When he moved to Goa post the lockdown last year, our contributor chanced upon a growing number of gin makers keen to improvise with Indian botanicals. He takes us on a tasting tour of the new and established spirits of the sunshine state. By Ranjan Pal
Goa has always been famous for its parties, but lately, it is coming into its own as a spirits producer. In fact, several new gin distilleries seem to have sprouted overnight. It’s not surprising that these businesses have chosen to set up a base in Goa. The destination is a great test market because of the constant inflow of tourists from all over India.
While Paul John Single Malt Whisky put Goa on the map in 2012 and DesmondJi’s Agave India has been a pioneer in agave and mahua spirits, the first movers in gin are just three years old. Traditionally, gin accounts for less than one per cent of the annual 300-million-case spirits market in India. Now, a revolution is brewing. Not one of the founders profiled here is above 35, so it seems to be a domain of the youth. This, too, is not surprising. Of all the spirits, gin lends itself most to experimentation because there is no fixed recipe or method. In fact, it is not uncommon for a new entrant to test up to 150 botanicals before settling on eight or 10!
Back to Basics
No story of alcohol production in Goa would be complete without talking about Agave India, a pioneer producer of distilled spirits, liqueurs, and cocktail blends under the brand DesmondJi. I first met the founder, Desmond Nazareth, within a week of moving to Goa last year. With his trademark curly locks and faded kurti, shorts, and sandals, Desmond is the quintessential Goan free spirit—just like his beloved agave and mahua spirits. He started out as an IIT graduate and then studied filmmaking in the US. When he found his way back to India in 2000, he did not find any affordable local tequila options to indulge his margarita passion. So, he decided to make agave in the Deccan heartland.
Today, Desmond is the proud owner of a range of 10 products, including agave spirit and liqueur, cane spirits, orange liqueurs, alcoholic margarita blends, and mahua spirit and liqueur. The spirits are produced at a small agro-facility and micro-distillery in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, and bottled and packaged in Goa. One evening over dinner, I watch as Desmond pours brightly coloured potions from tiny demo bottles for a tasting. The potent liquor (40 per cent alcohol) stings the back of my throat, but it is undeniably unique and aromatic; some potions are infused with honey and spice, and some finished with oak.
Perhaps Desmond’s single greatest achievement (and also the source of his greatest frustration) is his effort to bring mahua spirit to the mainstream. Made by fermenting and distilling the flower of the mahua tree, mahua rasa is the staple drink of some tribes across 14 states in Central India. He is proud of the fact that his venture has created livelihood opportunities by partnering with tribals in economically depressed forested areas to source the mahua flower. In Desmond’s words, “At Agave India we are always working hard to ensure that stakeholders at the field and forest levels benefit from the emerging story of Indian heritage liquor.” The frustration stems from his efforts to distribute the spirit widely in India where he constantly comes up against the obduracy of officials who continue to consider it “country liquor”. So, Desmond has set his sights higher: he has planned an international launch in London for his mahua spirit later this year.
Whisky: The India Advantage
Goa’s breakthrough in liquor production came when Paul John Distilleries launched its first single malt in 2012. Since then, they have won over 200 international awards. These accolades adorn the walls of the spacious visitor centre, the first of its kind in India to host a distillery tour and whisky tasting. The centre was designed by renowned architect Dean D’Cruz to resemble a sprawling Indo-Portuguese villa painted in mustard yellow and with plenty of period furniture and large arched windows to let in the light.
We are welcomed at the reception by Michael D’Souza, the master distiller at Paul John. A trim, slight man with pepper-grey hair, D’Souza is the High Priest of whisky manufacturing in Goa, with 29 years of experience at Paul John Distilleries. He explains the X-factor of the Indian whisky making experience: one year spent in the barrel here is equivalent to four in Scotland because the tropical climate makes the liquid interact much more quickly with the wood. In other words, the flagship four-year-old Paul John Brilliance expression is equivalent in quality, smoothness, and taste to the standard 12-year-old Scottish single malt. The downside is that the angel’s share (the amount of whisky lost to evaporation) is much higher at eight to 10 per cent, compared to the two to three per cent in Scotland.
D’Souza proudly points out the two sets of copper pot stills that were designed and manufactured in India and equipped with long necks to create a fruitier spirit. Seated in the well-appointed tasting room, I’m taken on a tasting experience of the full range of 10 whiskies. I particularly savour the Classic and Peated expressions (55.2 per cent APV) from the Selected Casks, so I recommend the more expensive distillery/tasting tour (priced at Rs 1,000) that includes these refined variants. D’Souza has even launched a unique Zodiac series, of which only two award-winning expressions have been completed: Kanya (the Indian counterpart of Virgo) and Mithuna (Gemini).
The Eureka Moment of Gin
When I meet Anand Virmani, the soft-spoken CEO and co-founder of Nao Spirits & Beverages, he is standing next to a Hungary-made 1,000-litre copper pot still fondly christened ‘Agatha’ at Blue Ocean distilleries. Virmani and his team hold the distinction of launching India’s first homegrown craft gin, Greater Than London Dry Gin, in September 2017. His eureka moment came after meeting gin makers in London. “All these guys were sourcing a large majority of their botanicals from India—spices that are available in every home kitchen [here]—and yet we had no decent gin to call our own!” he says.
From that moment Virmani embarked on a quest to produce a London Dry Gin in India that could compete with the best in the UK (hence the cheeky ‘Greater Than’ branding). He was mentored by Anne Brock, the legendary master distiller for Bombay Sapphire. Their moment of triumph came when Greater Than became the first Indian gin to be recognised by The Gin Guild in 2017 and won a Silver Medal on debut at the San Francisco World Spirit Awards 2018. The main botanicals in the gin are juniper (from Macedonia), angelica root (Germany), orris root (Italy), orange peel (Spain), and coriander seeds, fennel, chamomile, ginger, and lemongrass from India. Its taste is dominated by juniper, with fresh lemon peel on the nose and a zing of ginger on the finish. In just over three years, Greater Than has seen explosive growth and sold 6,48,000 bottles worldwide.
Not content to bask in these laurels, Virmani launched Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin in June 2018 in India, UK, and Singapore; it’s the first craft gin to use all-Indian botanicals. Hapusa is the Sanskrit word for juniper, the key gin botanical that is sourced from the Himalayas. The other ingredients include coriander seeds, ginger, cardamom, almond, gondhoraj, turmeric, and raw mango, with the last two giving Hapusa its unique flavour profile. The gin won a Double Gold medal at SIP Awards 2020 and has sold 1,64,400 bottles worldwide. In October 2020, Virmani went a step further and launched Juniper Bomb, which tastes like Greater Than on steroids—it has almost three times the amount of juniper.
Myths and Mystical Flavours
Stranger and Sons sounds like a troupe of three bad guys who ride into town in a spaghetti western. But, in fact, it features one woman and two men: Sakshi Saigal, her husband Rahul Mehra, and her second cousin Vidur Gupta. The trio always knew they didn’t want to make the next London Dry Gin. They wanted to make a bold statement about new India. Their choice of botanicals reflects that: it starts with the classic juniper, coriander seeds, citrus peel mix, and angelica root, but then veers off towards uncharted territory with black pepper, nutmeg, cassia bark, liquorice, and mace. This results in a bold, robust, and spicy flavour, which purists might disapprove of, but Stranger and Sons is laughing all the way to the bank—it sold 1,50,000 bottles in FY 2019-2020, its first full year of operation.
The founders like to have fun with their brand identity. Gupta laughs as he recalls their branding conundrum, “We knew that we were not into the conventional elephants and peacocks, but we couldn’t agree on what else!” In the end, their creature turned out to be a mythical two-tailed, three-eyed tiger “who chanced upon juniper berries hidden in the secret pocket of a sari blouse in the jungles of the Western Ghats.” True to this story, their distillery is named Third Eye Distillery. While the end product is an entirely Indian one, the process by which it is made relies on a carefully selected set of global components: the robotic electric still made of stainless steel came out of a DIY box imported from the Netherlands, the label has been designed by an Argentinean they met on Instagram, the stylish bottles are imported from Italy, and the corks come from Portugal.
An Uphill Climb
When I first heard of Pumori, I was ecstatic. After all, I had once stood in the shadow of the beautiful “daughter of Everest” and gazed at her mother flanked by sisters Nuptse and Lhotse incandescent in the alpenglow. It was an inspired choice of name for a gin.
Aptly, Fullarton Distilleries occupies a scenic hilly spot in Candepar. A smiling Aman Thadani, the creator of Pumori, strides down the slope to meet me, his lanky frame reminding me that he was once a professional dancer. Back in his boardroom, he explains the name as being a tribute to the mountains from which the Himalayan juniper comes and then rattles off a list of 11 other ingredients, including rosemary, aniseed, cinnamon, and vanilla.
A family-owned enterprise, Fullarton Distilleries was founded in 2013, and its success as an export-oriented enterprise enabled it to experiment at the premium end of the domestic market. Internally, Thadani championed the effort to produce Pumori and faced many challenges from sceptical old hands. “It was like climbing my own personal Pumori!” he says. Launched in July 2020, into the headwinds of the pandemic, this exciting new gin has sold just over 12,500 bottles in the key markets of Goa and Maharashtra. In terms of flavour profile, Pumori strikes me as more nuanced than the classic London Dry Gin, probably because the botanicals are more balanced instead of being dominated by juniper and coriander. The bottle design is influenced by the canteens that were carried by the great explorers of the 19th century, and the label artwork harks back to the old-school method of making gin with botanicals being added to a handmade still.
Young & Fearless
The newest kid on the gin block (and the youngest at 26) is Aditya Aggarwal. When I meet him, he is hunched over his still peering through its small circular windows like Captain Nemo scanning for land through a periscope on the Nautilus. Fascinated by the idea of an alcohol brand driven by storytelling, he created Samsara (which translates to ‘an endless circle of life and death’), a citrusy floral gin representative of contemporary India. During the lockdown, he spent days and nights mixing various botanicals and distilling gin in a mini still in his Delhi home kitchen. Aggarwal remembers his mother’s vexed reaction to the experiments, “Every day he starts drinking at 5 pm, and if anyone stops him, he says ‘I’m working’!”
Aggarwal’s love for science fiction reflects in his company name, Spaceman Spirits Lab, and in the fantastical backstory of his gin: Lady Samsara journeys across the universe before alighting on a secret botanical garden (in Goa, of course), where a wizard is distilling the elixir of life. Back in the real world, I discover the elixir contains, besides the usual suspects, hemp seeds, vetiver grass, cubeb berries, and rose petals. All in all, it is the most floral of the gins I have tasted. Since its launch in October 2020, Samsara has sold 48,000 bottles in Goa and Maharashtra, so the new kid on the block is off to a strong start.
Goa’s Dabolim Airport is connected to every major city in India.
Cabo Serai is a recently opened eco-conscious wellness retreat set in the heart of the tropical forests of southern Goa, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Doubles from Rs 9,000 for a luxury tent and Rs 11,000 for a luxury cottage.
For a walk back into Indo-Portuguese history, consider a stay at Figueiredo House. Doubles from Rs 5,000, including a guided tour of the museum.
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on #IndiaFightsCorona for all the latest travel guidelines.