ANAND VIRMANI KNEW that Indians weren’t particularly fond of gin but even then, the reaction he sometimes experienced was surprising. It was the year 2010 and Virmani was then a brand manager with William Grant & Sons, owners of brands such as Glenfiddich whisky and Hendricks Gin. “Even at promotional events for gin, people didn’t want to be seen with it. It was just not a cool drink,” he recalls. For far too long gin had been dismissed as a fuddy-duddy spirit. At around the same time, Sakshi Saigal, studying for her MBA in Barcelona, then in the middle of what is commonly referred to as a ‘ginaissance’, found herself asking: Why aren’t Indians drinking more of it?
Europe and the UK had been experiencing the ginaissance, or the renaissance of gin, since 2013-2014, the spirit itself riding on the back of the return of the cocktail. Independent distilleries, gin bars, niche craft labels—it was a very different world from the one of English painter and engraver William Hogarth whose famous Gin Lane print of 1751 depicts the spirit as a one-way street to ruin, with the poor drinking themselves to death. It was only a matter of time before the craze would hit India and both Virmani and Saigal would have the first-mover advantage.
Virmani, a copartner at Perch, a wine and coffee bar in Delhi and Mumbai, noticed a definite uptick in people asking for gin-based cocktails and that too with specifications, while Saigal brainstormed with her husband Rahul Mehra and cousin Vidur Gupta. All of them came to the same conclusion, though separately. India was ready for its own craft gins. Virmani and his partner Vaibhav Singh launched ‘Greater Than’ in 2017, while Saigal along with Mehra and Gupta launched Stranger & Sons in 2018. The latter was recently awarded the highest honour at the International Wine and Spirits Competition—the Gold Outstanding. The ginaissance has officially arrived in India.
It was a homecoming of sorts which had been in the works for almost two centuries now. Gin, a neutral spirit flavoured with juniper berries, has been around since the early 16th century. However, it is an association forged in the late 1800s that has defined the spirit over time. British soldiers in India would mix quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, with their gin, in an attempt to fight off malaria. Thus was born the earliest rendition of one of the most classic cocktails in the world—gin and tonic (G&T). So strong is the association that even today there are iconic gin brands out there such as Bombay Sapphire, Jodhpur gin, Star of India and Sikkim gin which have absolutely nothing to do with India, but their names are a homage to the home of the G&T. However, over the years, gin fell from favour, eclipsed by other spirits, particularly vodka.
“Historically, too, bartenders have always been inclined towards gin, a classic vintage spirit which lends itself to many variations,” says Vaibhav Singh, a bartender in his previous avatar and Virmani’s co-partner at Nao Spirits & Beverages, the team behind Greater Than. Infused with botanicals, a mouthful of a premium gin is like an explosion of different flavours on your palette—ranging from spicy to floral, but still mild enough to serve as a base for classic cocktails like the Negroni.
“Two things bring India together—cricket and the humble spice box. We are blessed with an agricultural bounty when it comes to herbs, spices, botanicals, and we wanted a gin that would tell the story of India but without falling into clichés,” says Vidur Gupta, one of the cofounders of Third Eye Distillery, the makers of Stranger & Sons. They were aiming for a “three-dimensional” gin and thus was born their spirit with its infusion of black pepper, coriander, nutmeg, mace and Indian citrus elements such as the Nagpur orange.
Historically, a fine gin is one which is infused with at least six to nine botanicals, though over the years brands like Monkey 47 have upped the game by infusing their spirit with 47 of them. Craft distilleries take pride in creating complex brews with varied flavours that carry more than just a whiff of local pride. “We have 11 botanicals and seven of these are sourced from the four corners of India giving the spirit a very unique flavour,” says Amar Sinha, Chief Operating Officer, Radico Khaitan. He is talking about Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin, produced by Radico Khaitan, formerly the Rampur Distillery, one of India’s oldest distilleries. Launched internationally in 2018, Jaisalmer is now making its way to Indian liquor stores. “Gin is making its way back into our drinking habits rather aggressively and the emerging trend is of craft gins where you brew small batches so you have control over the recipe.”
India is one of the world’s largest alcohol markets owing to the sheer size of its population though most of it is geared towards whisky. In fact, Indians are the biggest consumers of whisky in the world. With a young population, rising disposable income and change in societal norms making it acceptable for women to drink in public, the market is only going to grow and diversify. There has also been a distinct shift in the drinking culture with the emphasis on savouring a drink as opposed to just getting high.
“I think India is currently the most exciting market for any brand to push out a spirit,” says Shreya Soni, founder and CEO of Delhi Secret Supper Club, a lifestyle platform that curates events, brand launches, etcetera. Till even a few years ago, Soni says, the brief for premium spirits entering the market was to target the rich, evolved drinker who was inevitably male. “But there has been a change in attitudes. Marketing has become gender agnostic while there is a subtle but distinct shift from higher calories, brown spirit to whites, tying up with the increasing awareness about a healthier, active lifestyle. Gin ticks all these boxes, apart from being versatile enough to transition from an AM to a PM drink.”
For quite some time vodka had cornered this market, positioning itself as the drink for the young and upwardly mobile. Its market share is miniscule compared to whisky, but it is still ahead of gin in the race. Gin currently accounts for only about 1 per cent of the spirits market in India but even that amounts to around 20 lakh cases (a case is 12 bottles of 750 ml). But the bulk of these is made up of mass-produced cold compound products, which are just infused with botanicals. However, according to the Dublin-based Research and Markets, the Indian gin market is expected to grow at a rate of 9 per cent between 2017 and 2023 with a final tally of over 30 lakh cases. Given that there were only three homegrown craft gin brands in India in 2018 and now the market is looking at 10 (some yet to be launched), the predictions are on track.
ONE OF THESE NEW kids on the block is India Craft Spirit Company’s Terai, an ‘India dry gin’. The company is a part of Globus Spirits, a leading player in the alcohol industry. “Our one line brief when we set up Craft Spirit was to create international quality craft spirits in India,” says founder Shekhar Swarup. For two years, Swarup and his team have been researching flavours and traditional methods of distillation in pursuit of the right profile. “Our experience at Globus has taught us the importance of the cleanliness of a base spirit. I tasted over 100 gins in the space of a few weeks, even devising my own scale of flavours,” says
Swarup. With herby notes of basil and coriander coupled with the nuttiness of almonds, Swarup is hoping Terai lives up to the lush, green region it derives its name from. The gin was to be launched in Delhi in July but the pandemic has pushed plans back though the company is still hoping to be in stores by September and in other big cities by the end of the year.
Building a legend is an important pillar of marketing when it comes to spirits. A good story often helps build a fan base and brand salience, like in the case of single malts bobbing out of fabled distilleries where even the water is part of marketing folklore. For the team at Stranger & Sons, their gin was always going to be “about the story of our lives”, the “our” here representing an entire generation that has come of age in a post-liberalised India. “What was our story? What do we pride ourselves on? People pick up a bottle because they identify with the brand philosophy. We are all about the idea of a new contemporary India,” says Rahul Mehra, one of the three cofounders of the brand. Their bottle label, for instance, relies heavily on magic realism and the lush wonders of the Western Ghats to create a narrative.
Terai, on the other hand, has grooves on its bottle which are inspired by the pillars of temple architecture while the stopper is actually made by the craftsmen of Channapatna in Karnataka, famous for its wooden lacquered toys. “On the surface, it is yet another impressively designed bottle bound to appeal to the aesthetics of the young and the old but for those who want to go deep, there is a story right there,” says Swarup. There is a clear attempt to break off the colonial connection while championing the indigenous nature of the spirit.
There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy when it comes to the Indian consumer. What the millennial wants is very different from what a well-heeled middle-age consumer desires, but there can be a meeting point. It is the sweet spot, the mastery of which requires brands to understand the mindset of their consumers and tailor a strategy that appeals to all. “You do see a distinct transition happening with the consumer in terms of patronising Indian brands, be it coffee, chocolate, or even wellness. There is curiosity about homegrown brands but what influences consumption is a variety of factors ranging from quality to pricing and, of course, how Instagrammable it is, at least for a certain section,” says Soni.
Premium international gin brands in India such as Bombay Sapphire, Hendricks, Monkey 47 are priced upwards of Rs 3,000, limiting their clientele. The homegrown brands knew that if they wanted to make space for themselves in the market and the customers’ consciousness, it had to be done through an accessible entry point. Greater Than, for instance, is priced at Rs 980 in Delhi while Stranger & Sons retails in the Rs 1,500 category. “We wanted pricing that was accessible but not at the cost of running a loss to us. And we were very sure that we didn’t want to compromise on our quality, we wanted to put the best possible product out there,” says Virmani.
Pricing also speaks volumes on consumer profile. Jaisalmer gin, for instance, is priced at Rs 3,500 because the brand is looking at the globetrotting, well-heeled Indian consumer. They are also positioning themselves as an international quality Indian brand, which is why they chose to launch in the international market in the first place. “There was a time when we believed that the best wine came only from France and Italy but the new world wines changed that perception. The same happened with Scotch. Today, there are single malts from India, including our brand, Rampur Single Malt, which are held in great esteem internationally. Now, it is not about the provenance but actually the spirit inside the bottle. We are mastering the art of capturing India’s rich ecological diversity in our spirits and Indians take pride in picking up products that come from here,” says Sanjeev Banga, President, International Business, Radico Khaitan.
In the spirit-making business, marketing has to keep step with often nebulous regulatory minefields. The law, feels Virmani, is written to help the larger players, or at least ones with deep enough pockets to navigate the bureaucratic red tape. Each state has its own laws with regard to registration, licensing and even label details, which requires a level of investment, not always possible for a newbie. That explains why a lot of homegrown craft gins are currently available only in a few states. Whatever plans may have been in the works are also stalled due to Covid-19 though the makers don’t see the pandemic impacting sales; rather, it may have a boosting effect.
Interestingly, legacy brands such as Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray have a major social media campaign ongoing with celebrities.
Gin and vodka are low-investment spirits for anyone looking to enter the market as they don’t require time and space for ageing. The craft label also allows the makers to keep their batch size small. Most of them seemed to have learnt a lesson from B9 Beverages, the makers Bira, an extremely popular craft beer in Tier-1 cities. There are reports of the company looking to sell a stake because in spite of growing popularity, it is believed that they expanded too quickly and too fast. The company reported losses of Rs 200 crore in financial year 2019, double the loss of Rs 100 crore in financial year 2018.
As more homegrown craft gin brands gear up to hit the market, it is an exciting time for the consumer. “In order to build a community, you need 15 to 30 good brands so that consumers can have a conversation, so that a category can emerge,” says Virmani. With all of the labels looking at prices between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 and different flavours, it is a wide enough field for everyone to find their niche. “As long as it doesn’t become lazy and everyone has something to add,” says Rahul Mehra.