Rajasthan has its fair share of spirits now — and we’re not just thinking of the heritage liqueurs.
I lost my heart in Rajasthan. She was dusky to look at and as bitter as the wind on a fjord in Norway to taste. In the words of Jared Brown, “rather than a single note on a keyboard, it strikes a major chord. Actually a few chords”. And, as you can guess, she came all bottled up, with the outer packaging distracting from her inner beauty.
Her name, as the more discerning of you know, is Mawalin. Born in Sodawas, 100 kilometres away from Jodhpur, she formed one of a group of Royal or Heritage liqueurs as they are called that were licensed out by various major and minor members of erstwhile royal families/courtiers of Rajasthan to the state government for their commercial production and sales and marketing. Others included Jagmohan and Chandrahaas.
I distinctly recollect my first visit more than 10 years ago to the distillery at Jhotwara on the outskirts of Jaipur, where these liqueurs had been painstakingly recreated. The distillery was originally owned by the Jaipur royal family, as borne out by the arch across the gate. My mind was awash with the possibilities thrown up not just by the liqueurs themselves, their fascinating back stories, and their vivid taste profiles, but also the distillery itself, that lent itself to the possibility of a unique tourist experience. Unfortunately, this potential lay untapped, and therefore so did the prospect of Rajasthan staking out a claim in India’s liquor landscape.
And if any state has taken pole position in India since then, it’s been Goa, when it comes to both the flowering of native spirits like feni, as well as being the epicentre for some of India’s best-known spirits brands in categories such as gin, single malt, rum and vodka as also with some unique experiences for tourists from brands in these categories. Fortunately, though, the last couple of years has seen a few significant brands from outside Goa also emerge, with Rajasthan in particular back in the frame.
Let’s start, however, with some cultural appropriation, and go back to 2011, when if not Sodawas itself, then it was Jodhpur in the liquor news as Spain’s Beveland distilleries launched a gin called Jodhpur, that was inspired by the city, and its location on the Spice Route. In fact, the brand also subsequently launched a “Mandore” version, inspired by the city’s famous Mandore gardens.
In 2018, seven years on, India’s Radico Khaitan then launched their own tribute to Rajasthan’s royal heritage in the form of Jaisalmer Gin. Not made in Rajasthan though, but in Rampur instead, it still drew a connection to Rajasthan, through the use of two of its signature botanicals, that were sourced from there in the form of coriander and vetiver.
The Royal liqueurs though that were Rajasthan’s original, and most authentic spirited link to its heritage still languished as their production was on hold. The dusty town of Mahansar, however, that lies in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, saw Rajendra Singh Shekhawat recreate its own heritage liquor, eponymously titled as Mahansar, and a very acceptable rose liqueur in itself.
More recently and riding the gin wave, we have seen Terai, a craft gin, launch from the Globus Spirits facility in Behror, Rajasthan. An integrated facility, it also produces the rice-based ENA (extra neutral alcohol) that is at the heart of the gin. The brand name is evocative of the Himalayan foothills of India and the branding itself is modern and vibrant, but still rooted in its Indian origins. The green bottle is a delight with the ridges on the side evocative of the pillars in Indian architecture. On the label the botanicals have been sketched keeping in mind the design of ancient Indian coinery and the beautiful stopper has been created by craftsmen from Channapatna in Karnataka.
On the nose it’s fresh and junipery and on the palate, the juniper is well balanced out by a strong dose of fennel and a subtle hint of basil or tulsi. My personal favourite with it is a Terai martini.
Terai’s distillery at Behror falls exactly midway on the route between Delhi and Jaipur. India’s wine tourism boom in Nashik is often ascribed to visitors to Shirdi, stopping en route at Nashik, and Terai is also similarly poised. The photos of their distillery, that houses their beautiful copper pot still from Germany, look amazing, and the brand is all set to open their own visitor centre very soon.
A month and a half ago saw another chapter unfold from Rajasthan, in the form of the launch of Godawan, a Craft Single Malt from Diageo, available in two distinct expressions, 01 and 02, or as they’re described on the label, Rich and Rounded and Fruity and Spicy, respectively.
Godawan is the Indian name for the Great Indian Bustard. A close contender to be the national bird of India, it was pipped to the post by the more flamboyant peacock. Once widely found, it’s now largely confined to Rajasthan’s Desert National Park and is “critically endangered”, as described by WWF India, with a population of just 200.
Most Indian single malts as does Godawan, use the six-row barley, as opposed to the two-row barley in Scotland with the high protein content of the former giving a unique flavour profile to the whisky. Godawan also goes through a long fermentation cycle of 55-65 hours helping ensure they get the maximum malt character out of the barley. The high temperatures in Rajasthan also lead to a faster maturation and a “depth of flavour” says Diageo.
As a finishing touch for the whisky, Diageo has used two local botanicals called Rasna and Jatamansi. Casks previously steeped in these two botanicals have been used to finish Godawan, giving it a “unique spice note”.
And, in a welcome sign as we go full circle now, came the news in 2020 that the state government had decided to resume the production of the royal liqueurs. Time to fall in love again!
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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