In India, almost all homegrown brands have chosen botanicals to showcase the country’s diversity when it comes to herbs, spices, foraged berries and fruits.
The gin revolution in India can be credited to the alcohol’s inherent flavour palate. While international brands like Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s have been available in the country for a while, it’s only now, with Indian brands asserting themselves in the market, that the Indian consumer has truly begun to appreciate what sets each apart — the mix of botanicals that each distiller uses to create the final product. Says Rahul Mehra, co-founder of Third Eye Distillery, the company behind Stranger & Sons, “That’s the exciting part about gin, that it can be made anywhere, and it’s not got restrictions like a lot of other products in the spirits category.”
The obvious choice
While juniper berries are often considered a must, and usually makes up 60-70 percent of the proportion of botanicals used, coriander seeds are the second most used mix-in. Anand Virmani, co-founder and CEO of NAO Spirits and Beverages says, “Coriander seeds are native to us, which is great, since we can find coriander seeds in pretty much any state in India, so between these two, we’ve got about 80-90 percent of your entire botanical role covered,” For both gins that he markets, Virmani uses 8 botanicals for Hapusa and 9 for Greater Than.
New distilleries give the final mix of infusions great deal of thought. Aman Thadani, Founder of Pumori Gin says, “We came to these botanicals after several trials with over 50 botanicals and several combinations for recipes,” when discussing the herbs and flavours used for the gin with the bright red label.
In India, almost all homegrown brands have chosen botanicals that showcase the country’s diversity when it comes to herbs, spices, foraged berries and fruits. In some cases that means specifying the provenance – like Pumori’s Himalayan Juniper, Stranger and Sons’ Gondhraj lemon peel. Nilgiris, the gin from Amrut Distilleries proudly takes its terroir – the distillery is surrounded by tea gardens — and bottles it, to give drinkers a gin that has notes of paan and tea. Says Nikhil Varma, Gin Distiller at Amrut Distilleries, which makes Nilgiris, “As it would happen, we chanced upon using paan (betel leaves) as a botanical and I worked towards complimenting it to create a harmony of flavours. That definitely extended the trial period to use not one but two different varieties of paan — Mysore paan and Kumbakonam paan. The former adds spice and florals while the latter is earthy, sweeter, floral and spicy.” On the other hand, Jaisalmer Gin features 11 botanicals of which seven are sourced domestically. There’s vetiver and coriander seeds from the fields around its namesake city, alongside Darjeeling tea leaves, cubeb pepper and lemongrass, to name just a few. The final product is meant to be a distillation of the country’s broad agricultural produce, a goal similar to Tickle Gin, which includes black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves alongside other herbs.
It should be noted that the botanicals used don’t all have to come through, because as they’re steeped together and aged, they mellow and coalesce into a more complex final sip. There are however still familiar aromas and notes that draw drinkers in. Santosh Kukreti, Bar Manager at Jolie’s, who’s done stints at Thirsty City 127 where they made their own gin, and the Ritz-Carlton, Macau (which serves over 150 gins) describes his preference, “the lesser the better for me, actually. Whatever is infused, you should be able to taste it.”
Other brands, in striving for familiarity, base their botanicals on a mix of Indian and international ingredients. Blue Moon includes lemon, caraway, coriander and angelica in addition to juniper from Europe.
The brands in question are each trying to tell a uniquely Indian story with their gin. As Mehra of Stranger and Sons says, “It’s also the level of story-telling you can have with gin, the connections that India itself has with gin, whether it come to being the agricultural state that it is, and having all the possible botanicals available here, right off to the various stories that you can have.” These stories are seeing its distillers reclaim gin from a colonial hangover, to a drink with its own uniquely Indian context.
Before the advent of Indian gins, drinkers had to pay up for artisanal makers like Sipsmith at boutique importer Vault Fine Spirits, or drink some of the biggest global names. More recently, Roku Gin from Japan uses its six botanicals (Sakura flowers, sakuna leaves, sencha and gyokuro tea, sansho pepper and yuzu peel) from the country to showcase their unique produce, while Monkey 47 made a splash thanks to its German origin and use of 47 botanicals.
Besides juniper berries, an often-found infusion, especially for European gins, is orris root. The perennial rhizome is said to taste indistinguishable from raspberry and is used to bind and enhance the other botanicals flavours. It’s no surprise that the root is found in Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater. Hendrick’s, which also includes orris root, is the gin that allowed today’s distillers to experiment, given its cucumber forward flavour and discernible citrus and floral notes. However cucumber is not a botanical used during its distillation, but rather infused later, along with an infusion of rose – using essence rather than the ingredients itself – causing some in the bar community to spurn the distinct black bottle. In a twist, Terai, the indigenous gin launched by India Craft Spirit Co. also features orris root, alongside other botanicals sourced from New Delhi’s Khari Baoli, the spice market, as does Greater Than, which sources its orris root from Italy. Samsara Gin is made from 11 botanicals includes rose petals and citrus — its two most prominent flavours — along with orris root.
Tanqueray takes the opposite tack and features just four botanicals — juniper, coriander, angelica root and liquorice — following a recipe that goes back to 1830. Ultimately, the number of botanicals used matters less as compared to how they come together in a finished product. Gordon’s is also known for its use of just four botanicals but its high juniper content, matured for 18 months gives it a unique intensity, as well as a worldwide following.
Given gin’s ability to be distilled globally, it’s just a matter of time before more regional bottles become available in India, showcasing their agricultural produce. Varma, the distiller of Nilgiris has the last word when he says, “Botanicals are really what gin is all about, that’s what makes gin interesting and different from one another.”