Gin, it was said in the high noon of the Raj, was as salient as the Gatling gun in ensuring the sun never set on the British Empire. Had it not been for gin and tonic, which made quinine palatable for the men who ran the Raj, malaria would have ruled India and not the Union Jack. Even Winston Churchill, whose favourite potion was the Pol Roger champagne, which he drank in copious quantities to wash down the oysters that kept him working all night during World War II, had once famously said, “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Maybe because of its colonial connections, or maybe because whisky and brandy ruled the spirits market post-Independence (aided and abetted, no doubt, by the deification of Black Dog and Vat 69 by Hindi Cinema of the rambunctious 70s), or because Old Monk grabbed the imagination of the intellectually upwardly mobile, gin fell out of favour and with the Blue Moon gin from the Ambala-based NV Distilleries not offering much hope to serious drinkers, the drink category slipped into a coma.
The world, meanwhile, embraced vodka and white rum, which were positioned as being hipper than fuddy-duddy gin, and then James Bond, in cahoots with Smirnoff and briefly with Finlandia, committed the blasphemy of replacing gin (that too the good old Tom Collins) with vodka in the most classic of all cocktails — the martini. The arrival of the new millennium saw the revival of the tradition of speakeasies, harking back to the illegal watering holes that thrived in America of the Prohibition Era, that not only raised the excitement quotient of bars, but also thrust gin back into the spotlight.
James Bond, too, went back to the martini invented by 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, in his first novel Casino Royale, in 1953. In the film adaptation of the book, Daniel Craig, making his debut as Bond, asks for it in that unforgettable scene at the casino. “A dry martin,” he says, “Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” Fleming had named the drink Vesper after a Russian double agent.
As Bond re-discovered gin, the British consumer went back to it, driving up sales, and the television series Mad Men did a world of good to the original gin cocktail — Tom Collins, thanks to Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hofstadt, the drop dead gorgeous Grace Kelly-like ex-wife of the lead character Don Draper. Overnight, the world was drinking gin as if it was going out of fashion. And this unprecedented thirst created a market for craft gin, each having its own distinctive mix of botanicals to accompany the basic building blocks — extra neutral alcohol and juniper berries — and names reflecting their quirky character — names like Gunpowder, Jodhpur (from Spain!), Monkey 47, Botanist and Bulldog, which, incidentally, was created in 2007 by a US-based Indian entrepreneur named Anshuman Vohra, who has now launched a brand of energy drinks after selling his gin to Gruppo Campari in 2017.
With so much happening in the gin space around the world, Indian millennials could not remain unaffected. “They follow the world more keenly than their parents,’’ says mixology guru Yangdup Lama, whose Sidecar bar in a hip South Delhi neighbourhood is particularly popular in this set. The signs of the trend gaining momentum are there everywhere. We have, for instance, the first gin-only bar appropriately named Juniper at the Andaz, New Delhi Aerocity, which has developed its own gin named Delhi Sapphire. A newbie bar named WV has opened in the shadow of the Qutab Minar with a ‘gin garden’ — a wall of botanicals, so the day is not far away when you can go to a bar and get bespoke gins flavoured with botanicals literally off the wall. That gives the ‘gin wave’ an entirely new meaning.
Another indicator is the growing visibility of homegrown brands such as Greater Than, created by Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh, co-owners of the Perch wine bar in Khan Market. Their second product named Hapusa, which is the first gin in the world to be made with Himalayan juniper with turmeric from Tamil Nadu, gondhoraj lime from West Bengal, green mango from Uttarakhand, almond and cardamom added to the pot. Another of these local endeavours is Stranger & Sons, which was given birth at the Third Eye Distillery by Rahul Mehra, Sakshi Sahgal and Vidur Gupta.
All three are being distilled in Goa, where the laws, according to Lama, are more amenable to the production of experimental products. On a more commercial scale, Radico Khaitan has started producing a gin named Jaisalmer at its Rampur distillery for the international market. Another gin is being developed by an English bartender with an Indian investor — to be named Mulberry No. 7 because the gin will be infused with mulberries picked from 600-year-old trees in England, it will be produced in the neighbourhood of Delhi.
These additions will drive the demand for gin in India, which international trade magazine Spirits Business predicts will rise, mainly in the super premium category. “Within the next one year, we will see at least 10 home-distilled brands entering the market,” predicts Lama, adding, “The fascination with gin will stay for longer than it did in the case of vodka because each gin, like a wine, comes with a distinctive personality because of the vast variety of botanicals — herbs, fruit peels and even spices — that you can keep adding to it.” From keeper of the empire to the tickler of millennial taste buds, gin has kept its date with history without really growing old.
(Sourish Bhattacharyya is a blogger and founder director of the Tasting India Symposium)
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