“When we launched Greater Than in September 2017, we were unsure if craft gin would even take off”, says Anand Virmani, co-founder and CEO of Nao Spirits and Beverages, the company that makes Greater Than and Hapusa gins. Five years later, it’s a different story with more than a dozen made-in-India craft gin brands available across the country. What drove this unprecedented growth? Is the market saturated or is there room for more brands to make their presence felt? And more importantly, where can we expect to go from here? We spoke to gin distillers, mixologists, and industry experts to find out.
The variety in botanicals
“We were already seeing a gin boom in the UK and Europe with gin cocktails dominating the menus. When Greater Than launched, it brought people who were drinking other spirits into the gin segment and grew the market. What Hendrick’s did around the world, Stranger & Sons did in India with their branding, which made gin a cool drink. So, the segment grew, and it allowed for other gins to enter the market. As the market expanded it allowed bars, restaurants, and most importantly, distributors to be interested in gin as a product”, says Devika Bhagat, co-founder of Adventurist Spirits, which makes Tamras gin. The brand had launched in December 2021 and is one of the newer entrants in the Indian craft gin space.
What particularly works for Indian craft gin makers is the sheer variety of botanicals available in India — fruits, herbs, roots, and spices — allowing for endless possibilities. Whether it’s the spice-forward Stranger & Sons or Hapusa, which incorporates Himalayan juniper berries, or the delicately flavoured Terai with fennel and holy basil, every gin is unique. “As Indians, we have a strong flavour palate with a special inclination towards spices. Indian craft gins celebrate Indian botanicals that are all so different. That’s why we’re seeing more and more homegrown brands hitting the market”, say Anjali Batra and Shuchir Suri, co-founders of Food Talk India, which has been organising the Gin Explorers Club in Delhi since 2018.
The pandemic saw a huge rise in the gin category with the launch of brands such as Doja, Tamras, Seqer, Nilgiris, and more. With bars closed or operating for limited hours, India’s drinking culture shifted from late-night partying to day-drinking, according to Vidhi Puri, founder of The Cocktail Story, a digital platform for all things alcobev, which offers content, experiences, and an e-commerce shop. “We used to host many online workshops and saw a higher interest in gin workshops compared to any other spirits”, she says.
Indian craft gin is also making a mark on the world stage with several brands winning prestigious awards such as Hapusa bagging a gold at The International Wines & Spirits Competition 2021 and Stranger & Sons winning the highest honours at the Asian Spirit Masters 2021. “I was recently in Bangkok and Singapore, and I saw a bottle of Stranger & Sons at every bar I visited. It just shows that it’s a quality product and stands for India; seeing it there was a huge thing for me”, says Yash Bhanage, founder and COO at Hunger Inc. Hospitality, which runs the restaurants The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai. At Cannes this year, India is the ‘country of honour’ at the Marche du Cinema, a trade show that runs alongside the film festival. “Greater Than and Hapusa are the only two craft gin brands that have been invited as part of the India pavilion at the festival; it’s a great opportunity to be able to showcase what we do”, says Virmani.
While many Indian craft gins have manged to create strong brand stories, keeping consumers interested and maintaining the buzz is no mean feat. Some of the early entrants have struck up innovative collaborations with bars, restaurants, and other beverage brands. “I believe that collaboration is a powerful tool that helps brands channel their creativity and drive for innovation towards creating something uniquely groundbreaking”, says Sakshi Saigal, co-founder and director of Third Eye Distillery, which makes Stranger & Sons. The company partnered with The Bombay Canteen to launch Perry Road Peru, a limited-edition distilled cocktail that incorporates seasonal pink guavas. “Our most recent collaboration is with Four Pillars in Australia, which led to the creation of two unique gins. We ‘traded’ ingredients to create a gin inspired by the unique flavours and botanicals indigenous to Australia, and the team at Four Pillars managed to capture the bold and complex flavours of Indian spices and botanicals perfectly in their gin”, says Saigal. Both Trading Tides – Coastal Dry Gin and Spice Trade Gin launched in May 2022. Early this year, Greater Than partnered with Sleepy Owl Coffee to launch the limited-released No Sleep, India’s first coffee-infused gin. They also joined hands with mixers brand Jimmy’s Cocktails to create Jimmy’s Gin Cherry Sour, a cocktail mixer crafted by celebrated mixologist Yangdup Lama (who is also a mentor for Hapusa Gin).
Shaken and stirred
One of the contributing factors to the growing interest around gin has been cocktail bars, which have stepped up with new offerings and innovations, from shaking up classic cocktails to reimagining forgotten recipes. “Bartenders are in charge of the magic behind the bar, and they are the ones interacting with consumers, so we rely on them to showcase our product”, says Evgenya Prazdnik, drinks director at Nao Spirits and Beverages. The birth of Indian-made tonic water brands like Svami, Jade Forest, Sepoy & Co. etc. also helped further the gin story giving mixologists a craft product to pair with the gin and then add their own twist to it. “Innovations like house-flavoured tonics to pair with different gins and botanicals and using house-made bitters and shrubs all add to the excitement. Our bestselling cocktail is the Herbalist where we keep the gin as the champion, but a few drops of a simple shrub made of orange peel and basil leaves infuses loads of character and freshness”, says Harish Chandra Chhimwal, lead mixologist at Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt Ltd, which runs the gin-forward bar and restaurant Toast & Tonic in Bengaluru and Mumbai. At The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, 60% of the bar sales are gin cocktails. “The spirit works really well with the Indian weather; it’s always hot so a refreshing gin cocktail is what you’d prefer over say a whisky cocktail”, says Bhanage. Giving a further fillip to this space, earlier this year, Third Eye Distillery acquired a majority stake in Countertop India, an F&B consultancy. “Through this partnership, we aim to uplift the Indian bar industry through training and education, and leading it towards innovation”, says Saigal.
Brand ambassadors have also played a huge role in taking the craft gin message forward — many brands have appointed renowned mixologists, whether it’s the “Hapusa Whisperer” Swanand “Swani” Korgaonkar or Tamras’ Chief Adventurist Raul Raghav or Terai’s Tobias Carvalho. “For a craft spirit, the brand ambassador plays a very different role as compared to a commercial spirit brand — from educating people about the spirit to creating cocktails specifically for the spirit. For us, Raul Raghav provides the final frontier so to speak, presenting our spirit in a form where the consumer can appreciate the flavour profile and enjoy the drink. We trust his palate and his immense knowledge of mixology”, says Bhagat.
The way forward
Is the Indian craft gin market saturated? The response is a unanimous resounding “no” across the board. “I don’t think we are anywhere close to the peak. In 2014, people had the same question about the UK market when the gin boom was in full flow with a hundred different distillers. Today, there are more than 700 gin distillers in the UK! Of course, it’s unlikely we will have that many since it’s not as easy to operate a distillery in India, but I can definitely see 40-50 distilleries coming up”, says Virmani. Karina Agarwal, vice president of Terai gin agrees, although she believes that new gins will have to be quite distinctive in their messaging to stand out. “We will see a lot more play of botanicals, which will also become more regional”, she adds.
According to Bhagat, there will be a flushing out of brands in the next 3-5 years because the consumer is getting savvy and knowledgeable about gin. “Some brands will become bigger, some with remain small, others will die out. That’s how it’s in Europe as well. Tarquin’s is small while The Botanist is getting larger by the day; it depends upon the ambitions of the founders”, she says. Eventually it will all come down to quality and innovation. Nearly every brand we spoke to is planning a new launch, whether it’s a new variant, a flavoured gin, a limited edition, or an exciting collaboration.
Distillery tours is another way to pique the consumer interest; at present Tamras is the only gin brand that offers an experience at its distillery in Goa although India Craft Spirit Co., which makes Terai gin plans to start tours of its distillery in Rajasthan soon. “From its inception, we wanted the home of Terai to be a place where we welcomed friends and gin lovers. Fitted with a beautifully designed exhibition room that opens into a bar space and tasting room, which extends into our distillery floor, we can’t wait to have people there”, says Agarwal.
Batra and Suri believe that it’s time for Indian craft gin to expand to the global market. “We’ve already seen the expansion to Southeast Asia and the idea is for the international gin community to be excited about Indian craft gins and its flavours”, they say. Bhanage agrees, although he believes that the Indian gin community needs to tell the Indian craft gin story in unison at the international stage. “It’s like French wine; different terroirs come up with different wines, but we know them as French wines. Similarly, you must make Indian craft gin a category and talk about it all over the world”, he says.
Even after five years, the excitement around every new gin brand and what it represents is still very palpable. As the industry evolves and consumer interest continues to grow, the next few years seem very promising for the Indian craft gin space.