Indian botanicals are finally being distilled into fantastic aromatic spirits and making their way into a cocktail near you. Image: Prianka Jain.
In a market dominated by blended whiskey and dark rum, a few courageous entrepreneurs have started distilleries for craft spirits in India. Gin fanatics no longer need to look outside the country for aromatic, craft gins with three new labels and artisanal tonic water launching in Goa and Maharashtra. Native liquor is also being transformed into carefully-created, small-batch spirits thus providing employment to tribal communities and raising awareness for the country’s traditional alcohol varieties. Here are four newly launched (or to-be launched) craft spirits upping India’s homegrown alcohol game.
DJ Mahua & DJ Mahua liqueur
Desmond Nazareth, who is well known for his DesmondJi Agave spirits in Goa, added DJ Mahua spirit and liqueur to his company’s portfolio of craft alcohol in June 2018. Mahua is technically a tree found in about 10 states across central India, and every part of it, from the leaves to its flowers and seeds, is used by tribals as food, fertiliser and even a skin moisturiser. Locals have been using the mahua’s fermented and distilled flowers to make an alcoholic drink for centuries. Nazareth experimented with this flower-based distilled spirit (the only one in the world) five years ago and it yielded a top notch product. He spent the next five years securing permissions to make and sell DJ Mahua spirit and liqueur, and is now lobbying to make mahua India’s national spirit, because it is so prevalent across the country. “There’s a lot of mythology and lore around the mahua drink” he says. “We work with adivasi entrepreneurs for the collection, drying and transport of the flowers. They’d often talk about elephants and monkeys getting drunk on the fermenting mahua flowers, but I had to see it with my own eyes to believe it. On my first trip into the forest, I asked the crew to stop at the first flowering mahua tree they spotted so I could go check it out for myself. So there I am standing under the tree running to catch the nectar-filled falling flowers, when I realised that a cow and goat were competing with me to get to them first! That’s when I figured first-hand that mahua was popular with animals well as humans.”
Cazulo Premium Dukhshiri
Hansel Vaz, owner of Cazulo distillery which makes craft feni, launched a native Goan spirit called Cazulo Premium Dukhshiri at the Feni Festival held in April 2018. “This traditional expression of feni is Goa’s best kept secret, waiting to be discovered,” says Vaz. “It is made with a root of a wild creeper called the Indian Sarsaparilla. Once the root is foraged, we process and distil it into dukhshiri. While it is a coconut-based spirit, the production process is remarkably similar to distillation of a gin. The botanicals, i.e. roots of the Indian Sarsaparilla are held in a ‘ potli’ (small bag) just like how a gin basket would function, allowing the vapours of coconut toddy distillation to infuse with the roots. The result is a handcrafted spirit that has beautiful, earthy notes of peanut butter, petrichor and vanilla which are very uncommon yet alluring at the same time.” Vaz has tasted a total 18 native expressions of feni and each is traditionally considered a home remedy–like the allém which cures sore throats or the jirém which fixes an upset tummy. Dukhshiri is known to relieve body aches and pains and is a cult drink in South Goa. It is Vaz’s mission to bring relevance to native spirits among the glamourous alcohol brands in India.
Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh launched India’s first craft gin, Greater Than in late 2017 and are already working on a second craft gin, Hapusa which will launch in August 2018. The two men ran a bar in Delhi which took its cocktails seriously and constantly lamented about the lack of good options when it came to their Indian gin selection. One night they let Dutch courage take hold and decided to take matters into their own hands, and that’s how Greater Than was born. They use a wheat-based neutral spirit and infuse it with a variety of botanicals from all over the world as well as India. Juniper berries come from Macedonia, orange peel from Spain, orris root from Italy, and angelica root from Germany. From India, they get coriander and fennel seeds, lemongrass, ginger and chamomile. Once the oils from these botanicals are cajoled out, they are distilled in a copper pot still. It is the use of this copper pot still and botanicals that classify their product as a London Dry Gin. Greater Than has a light, fresh taste and makes a great base for martinis and other cocktails. “We were trained by Anne Brock who was the master distiller at a small distillery called Bermondsey,” says Anand. “She miraculously agreed to fly down and help us out, but the fact that we were located in Goa must have had something to do with it. Anne spent more than a month with us over two visits. Towards the end of her second trip, she was offered the role of Master Distiller at Bombay Sapphire. But we’re not suggesting we had anything to do with it, nothing at all!”
Stranger & Sons
Sakshi Saigal, Rahul Mehra and Vidur Gupta all came from a business background before starting Third Eye Distillery which produces Stranger & Sons a decidedly Indian craft gin which will launch in August 2018 in Goa and Mumbai. “There are a plethora of reasons why we embarked on this crazy adventure,” says Mehra. “There are a number of gins which claim Indian heritage in their names and branding, but are manufactured nowhere near here. We went pretty deep into why this disconnect happens and realised that the way the laws are structured in India makes it nearly impossible to create a high quality spirit. Constrained by same policies, we took it up as a challenge and chose to build spirits ground up. Bars in India have no more than a few homegrown spirits to make their cocktails with and are forced to look outside of the country for quality products. With Stranger & Sons we want to place Indian craft spirits firmly on the world map and ensure that people see India as the diverse country it is. We can make more than just whiskey. Apart from that, gin is a drink that suits our overall tropical weather, it’s easy, refined and not intimidating at all. Truth be told, we were surprised it wasn’t done before.” Stranger & Sons is infused with nine botanicals in a copper still designed and manufactured in Netherlands; and while juniper is sourced from Macedonia, the remaining herbs and spices are from spice farms around Third Eye distillery. Most importantly, the gin has three kinds of fresh citrus peels infused into it, Indian limes, and sweet limes grown in their own botanical garden, and the primary citrus note is provided by Gondhoraj lemons from Kolkata. Mehra is also the co-founder of another new company producing quality mixers which enhance the flavours of the alcohol rather than dominate the drink, and their artisanal SVAMi tonic water comes in flavours like cucumber and grapefruit.