The Gin Boom Trying to Change India, One Distillery at a Time

The room was small, no bigger than a garage, buried in the hills of the lush and liberal Indian state of Goa, and Siddharth Girimon was busy making gin. On a ping-pong table against the wall, a mound of green cardamom shells from West India had been shelled by hand like pistachios. On a shelf was a glass kit for flavor experiments, and across the distillery the day’s water trickled from a copper still into a steel vessel.

Clear and fragrant, it was on its way to becoming another 70 instances of what Mr. Girimon and his boss hoped would tell a new kind of story about India, steeped in history, but also showcasing the creativity of a young generation and more modern. .

“The idea behind this was to use only Indian botanicals,” said Girimon, 25, a distiller who looks like a chemistry student, with glasses, long hair and oceans of enthusiasm for a narrow subject. “We wanted to show what India could do with gin.”

From Japan to Kenya, the world is already awash with craft spirits movements, but the gin boom in Goa offers more than a nod to changing market tastes. Local concoctions are challenging India’s conservative attitude towards alcohol, along with the country’s often stultifying bureaucracy, while raising bigger questions: Can you get national pride out of a bottle? Can innovation in spirits change the way India sees itself and the way the world sees it?

Mr. Girimon’s company, Nao Spirits, is one of dozens that sprang up suddenly. The gin on tap during a recent visit was a premium drink called Hapusa, the Sanskrit word for juniper. Those tiny berries have been the key ingredient in gin since it was first made in Holland in the 16th century, when it bore the name “genever.”

Many gin connoisseurs insist that the best juniper comes from Macedonia; Hapusa argues otherwise, drawing on larger juniper berries harvested in the Himalayas along with other native ingredients, such as turmeric, raw mango, and ginger.

When Nao Spirits first produced a small-batch Goan gin in 2017, partnering with a local bottler to obtain a state permit, no one seemed to have made the connection between India, the birthplace of the spice trade for centuries, and gin. , which is really just a blank canvas of alcohol with herbs and other plants used to brighten up the portrait.

Just a few years later, Goan gin has grown into a hearty and colorful bouquet. Pumori gin, named for Mount Pumori, a few miles west of Mount Everest, also uses Himalayan juniper, along with other local botanicals. Jin Jiji builds on Indian juniper, adding a Goan specialty, cashews, while the Matinee gin includes Goan peppercorns. Samsara and GinGin also use native Indian ingredients, including a touch of hemp.

All this gin growth has come to a country that has never really had a strong alcohol culture: India is often called the home of the gin and tonic, but that was a British thing.

The Indian Constitution of 1948 actually mandated the states to work towards the prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs. A handful of them, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, currently ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. Other areas have tried ban and then given up, but in most of India even drinking a cocktail at home remains so taboo that small bottles, shots of a few ounces, make up the majority of liquor sales.

Goa, however, is more forgiving. A small coastal state in the south, it was Portuguese territory until 1961. The state is more Christian, with churches painted bridal white and canary yellow illuminating winding country lanes. And for reasons that go beyond religion (Goa has been a world trade center since the 16th century), its people pride themselves on being more open-minded about all sorts of things.

That includes drinking.

Drive around Goa for an hour and the contrast is obvious: the big bottles can be seen from the streets in the windows of liquor stores. Bars cluster together, and alcohol taxes are only a tenth of what must be paid in other states that work harder to discourage alcohol consumption.

“Goans is just different,” said Hansel Vaz, whose family owns the main liquor distribution company in Goa, and who is himself a distiller of feni, a local liquor made from cashew or coconut blossoms. “With every fiber of our being.”

His own liquor store, near Margao, boasts a vast floor-to-ceiling rack of some 60 brands of gin, almost half of them local. Among those, many can be purchased only in Goa because other states have been hesitant to grant sales licenses to distillers.

In North Goa, Khalil Bachooali and his wife, Devika Bhagat, hope they can change that by lobbying officials to loosen regulatory shackles.

On a tour of the Adventurist Spirits distillery, where they make Tamras gin and recently opened a fancy visitor center for tastings, Mr Bachooali argued that Indian gin needs to be clearly defined and separated from “Foreign liquor made in India” category of law. The best way to achieve this, he added, might be for craft gins to succeed abroad.

Many of them, including Tamras, Hapusa and Stranger and Sons, another popular gin, have already started winning international awards. Global markets seem to be welcoming them. hapusa is now sold in the United States. Tamras will be available next month in the Maldives and Turkey; before, says Bachooali, it will be possible to buy it in Delhi.

“India loves to export,” he said, standing behind the distillery’s bar. “Once we export and establish ourselves abroad, we take that case study and bring it here.”

Through two hours of conversation, about the history of gin and the Indian bureaucracy, about how he and his wife, a successful screenwriter, got into the distilling business after being asked by a London bartender what India’s ‘gin scene’ was like, Mr Bachooali made it clear that he had seen a pitch meeting or two. He still works primarily as a producer of movies and commercials, and he knew when to pause or hit the bar with both hands for emphasis.

That kind of salesmanship has also entered the nightlife culture in Goa. Near the shoreline, at a trendy new restaurant and beach club called Thalassa, with a tan-and-white color palette suggestive of Miami or Mykonos, the wall behind the bar glowed with bright lights over the local gin. The drinks menu featured “local spirit-based mixology”.

Jatin Thakur, 21, had arrived there for his first job as a bartender a few months earlier, from a small village near the Himalayas. “I come from the snow,” he said.

Like Mr. Girimon doing Hapusa, he had moved to Goa for something different: a more tolerant and entrepreneurial mindset. Perhaps it is only the spirits that speak, but India’s businessmen also hope that his job will help the world see India as more than just a land of tigers, elephants and ancient religions.

“This is modern India,” said Anand Virmani, 35, founder of Nao Spirits, which recently launched a gin smoked with wood from Indian cricket bats. “What we want to do is create unique things, unique stories that represent us as a modern country. And I emphasize the modern.”