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Leading the ginaissance

Joanna Lobo | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on October 25, 2017

Anand Virmani “We want to tell them (The Gin Guild) the Indian story of gin”

We may finally have a homegrown good gin, thanks to a Goa based distillery

This is the story of two men who wanted a good gin to work with and just to drink. They couldn’t find one that matched quality with value-for-money so they went ahead and created one. Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh, the two men behind Delhi’s Perch Wine & Coffee Bar and now, Nao Spirits, have teamed up to launch the country’s first craft gin, Greater Than.

The name is a mouthful, just as they promise the drink will be, and quite cheeky. “One of the things we were initially thinking about was what does India contribute to the world? We are all mathematically oriented. We wanted to touch upon this mathematical history in a way that is fun and doesn’t take itself seriously. Besides, we wanted to create a better drinking experience… our gin is greater than any other gin experience in India,” says Virmani.

The call of the market

Across the world and in the UK specifically, gin is seeing resurgence in popularity, what some people call a Ginaissance. The trend has now trickled down to India. “I saw this happen from a marketing standpoint. We don’t have a good gin in India. You have the cheaper gins, which are cold compounded and made by infusing artificial flavours into the liquid. Then there are the London Dry or distilled gin, which is a fairly complicated process. Between these two extremes, there’s no quality product,” says Virmani.

India is the fifth largest market for gin in the world. Gin has a rich history here. The story of the gin-and-tonic can be traced back in India. In the 1800s, faced by increasing malaria deaths, quinine powder became critical to the health of the British Empire. The powder was so bitter that troops started mixing it with soda and sugar to create the first ‘tonic water’ or what later was known as Indian Quinine Tonic. Besides, many of the ingredients that go into a good gin — coriander seeds, cinnamon and other spices — come from India. “And yet, it’s surprising that no one had tried to take advantage of these indigenous spices and create an Indian gin,” he says.

Singh, who has been in the bartending industry for 18 years, has seen the spirit rise in popularity from behind the bar. He credits this to the cocktail revolution, which has been coming up in the past seven to eight years. “We have always been a whiskey drinking country. Then in the 2000s, vodka made an entry. With cocktails becoming popular, there was a requirement for good gin. People are travelling the world and drinking gin cocktails and when they come here, they want the same,” he says.

To put it simply, Singh wanted a good gin to work with. He and Virmani teamed up to do this by offering a quality London Dry gin, that doesn’t break the bank. They are doing this with Greater Than, the country’s only craft gin, which they launched last month. The London Dry gin is made using junipers from Macedonia, angelica root from Germany, orris root from Italy, orange peel from Spain, and coriander seeds, fennel, chamomile, ginger and lemongrass from India. In terms of taste, it has notes of clean juniper with fresh lemon peel on the nose and a zing of ginger on the finish.

Another gin is in the works — it was completed before Greater Than but will be launched later — Hapusa. “It doesn’t have the characteristics of a London Dry gin — it is not citrus and juniper forward. It is a Himalayan dry gin because the main character is Himalayan juniper, which gives it an earthy and wild flavour. When you taste it, it will make you feel like you are standing in the middle of a pine forest,” says Virmani. This gin features indigenous botanicals from different parts of the country, such as turmeric from Tamil Nadu, gondhoraj (a kind of lime) from West Bengal, and dried mango from Uttarakhand. “Gin and tonic has become a lifestyle drink, like wearing skinny jeans,” says Singh.

It all started in Goa

In a distillery in the small State of Goa, copper pipes glint as they churn out small batches of craft gin. There’s a whiff of juniper in the air, mingling with the fragrances of spices. This is where Nao Spirits has their distillery, and also from where they launched the gin. The future weeks will see launches in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. “Goa is the easiest space to function. Drinking is accepted there and laws aren’t prohibitive. We found a good manufacturing partner — a bottler whose premises we use for our facility,” says Singh. For Virmani, it was an excuse to travel to Goa, and say it is for work.

It took the duo two years from the time they had the idea to bottling the final product. On the way they ran into licensing, policy and manufacturing issues; namely, everyone told them they were nuts to attempt something like this. They’re hoping to prove those people wrong. “We worked on the recipes for almost a year and took professional help to scale it up,” says Singh. The professional in question is Dr Anne Brock, a master for Jameson gin and now, a master for Bombay Sapphire; she is the only woman on the Gin Guild. At the moment, they’re not sending out too much buzz, preferring to let word of mouth do it for them. “Our production is small so we aren’t pushing things too much. We want this to be introduced in bars but also be available for those who want a good bottle of gin at home,” says Virmani. Singh, on his part, is training bartenders to use their gin and create classic cocktails like the Gin ‘n Tonic and Negroni.

In a bid to stand out in the market, they’ve taken care with the design of the bottle creating a simple and sleek bottle. Greater Than comes in a black-and-white clear bottle — ‘we have nothing to hide’ — with a hint of copper referring to the fact it comes from a copper pot still. The price range is approximately 750 (Goa) to 1,350 (Mumbai). The Hapusa variant comes in a decanter style art deco bottle. They wanted to do away with the usual exotic snakes and elephant route and give it a modern Indian one. The bottle is a dark purple — the exact colour of a ripe juniper berry with a wooden stopper. This will be priced at 2,000 (Goa) to 3,500 (Mumbai). The idea is to launch it here and then take it global. Soon, they will be off to the UK to introduce Greater Than at the Gin Guild — where there’s never been an Indian gin maker. “We want to tell them the Indian story of gin,” Virmani adds.

Joanna Lobo is a Mumbai-based freelance travel writer

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Published on October 25, 2017
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