A few days before World Gin Day, we caught up with Jeet Rana, Head Brand Ambassador, Stranger & Sons, on gin and cocktail culture. Ever an advocate of sustainability, he even showed us how to make simple gin cocktails at home with local ingredients.
“Hello from Uttarakhand,” chirps Jeet Rana, Head Brand Ambassador, Stranger & Sons, as the Zoom network stabilises and a beautiful slice of the state appears on my screen. I see the faint outlines of peaks shrouded in mist, verdant yards and little bits of bird song come floating in from time to time; it feels like I’m right there on Jeet’s cute little balcony. Perfect setting then, to get talking about gin and gin cocktails.
Jeet Rana or if you want to get formal, Jitender Singh, leads and manages a team of ambassadors in both domestic and international markets for Stranger & Sons. Having graduated with a degree in Hotel Management and then a diploma in Bar Operation and Management, Jeet has been associated with the spirits industry for years, working with leading hospitality groups across the country. Aside from leading the spirits charge for brands such as Arth, in both Mumbai and Pune, Sancho’s in Mumbai, Whisky Samba in Gurgaon and The Kimono Club, Delhi, he has also won a bunch of awards including Bartender of The Year 2016 by World Class and Best Mixologist India 2018 at India Nightlife Convention & Awards, among others.
To address the topic at hand, we get started on the subject of clear spirits, particularly gin, in India. “Gin has been trending upwards across the world for the last five years or so, owing to cocktail culture. One of the reasons for that is its refreshing flavour profile and characteristics that suit a variety of cocktails. Secondly, in India, we’ve seen a number of new gins come up recently. Even just a few years back, there were hardly any Indian gins. But today, there are some 15-16 different brands,” says Jeet.
“The reason,” continues Jeet, “for this boom is that India is a country of a great variety of botanicals and spices. Cocktail culture has evolved too, partly because the Indian consumer is experimenting and trying new drinks, especially across the metros such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.”
The other factor that is fuelling the popularity of cocktail culture is India’s bartending community. “Indian bartenders are not only educating themselves but also experimenting with the many local ingredients that we have across the country.”
With lockdowns, restrictions and safety concerns keeping most of us at home, it will still be a while before everyone can head down to their favourite watering holes and indulge in their favourite cocktails. Does that mean no cocktails for now? Absolutely not! You can be locked down at home, but so long as you have access to a few basic ingredients, whipping up a simple cocktail is child’s… erm, 25-and-above adult’s play.
Jeet is a man of action, and he’s obviously not content with just a regular chat about gin, as you would gather from the frame, with the bottle of Stranger & Sons, and bartending ware in the foreground. So, he starts off by showing us how to make the iconic Gin & Tonic.
Of course, since Stranger & Sons gin is involved, the G&T too, gets a “strange” twist. After pouring in the gin and a block of ice into a glass, Jeet explains the need to stir the ice and gin before topping up with tonic water. And then comes the twist. “To garnish this classic cocktail, add a slice of ginger. It’s easily available and every household would have it in the kitchen. With a gin such as Stranger & Sons, that has bold flavours of spices, ginger opens up a whole new layer of complexity and freshness in these gin cocktails.”
Done with making the first cocktail and having passed it onto his brother (lucky him) who is helping him with the video, Jeet moves onto talking about perhaps the most relevant topic in these times – sustainability. “One of the biggest and most relevant trends in the world right now is sustainability and social consciousness. We need to have as little an impact on the environment as possible and reduce carbon footprint. Using local ingredients is a big part of this.”
He holds up a large, yellowish lime that grows locally, known as janmara. “This lime has a lot of oil in its peel and when you cut it, the juice is acidic and a little bit bitter. So, I boil the peel in water and add sugar to make a cordial. Then I juice the rest of the fruit and with what’s leftover, I make vermicompost and use it in my garden. So, that’s 100 per cent of the fruit used up for three different applications. If we can use ingredients like this, it reduces our impact on the environment significantly.”
The next cocktail uses both janmara juice and cordial in it, in similar proportions, 22.5ml and 20ml, respectively, with 60ml of Stranger & Sons. “Stranger & Sons goes with a lot of cordials and gimlet cocktails. In India, we love the sweet and sour flavours, the popularity of nimbu paani, aam panna and jal jeera being a testament to this. So, I’m making this gin cocktail with a similar objective.”
Once all the ingredients are properly shaken with ice, Jeet goes on to explain how gimlets can be served in different ways – straight up, in a coupe glass or as he presents in his second cocktail, with a couple of cubes of ice and a leaf from the janmara tree as garnish. If you want to make it fizzy, you can also add a bit of soda water. “Since I’m in Uttarakhand and janmara is available easily, this is what I have used. But luckily, India is an agriculture forward country and we have a variety of produce such as this which can be used in cocktails. For instance, the curry leaf. You can make a cordial out of the curry leaf which is delicious and as garnish, you can put curry leaf on top. But, the trick is to burn the curry leaf slightly, so it releases its oils and the aroma is simply amazing. Similarly, you can use black cardamom and vanilla in gin cocktails. There are so many such combinations with simple ingredients available in your house.”
With two cocktails done, I’m eager for the next one. Now, Jeet digs into heritage again. “For this next one, I am going to be making a gibson. The gibson is a cousin of the martini, the difference being the pickled cocktail onion. For us in India, and pickles are a part of our heritage. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Arunachal to Gujarat, every household stocks at least two to three different kinds of pickles. Here in Uttarakhand, we grow peaches and make pickles out of them with home-made apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, a bit of honey and whole spices such as cinnamon, coriander seed and clove.”
He makes two different variations with the pickled peaches – highball and the regular gibson. Pickle brine and gin are combined in 12.5ml and 50ml proportions, respectively, stirred with ice and then strained into a coupe glass for the gibson. For the highball version, use a highball glass, add some ice and top up with soda. And for both, add a pickled peach. While the gibson brings forth bold and complex flavours, the highball is refreshing. It’s a wonderful example of how versatile these gin cocktails can be.
On to the next cocktail. “The state flower of Uttarakhand is the rhododendron. There’s honey in it and the petals are slightly acidic in flavour. The local honey that’s available from March to the middle of May has the unique flavour of rhododendron. So, that’s what I’m going to use for this next cocktail.”
He makes his own version of Bees Knees, with locally sourced rhododendron honey, lime juice and orange blossom water. All shaken and then double strained into a coupe glass, and garnished with a rhododendron petal. The golden colour of the honey and the red rhododendron make for a beautiful looking cocktail, fit for the best of Instagram feeds.
As we wind up our conversation, Jeet emphasises on the importance of using local ingredients and also, the interesting new dimensions they add to cocktails. “Wherever you are in the country, try using the local flavours. We’re lucky to have such a bounty when it comes to produce. And of course, use Stranger & Sons,” he signs off.
All this talk of gin cocktails and watching Jeet whip up one variation after another has made me rather urgently thirsty. I might not have rhododendron, jambira or pickled peaches around but there is ginger. Time for a Stranger G&T then.