Matters of the spirit: The rise of rice

India is finally embracing rice, which grows abundantly here, as a primary grain for brewing spirits. And the results are encouraging.

For the purpose of science, I’m sitting at my bar with three shot glasses in front of me. One has Smoke Lab Vodka, the second Tamras Gin and the third Epitome Reserve 1.0. The first comes from NV Distilleries a leading mid-sized Indian company, the second from Adventurist Spirits, a craft spirits start up, and the third from Diageo, the world’s largest alcoholic beverages company. What connects all of them is the fact that they’re all using rice as their grain base. As opposed to typically what would have been used, wheat for the vodka and gin and barley for the single malt.

Smoke lab vodka is possibly the first premium spirit to use basmati rice for its vodka.
Smoke Lab Vodka is possibly the first premium spirit to use basmati rice for its vodka.

Typically, the world over, surplus crops have been used for distilling after their requirements for food have been met. This applies to a wide range of spirits from corn and rye in the USA to barley in Scotland. India has a long history of rice cultivation. Globally, it stands first in rice area and second in rice production, after China. Surprising, therefore, that it’s taken us so long to use rice as a primary ingredient, and that too quality rice.

The use of rice-based distillate has been in vogue in India for a while, as broken rice or powdered rice has often formed a part of extra-neutral alcohol. As this rice is also typically a residue from the rice-polishing process, it’s also a great use of this residual product. Northeast India also is home to several rice-based spirits and brews, like Arunachal Pradesh’s Apong and Sikkim’s Chang. Rice is also typically used as what’s known as an adjunct in the beer-making process, being one of the grains that make up for the rest of the mash, with barley as the primary component. Recently, however, Goa-based craft brewers, Goa Brewing Company turned that on its head with their launch of People’s Lager, in a retro brown stubby bottle and which uses an heirloom variety of rice as a primary ingredient.

Rice does not have to undergo malting, so that's a step saved. Image: shutterstock.
Rice does not have to undergo malting, so that’s a step saved. Image: Shutterstock.

Rice also has a few key advantages that weigh in for it as Charnelle Martins, head of distilling at Third Eye Distilling (Stranger and Sons) tells me, “With high starch levels, rice is a relatively easier grain to use and it doesn’t have complex proteins like millets. Overseas distillers like to use wheat for the creamy smooth profile it gives the spirit and the closest comparison to that in India is rice that also has a creamy smooth profile. Also, unlike barley that needs to go through a malting process, rice doesn’t require an intermediate processing step.”

As Khalil Bachooali, co-founder of Adventurist Spirits (Tamras Gin) corroborates, wheat was their first choice for the base distillate, but they soon realised that the best quality Indian wheat was reserved for exports and hence they used high-quality basmati rice sourced from a rice mill in Punjab after thoroughly researching grain sources.

Not being able to source premium wheat convinced adventurist spirits to opt for rice as the base grain for their tamras gin.
Not being able to source premium wheat convinced Adventurist Spirits to opt for rice as the base grain for their Tamras Gin.

Smoke Lab Vodka from NV Distilleries was, of course, possibly the first premium spirit, at least that I’m aware of, to use basmati rice for their vodka that comes in two variants, the classic and the aniseed.

As an agricultural country, most crops in India have been grown primarily for food purposes. Therefore, for most food crops that are used for distilling, what is typically used are the food-grade varieties, whereas if the crop was being grown specifically for use in distilling, then there would definitely be a distinct preference for one over the other, especially taking into consideration the protein to starch ratio for different varieties. Different varieties of rice would also significantly influence the flavour profile of the distillate, says Charnelle. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s indeed possible to make out from tasting the base distillate what grain may have been used for it, whether wheat, rye or rice, for example. Something that I can definitely agree with, being a fan myself of rye-based gins like Aviation and St. George Spirits, Dry Rye gin, etc, with their spicy and peppery taste making them great sipping gins too.

The one exception to this at least is possibly barley, where it’s a primary ingredient for beer and also now for top-flight Indian single malts like Amrut, Paul John and Rampur. For consistency in quality of the distillate, it’s definitely important to have an assured source of quality grain, and that happens when the processors/distillers can create firm backward linkages with the farmers and/or mills as opposed to relying on procurement from the local mandis. That complex supply chain has not emerged yet for most other grains in India.

Internationally when it comes to whisky, the cachet has always been for single-malt whiskies, with premium single-grain whiskies (those that use a grain apart from barley) less so, with Girvan and more recently some variants of Compass Box being outliers. In India too, it’s always been single malt that has been at the top of the whisky food chain. And perhaps it could only be a company like Diageo that could try and break that mould. And the whisky they did this with was also the first ever local craft spirit that they launched, under the brand name of Epitome Reserve. Epitome Reserve is made from high-quality rice sourced from Punjab and is the co-creation of Mahesh Patil, Master Blender and Liquid Curator, Diageo India, with each bottle also bearing his signature. It’s small batch and priced steep at a connoisseur/collector-worthy price upwards of INR 10,000 depending on which market you find it in.

Even a giant like diageo is experimenting with craft whiskies, like this rice-based epitome reserve 1. 0.
Even a giant like Diageo is experimenting with craft whiskies, like this rice-based Epitome Reserve 1.0.

As Mahesh tells us, via crucial steps that they took in the ,process they were able to generate a lighter character in the spirit such as creamier and fruitier tastes. “The blended or single-malt whiskies are heavy in sensory profiles because of the grain (malted barley) and the pot distillation process. However, consumers prefer lighter yet complex profiles of liquids, that are easy to drink, vibrant and appealing in sensory profile,” says Mahesh. The spirit itself has been matured for more than three years and then finished in unique casks such as PX (Pedro Ximenez) and sherry wood ones. The spirit spends 45 days being finished in these casks, bringing a final layer of flavour complexity to it.

As I sip my Epitome Reserve neat with just a splash of water, I can appreciate the effort that must have gone into its creation and how a humble grain like rice has been elevated via it.

When it comes to grains, however, India has a rich variety of crops that we grow including crops like millet and ragi. As Charnelle tells me, the excitement palpable in her voice, “these grains have amazing flavour profiles, and although breaking down the starches is more challenging, the effort is well worth it.” She feels that it could also make for an interesting vodka, giving it a nutty, biscuity taste profile and also make for spirits that are amenable to being lightly aged. Apart from this we also have a wealth of hyper-local grains in India that are also waiting to be tapped by some canny and inventive distiller.

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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