Wine News Indian Gin's Spiritual Homecoming

Indian Gin's Spiritual Homecoming

India has had a big influence on the popularity of gin over the past 200 years.
© Jaisalmer | India has had a big influence on the popularity of gin over the past 200 years.
India is famous as the birthplace of tonic water, but it is also producing gin, W. Blake Gray discovers.
Posted Sunday, 28-Jul-2019

India is the world's spice capital and the birthplace of the gin and tonic. So an Indian gin is a long-overdue spirit.

For decades, even in India, people who wanted a gin and tonic to take the edge off the tropical heat had to make do with British gins, with botanicals that generally reflect their European heritage. Indian-made spirits tended to be brown, especially whiskey, and the majority of spirits made in the country were not up to international standards.

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I jumped at the chance to try a high-quality Indian gin when I was offered a bottle. There's a lot to recommend Jaisalmer Indian Craft Gin – it's triple-distilled and made in small batches in a copper pot still in a distillery in the foothills of the Himalayas. And it's from the world's spice capital! How exciting is that?

The gin has only 11 botanicals, and seven are sourced from India: coriander, cubeb pepper, vetiver, orange peel, lemongrass, lemon and Darjeeling green tea. It also has European juniper berries – necessary for it to be classified as gin in many places – along with caraway seeds, angelica root and licorice.

It's good gin. The aroma is nice: the citrus and green tea notes are prominent. It's smooth on the palate and you notice the pepper up front, but it's not piquant. There's good complexity and you can pick out the vetiver and tea on the finish.

My regret is that it isn't more peppery – that it doesn't taste more like Indian food in that sense. I wanted to ask why.

It took me months to track down Sanjeev Banga, president of international business for Radico Khaitan, the large Indian distiller that makes Jaisalmer gin. Finally our schedules connected enough for him to call me on What's App from Moscow, where he had gone for a short vacation. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

"Radico as a distillery started in 1943," Banga said. "We were essentially into producing bulk alcohol. We have two distilleries. Between these two locations we produce 13 million liters of alcohol every month. We produce not just for our own production but for Bacardi, Diageo and other multinational companies. From the branded side we only started in 1998. Prior to that were were doing contract distillation, including rum for the Indian armed forces. We are the largest Indian beverage company."

I asked, why did you start making a gin?

"Our first branded product was a blended whiskey called 8PM," Banga said. "We started doing a lot more business in Europe with this and we discovered gin is booming all over Europe. So we thought, why not do a gin? Gin and tonic as a cocktail originated in India. To fight malaria, the British army used quinine. So they decided to make it into a tonic water. You have Indian tonic. But no Indian gin. You have a Bombay Sapphire, with Indian names. But no Indian gin. We decided we needed to get into the craft space and launch an Indian gin. We wanted it to be distinctly Indian also."

I asked, why isn't it spicier?

"What we've tried to do is keep the soul of gin, which is refreshingness, and keep the easy mixability, but to make it a little more Indian. Have a little Indian mystique," Banga said. "It's the original gin, the way gin should be. We deliberately didn't put too much spiciness in it. We didn't want to overpower anything about it. We wanted it to be an easy-drinking gin."

This gin sells for $50 or more, which is expensive for a gin. Why so high-priced?

"It's a triple-distilled," Banga said. "It's a small batch where the botanicals are soaked, a small batch of 500 liters. The botanicals are soaked and then filtered again. Each batch produces only 700 bottles."

The world is awash in craft gin these days, but an Indian gin does have a certain appeal – whether you need a malaria tonic or not.

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