The lockdown saw the birth of two craft spirit brands out of Goa, and they are not gins.
The lockdown might have brought life to a standstill in 2020, but not for all. Many took it as an opportunity to put into action long-pending plans.
Varna Bhat recalls an impromptu conversation with friends. “Discussions led to Mexico and how the country has a specialty spirit mezcal, better known as tequila. Japan, for instance, is known for sake but we don’t have a spirit that India is known for. Nothing tastes like India,” says Bhat who had started work on a signature drink that imbibes the essence of India in December 2018. She named it Rahasya, and currently, it is available in Goa and will be available in Maharashtra April onwards.
“Every Indian will relate to it. It is a vodka infused with the flavours of a line of Indian ingredients which we are not revealing. But people from all parts of the country, whether it be the north, south, east or west, will relate to it on nostalgia. We have zeroed in on the quintessential Indian flavour,” says Bhat who set up a plant in Goa.
Bhat’s plan to infuse a spirit would not have worked well with a beer or dark spirit. She did experiment with gin but vodka won the vote. “India follows the West in all trends and vodka, as a spirit, is bouncing back in popularity and we wanted a spirit that was a front-runner. Gin, to an extent, becomes a niche product,” says Bhat.
Explaining how the process of making a craft spirit differs from a commercial product, Bhat says with craft spirits, you have to be careful about the infusion process. “We have smartly mapped any mistake, else the drink will go haywire.”
It is process driven, and for this, her lab for extraction is separate from the distilling unit which has been outsourced in Goa. “Our product is in the nascent stage. We are making very small batches,” says Bhat.
India has become a hot-bed for craft spirits, and so we asked an expert to define the term. A great question, but there are no straight answers to this one, Delhi-based sommelier Magandeep Singh says. “The craft word for compartmentalising a spirit is what the term foodie is for food. Bastardised and overused. The term has no definition. Originally, craft spirits were meant and designed to serve that niche demographic, something that is peculiar in taste or concept that only a few will try. No one can define it: it solely depends on how makers conceive it and consumers receive that product.”
In January this year, Kasturi Banerjee of Stilldistilling introduced a pair of rums – a white rum Maka Zai, the Bartender edition and a gold rum, the Tribute edition. The bottle design has turned heads with its white and gold artwork. “White rum is the oldest cocktail base, and when bartenders mix cocktails, our aim is to stand out even with a simple concoction of rum, ginger ale, pomegranate or grape fruit juice with a dash of lime and ice,” says Banerjee, adding, “We have food associated with festivals and celebrations such as laddoos for Diwali, plum cakes for Christmas, jalebi for Holi but if you come to think of it, we don’t have drinks attached to festivals. People may pop champagne but not many savour it.”
The rums first launched in Goa in January and will be available only in Goa for now. With the plant in Goa, she believes it has an easier process and entrepreneur-friendly structure of producing spirit and has the ideal market ready for the product.
“We produced 600 cases and we are sold out already. When you work on a craft product, the expertise increases and you understand your mistakes as the focus is on a smaller batch and a quality-driven product. We are able to produce 200 cases a month,” says Banerjee, who took up a bartending course in 2019 and had been running whiskey tastings in India.