Maka Zai, The New Indian Rum And The Woman Behind It
Gin might be the trendy flavour among alcohol entrepreneurs these days, but one woman is betting on rum. Kasturi Banerjee worked in financial services for 14 years, and her journey from banker to bartender started in 2019. A fascination with bartending and drinks led her to throw herself headlong into the field by embarking upon a 6-month bartending course and an internship at Koko, the Asian themed gastro bar in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. She also made it a point of being a part of every bar event that she could. So much so, she even missed her work farewell because of a bar event organised by her bar school.
Her diversity of background, coupled with her evident love and passion for the bar space, led to be an automatic choice to be a jury member for 30 Best Bars India 2019, which is where our paths first crossed. We stayed in touch off and on after that. I then became aware of the plans for her next metamorphosis, from bartender to blender. After qualifying as a bartender, she began mentorship stints, educating diverse groups of people on whiskies from around the world. Tasting myriad spirits and learning about storied brands led her to delve deeper into these spirits’ production. She was able to strike up a relationship at a leading Indian distillery, which allowed her to have an internship there. The bug of creating her own brand was now very firmly planted.
The next question was what to create, and this is where her love for matured and aged spirits, like rum and whisky, kicked in. Globally murmurings about a Rum Renaissance were in the air. In India, bartenders were keen to add flavourful spirits like rum to their ever-expanding cocktail menu. With the germ of two products in mind and some hands-on experience in understanding the craft of a blender under some expert mentorship, Kasturi incorporated a company called Stilldistilling Spirits and begun work on product development.
In the two decades I have been in the alcobev industry, there has been no shortage of entrepreneurs approaching me with their intent to launch a brand. I think what’s remarkable about this particular journey of Maka Zai’s is the speed and determination with which it took place. Entrepreneurship, especially in the alcohol space, requires several leaps of faith because of which raising money for a fledgeling venture is always difficult. There’s never a right time at which you can say you’ve raised enough money and now you can press go. It requires a bloody-mindedness that would put a lesser heart to shame. And that’s what Kasturi did; she began raising money in her first round of fundraising via a friends and family round. Her long-standing track record at work, combined with extensive familial support, led her to exceed her target quickly.
For the rum, she had two products in mind, a white and a gold rum. White, as it was a category that Indians were familiar with, and the gold as she saw an opportunity to upgrade the dark rum consumer and give them a sipping alternative. It also tied in well with her fascination for matured spirits and the craft of blending, which she saw as a more intricate art to master than, say, a distiller’s science. She also saw little merit in taking on Old Monk on its turf of dark rum. Rum in India has seen numerous global brands rendered helpless by that cowled deity we all grew up with. We had begun discussing her venture on and off by then, and while on a trip to Delhi in early 2020, I organised a visit to a friend’s house in Noida. A rum enthusiast and collector, he laid out a range of rums (and styles) for us to taste, a session that I think helped crystallise Kasturi’s decision about launching a gold rum.
The onset of Covid put a temporary crimp in her plans. Still, she circumvented the pandemic by going full speed ahead on all other aspects of her plan, including the branding and packaging. With restrictions on the movement of men or materials across international borders, Covid unwittingly helped further her desire of creating a wholly local product, from the liquid to the bottle. Now and then, I was called on to share my inputs, and there was a pivotal conversation during which she thought of the name Maka Zai (“I want” in Konkani), and that stuck. A keen birder, Kasturi was also fascinated by the story of the Olive Ridley Turtle, which undergoes a tortuous journey to Goa’s shores, where they lay their eggs before plunging back into the ocean. That turtle has become the face of Maka Zai and is the inspiring visual on the bottle, with its journey also immortalised in the Maka Zai hashtag, cheerstothechase. She also decided to sub-brand her two rums, paying homage to India’s large community of unsung bartenders by branding her white rum as the Bartender’s Edition.
Given the tribulations that bartenders have gone through during the lockdown, this was indeed a timely acknowledgement of their expertise and passion. She also felt that given that India is a land of constant celebration, it was strange that we had no distinct celebratory drink of our own. Therefore she chose to dub the Gold Rum as the Tribute Edition. In mid-October, three months before the launch, I visited Goa to go about with the first and most critical step – tastings. I prefer my white rum in tall drinks or a cocktail, so I didn’t give it much heed neat (although I was to change my impression later), but the first sip of the gold rum had me well and truly hooked. Sip by sip, we effortlessly drained 3/4ths of a bottle, and I was well enough the next morning for a 10 km jog. That next week, saw us crisscrossing Goa, two bottles tucked into a handy leather bag she had fabricated, and meeting with key bartenders, bar owners, chefs and consultants, with nary an ill note received in any of our numerous tastings, and loads of plaudits received for the product. That week was a critical rite of passage for the brand. The countdown to the launch had begun in earnest now.
I visited again in December, by which time Kasturi’s team had expanded to include an old friend Anurag Bhatnagar, who had hitherto been involved off-site, and was now firmly on the ground as her Chief Business Officer. Also on board was Abhirup Bhattacharya, formerly of New Delhi’s Sidecar, India’s top-ranked bar in 30 Best Bars, who was taking charge as their brand ambassador. The turtle’s wings were spreading. Maka Zai is priced in Goa at INR 1000 for the Bartender’s Edition (white rum) and INR 1300 for the Tribute Edition (Gold Rum). Both variants are priced at a premium to their counterparts from Bacardi that are at INR 675 each. Mount Gay, a well-regarded import from Barbados, is priced at INR 2200 for the Silver and INR 2500 for the Gold (Eclipse). Maka Zai fits neatly in the segment between Bacardi and Mount Gay, occupying the price positioning that other Indian craft spirits brands have in categories like gin.
Barely after our rum roadshow, I was back to Goa, and this time for the mid-January launch of the brand, and with two days to go, Kasturi sprang a surprise on me, she wanted me to anchor the launch of the brand. I was left little choice in the matter. January 16th saw Bay 15 in Dona Paula dance to the beat of Maka Zai as 150+ of Goa’s brightest and sparkiest folks took to the floor. The turtle had well and truly taken flight.