Goa has emerged as the destination of choice for entrepreneurs interested in crafting new liquor brands. We find out why.
Once upon a time, taverns in Goa were where people got together to discuss local sports, village gossip, and down a shot of that preferred Goan drink, feni. Today, Goan taverns still function, but many have renovated themselves into hip bars with new music, warm vibes, live music, and fun events. The biggest change, though, has been in the liquor cabinet. There are ‘local’ drinks but they aren’t feni. They claim to be small batch and craft. There are gins, vodkas, rums, wines, whiskies, and more.
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone’s story originates in Goa. In 2015, India’s alcohol industry welcomed a new product. Little did anyone know that it would pave the way for Goa becoming a preferred destination for entrepreneurs interested in making a mark in the alcohol industry.
Nao Spirits set up shop in Goa with the mission to create an Indian gin using local botanicals and a drinking experience that was “greater than others”. Greater Than hit the market and exploded — it was new, exciting, and offered discerning consumers a choice. They followed it with Hapusa (Sanskrit for juniper), a Himalayan dry gin with earthy notes.
“What Nao Spirits did was unprecedented. They produced a distilled gin, launched it in the market and did a great job with branding. There was immediate acceptance,” says Conrad Braganza, manager, Agave India.
Over the years, the path paved by Greater Than and Hapusa has become well-trodden. Each new gin in the market brought in something different. Matinee’s founders are both women (a first), and they infuse their gin with lesser-known spices like white turmeric, snake saffron, and kagzi lime. Clearly Good is the cheapest, retailing at Rs 245, and sporting a blue colour from butterfly pea flower. Its partner, Gin Gin, contains hemp as one of its ingredients. Sam.sāra, too, has hemp. The latest is Seqer, which comes in a vibrant blue bottle, and whose botanicals include cashew nuts.
“What the gin wave did for us was break Indian consumers out of this pattern of consciously consuming only whiskey or Old Monk rum. These consumers are now happy to keep experimenting with other liquors, and find out what works for them,” says Aman Thadani, founder of Fullarton Distilleries, which produces Pumori gin and Segredo Aldeia rum.
In 2015, Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh decided to launch India’s first homegrown gin, Greater Than, in Goa. The duo thought they would make the gin there, and sell it to main markets like Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Delhi. They grossly underestimated Goa’s potential as a consumer market. “Goa is the place to be, to establish your brand. You make it here; you can make it anywhere.”
It’s not just gin that’s blowing up. The past two years has seen an influx of new rums, whiskies, vodkas, wines, and more. Entrepreneur Varna Bhat wanted to create a truly Indian vodka, and came up with Rahasya vodka. Kasturi Banerjee left her banking job to attempt making a name in the alcohol space, launching Maka Zai rum (I want: Konkani) in two versions: a dessert and sipping rum, and a white rum. School friends Reuben Coutinho and Tanishq Palekar wanted to break away from the buzzing liquors and opted to create a premium wine. If whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin can rule the roost, can feni be far behind? The four partners behind Aani Ek infused feni (yet to launch) wanted to increase the drink’s appeal, and make it “modern and fun”.
December will see the launch of a second brand of Indian Agave [after Agave India’s 100% Agave and 51% Agave]. Rakshay Dhariwal of Passcode Hospitality will launch Pistola, a 100 per cent agave spirit. His place of choice? Goa. “It is the home of all the craft spirit brands,” he says.
Goa makes sense for new entrepreneurs. Braganza lists the positives: a friendly excise policy. Easy label registration. VAT on the lower side (22 per cent). A developing cocktail scene. “It’s an easy market to establish proof of concept.”
Choosing Goa is “deathly practical”, according to Lavanya Jayashankar, who moved to Goa with her partner Anjali Shahi to launch Matinee. “It is the cheapest place to get a license to make liquor. It’s a difference of lakhs.” Goa offers more than just an ease of doing business. It’s increasingly becoming a preferred destination for people looking to escape the big city life and build a home in a place offering a better quality of living. The pandemic only heightened the exodus. Many of these alcohol entrepreneurs have completely shifted base to Goa. Brothers Aditya and Anish Varshnei knew they would make the move once they launched Latambarcem Brewery in 2017. They found and restored an abandoned distillery in Latambarcem and started brewing beer; Maka Di, launched last year.
Then there’s the fact that Goa possesses a fairly liberal drinking culture. “Goans care about their drink. They have an innate sense and sensibility when it comes to understanding the liquid inside the bottle. You get good feedback,” says Dhariwal.
“Goa gives you a microcosm of India as a test market. It’s a way of getting your name out there, and getting it recognised outside the state,” adds Jayashankar.
Within the state, alcohol brands are pulling out all the stops to market themselves. They sponsor events (open mic nights, live music, and more) at new and existing bars and restaurants. Their signboards hang above bar counters. They organise bar takeovers and special cocktail menus. Beyond this, many of the brands have found success in one of the oldest effective forms of marketing: word of mouth. Visitors who experiment in Goa are likely to take back bottles of their favourite spirits to their home states.
Many of their favourite spirits play on the Goan life and lifestyle. Take a look at the bottles adorning supermarket shelves and it’s easy to see how Goa features in other aspects of the drinks too. Maka Zai translates to “I want” in Konkani, and the bottle’s labels feature the native Olive Ridley turtle, which has nesting sites in Goa. Latambarcem Brewers’ products’ names come from Goan words: Maka di (“give me”) craft beer and Borécha (“good tea”) kombucha. Vinho Fontainhas got its name because the founders had family association with Fontainhas. Goa Brewing Co.’s first beer, Eight Finger Eddie, was named after a beloved hippie. Their latest, People’s Lager, is made from heirloom Goan rice. Their aim is to highlight the state’s disappearing rice varieties, and will introduce more expressions in the future showcasing it.
The change in the industry has been recent. And much of it, positive. “There’s definitely been an impact. It [the influx of new alcohol brands] has democratised alcohol and the industry a fair bit,” says Braganza.
It’s not just liquor by the Goan shore. There are now ready to drink bottled brands, cocktail mixers and bottled cocktails —The Bombay Canteen and Stranger & Sons teamed up to launch Perry Road Peru, a distilled cocktail with pink guavas and a pinch of chilli-salt, and earlier in October, Alcopop Spirits launched BEAT — gin seltzers.
Possibly the biggest change has been in the drinking culture. People today are more inclined to experiment with newer brands, and move away from tried and tested labels. “Today, everyone likes to talk about the new brand they can have, what they can do with their gin and beer, and how they can make cocktails. They have the ability and desire to really dive into it and get behind brands,” says Virmani. “I am blown away by the level of excitement we’ve received.”
“Liquor is the next big thing in the startup movement. People have realised that liquor can also be an option for start-ups, and the alcohol industry is opening up to entrepreneurs,” adds Jayashankar. The growing market has made networking convenient, people are sharing resources (distiller and distributors), and partnering with other brands. There’s a buzz that has nothing to do with the liquor. Dhariwal claims this is just the beginning. “There’s a few 100 brands going to come up in the near future, and most of them from Goa,” he says. “I hope our livers can take it.”