Bombay Canteen’s newly refurbished cocktail menu. A heady jasmine-infused gin meets green tea, star fruit juice, and lime juice. Shaken with an egg white, this cocktail is already making waves in Mumbai.

Wow Ming.

Wow Ming, from The Fatty Bao’s root-to-fruit cocktail menu, is a refreshing combination of gin, martini Rosso, thyme, house-made grapefruit syrup, lime juice and tonic water. Available at the outlets in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai.

The Herbalist.

The Herbalist, from the signature G&T menu at Toast & Tonic, Bengaluru. This perfect-for-summer drink combines gin with housemade basil and orange tonic water, and is served with coriander-orange ice.

Robusta Gin.

Robusta Gin, caffeinated G&T at 212 All Good in Mumbai, is made with coffee-infused gin, house-made tonic, dehydrated lime, and coffee bitters—the perfect alternative to
iced coffee.

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