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Hand-crafted drink.
SOUL TONIC

New-age distillers are nudging Indians to uncork their very own “gin from the bottle”

Sangeeta Tanwar
By Sangeeta Tanwar

I write about all things retail

Indians are rediscovering their gin.

A growing tribe of the country’s well-heeled and well-off hipsters are increasingly sipping on this beverage of native origin, goaded by new age entrepreneurs brewing the craft version.

Low volumes—1% of all distilled drinks sold in India—aside, sales are expected to rise from a million cases in 2017-2018 to over 3 million a year by 2022-23, said a report by the Dublin-based Research and Markets (A case is 12 bottles of 750 ml each).

“Gin mixes well with any other drink. Hence there are more gin-based cocktails than any other liquor, barring, perhaps, vodka. Gin has subtle botanical infusions that gives it its unique taste. With consumers willing to try new cuisines and drinks more than ever, it stands to do well in India,” says N Chandramouli, CEO of Trust Research Advisory, a Mumbai-based market research firm.

Making the most of this resurgence is a new tribe of craft gin entrepreneurs. Among them are Sakshi Saigal, Vidur Gupta, and Rahul Mehra, co-founders of the Goa-based Third Eye distillery. Their Stranger & Sons brand is the latest to enter the segment in September 2018. Earlier in 2015, Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh had set up their Delhi-based Nao Spirits & Beverages. Two years later, their company launched Greater Than, India’s first homegrown craft gin, and followed it up with a second brand, Hapusa, in 2018.

While Greater Than is available in bars in Bengaluru, Goa, and Delhi, Hapusa is sold only in Goa. Stranger & Sons, on the other hand, retails in Goa, Mumbai, Pune, and London.

“Consumer curiosity is building around gin. This herbal and spice-based concoction originated in our country, giving Indian brands like ours more relevance and an edge over foreign players in telling a compelling story,” Virmani said.

Together, these brands are adding verve to a reviving taste.

Second coming

In the late 1800s, malaria was ravaging British troops in India. A cure was found in the bark of chinchona, or fever tree, which contained quinine. The medication, though, was too bitter. To make it easier, one inventive soldier tried mixing it with lime water and other herbs, concocting the earliest version of gin and tonic.

The British loved the drink—and spread the good word the world over—so much that prime minister Winston Churchill reportedly even quipped: “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the empire.”

Over time, though, the beverage lost its popularity in India as no effort was made by companies to cultivate young gin-ers. Eventually it came to be seen as an old person’s drink, losing out to whisky, rum, and, more recently, beer.

By 2021-22, whisky’s share in India’s alcohol market will stand at 60% by volume, according to industry estimates. It will also account for 73% of the value this year.

Gin pales in comparison. Only a little over a million cases in 2019 are consumed annually, though India is the fifth largest consumer of gin worldwide.

The new craft gin makers, though, are upbeat. “With bar culture growing and people willing to experiment, there is a good opportunity to get drinkers to consume gin,” says Gupta of Stranger & Sons. “With its tropical climate, India is best suited for cooler spirits like gin and tonic. Gin is a far more flavourful and lighter drink, compared with whisky and others.”

The optimism apart, riding this wave won’t come easy for the small craft gin makers.

Challenges & opportunities

“The challenge is that they are pitted against the giants. If bigger firms step in (to the gin market), it might be a big threat for homegrown small distilleries,” said Chandramouli.

Indeed some biggies have already joined the party.

UP-based Radico Khaitan of 8PM whisky and Old Admiral brandy fame launched Jaisalmer craft gin in UK last November (the product is not available in India, though). McDowell’s Blue Riband is already one of India’s most popular gin brands. Then there are the foreign ones like Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Botanist, Monkey 47, and Hendrick’s.

Virmani, though, says his brand’s advantage does not come from its ability to scale up. “Our uniqueness comes from consumer perspective. It’s a question of buying a specially crafted bottle of gin against buying something mass-produced in a factory. That’s where (product differentiation) we are potentially shielded from larger players.”

Gupta of Stranger & Sons has a different take: “The bigger concerns for us are how to create new flavours, align supply chain with growth in demand. There is a need for the government to effect changes in taxation policy regarding liquor. Uniform taxation on alcoholic beverages across states has the potential to help drive down per litre prices of gin making it more affordable for a larger section of drinkers.”

Besides, the small craft gin makers have the advantage of selling at low prices. Stranger & Sons, for instance, is priced at Rs1,450 ($20.57) for a 700 ml bottle, compared with Hendrick’s that costs Rs1,400 for 350 ml.

Their confidence also reflects in the international ambitions of both Stranger & Sons and Nao Spirits. The first plans to launch in Singapore, Thailand, Germany, and New York over the next two quarters. After all, Saigal and Gupta knew from their stints in Europe that gin bars were popular among Indians abroad.

However, the move is possibly also aimed at hedging the risks at home.

“Gin is not just another alcohol, and requires craftsmanship, and Indian brewers have shown that they can do magic when it comes to craft, as has Bira 91 with its beers. These new-age liquor entrepreneurs will definitely find a dedicated following if they get their story-telling right,” says Chandramouli.

They are all counting on the Indian tippler’s rediscovery of an old tonic for the soul.

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