Spirits of India

Exciting New Spirits Are Brewing in India’s Pint-Sized State

From fuelling our shame-overs to producing some of the best new booze in the country, Goa has come full circle to lead the alcohol renaissance in the country.

by Dhvani Solani
17 December 2018, 2:05pm

Illustration: Prianka Jain

Some people think Goa is about sin. For me, though, it’s always been about freedom (same thing? You fascist, you). The kind of freedom that my life in Mumbai could never give willingly. At one point, the bi-annual pilgrimages to the sunshine state would be about pushing the boundaries of what was considered off-limits back home—a sustained state of inebriation being one of them. Now, even as the damn adulting has occurred and priorities have changed, the emphasis on the booze hasn’t waned. Only how I go about doing it has. The monsoon past, for example, I actually spent close to an hour of my Goan holiday in a gigantic liquor store, reading the labels of all the cool, new alcohol I saw there, with a store manager taking me through it all—some of which was even made in a 50-km radius. I ended up with two bottles of gin, a white rum akin to Malibu, and one agave-based spirit (can't say it but will say it—it's tequila's cheaper but as hardworking cousin), all made or at least bottled in the teensy state.

If Goa has always been about the copious consumption of alcohol, the recent past has also seen a number of craft distillers and brewers setting up shop here—adding to the presence of the OG feni makers and Goa King’s Beer (as also the less visible but award-winning single malt, Paul John, that has always held that a major deciding factor was the sweeter and cleaner water of Goa). It’s an exciting time for the homegrown liquor industry in the country, especially the small-batch, artisanal sorts. But why did Goa end up being the nucleus of this new wave?

Its excise department and laws are chill.

“The excise department in Goa runs differently than anywhere else,” says Susan Dias, founder of Native Brews, who is looking to set up a factory in the state next year to make gin as also a liquor derived from the indigenous Mahua flower. “The tax charged on liquor becoming one of the primary sources of revenue is true for Maharashtra as also Goa, but the former is way more political, and the sugar lobby is large out there. To make any kind of difference then is more feasible in Goa. The tax structure is far more lenient too, which means you needn’t sell your product at extremely high prices.”

The first Indian craft gin (and a damn good one at that) came from Goa too, thanks to the efforts of two men—Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh—who ran a popular bar in Delhi, before setting up the Nao Spirits distillery in Margao. Their first launch that took place in late 2017, Greater Than, was followed up with a pricier (but so, so good it’s now a staple in my modest home bar) Hapusa gin, in August this year.

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Anand Virmani at the Nao Spirits distillery.
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Gin has a strong heritage connect to India—we're finally reclaiming it, and making it our own.

“I remember walking in to the excise department and being granted a meeting with the excise commissioner very soon, something that totally surprised me,” says Virmani. “This is not as smooth elsewhere. These guys understand what you want to do, and why you might want to do it.”

It spells happy hours for start-ups.

The migration of many from around the country to the sleepy place in search of an ideal work-life balance, a supportive state government that cuts out the red tape, and a progressive Startup Policy mean the ecosystem here is ripe for innovation. “There is a lot of encouragement for start-ups as Goa is a small market, and this helps them test the market before launching in bigger segments,” says Mukesh Jain, director at Goa-based Stockholm Distillers and Vintners. “Obtaining a manufacturing license is very straightforward and a smooth process as compared to other parts of India, and hence, we have many outside investors coming in.”

It gives you discovery bragging rights.

“Goa is a great discovery market more than anything else, thanks to people travelling to it from all around the world,” says Rahul Mehra, cofounder at Ponda-based Third Eye Distillery, which produces the freshly minted and decidedly Indian gin, Stranger & Sons, that sources many of its botanicals from nearby spice gardens.

Next year, the distillery will roll out other expressions of gin (Old Tom and Sloe), rums, vermouth and bitters, and also set up an academy offering certified courses in distillation. “The way the wine shops here are designed allow for a person to go in and have an interaction with those running the stores. In Bombay, you just call up the wine store and ask for your regular gin to be sent home.

Its location means that if this were a Catan version, a settlement here would be hugely profitable.

First, there is a port. Second, you have two other profitable markets—Maharashtra and Karnataka—an easy truck drive (oxymoron?) away. Win-win. Who needs the Longest Road strategy when you have this?

It’s charming AF.

It’s tough not to romanticise Goa, even if the pollution, overdevelopment and fears of personal safety, have killed the vibe to a major extent. But look at the state of the rest of the country and you can imagine why it’s still a lure for jaded city folks or those living in land-locked areas. “We’ve always been enamoured by the charm of Goa,” says Gaurav Sikka, founder and managing director of Bengaluru-darling Arbor Brewing Company (ABC), that has set up a brewery in the sleepy village of Dhargal in North Goa, and has launched three variants of canned beer a couple of months ago. Later this week, they are opening up a beer garden in Saligao, which will receive daily fresh kegs from their brewery.

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The Arbor Brewing Company has set up ops in Goa now.
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The ABC brewery which fuels the rising popularity of craft beer in a can.
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Goa is where it is at.

“Goa sat out the first wave of pub breweries but now, it’s very interesting. Even historically it’s always been a great place for liquor brands. I’ve been to Goa since I was a kid and personally, have always had a calling for it.” We feel you, Gaurav. Take us along?

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