Getting To Know India’s New Breed Of Distillers
An ex-banker, a would-have-been jeweller, a screenwriter and advertising executive — new-age distillers break away from the classic mould
Till not long ago, the word ‘distiller’, in the context of spirits made in India, usually evoked images of swarthy businessmen in safari suits and the faint aroma of molasses. The craft beer and the gin revolution, which began a few years ago, has changed that perception to a large extent. The men and women setting up distilleries these days are a different breed. They are outsiders with a passion for spirits and a knack for spotting opportunities, and include former management professionals, bankers, and ad film-makers. And while most of these distillers may have started with gin, some of them are already looking at craft rum and other spirits. Here’s a quick introduction to the founders of five recently launched brands:
Varun Murpana, Billion Air vodka
Varun Murpana belongs to a prominent, Mumbai-based jewellery manufacturing family. The 28-year-old says he was pretty much prepared for his family’s reaction when they learnt that he wanted to distill alcohol. “The general view of the elders was that it was a business dominated by the mafia. And no support was forthcoming,” says Murpana. So, he saved some money, pulled favours from his then-US-based girlfriend and now wife, and signed up for a course that familiarised him with the business of alcohol. In 2018, once he was back in India, Murpana set up Sonar Beverages, in Palghar, just outside Mumbai, and worked on his first product — a premium, gluten-free vodka. Billion Air, launched in April last year, is made mainly from American corn. The vodka is sourced, distilled, and blended in the US, and bottled at Palghar.
Good vodka never goes out of fashion, says Murpana. “Billion Air’s sales have exceeded our expectations. A lot of people still want a low-cal, gluten-free drink. Plus, let’s face it — no bar or wedding event can be complete without vodka.” Sonaar Beverages’ next launch, the Cabinet gin, will be on shelves in Goa and Maharashtra by next month. Like in the case of the company’s vodka, it’s distilled in the US but bottled in India. “That’s the route we’ve chosen, and it’s worked for us so far. Cabinet is a classic gin, very juniper-forward, but it’s got this hint of spice.” He is equally excited about creating a community of Cabinet lovers, and while Murpana considers craft rum an interesting space, he is, for the moment, sticking to existing products. “We are on track to becoming a reputed white spirits player, and that was one of our goals at launch,” he says.
Devika Bhagat & Khalil Bachooali, Tamras gin
Devika Bhagat first had gin around 2008, when she started dating Khalil Bachooali, who introduced her to it. Since then, the husband-wife duo says they have never looked back. Bhagat and Bachooali, who co-run an advertising production firm in Mumbai, are true gin fiends who go to great lengths to create/sample the perfect martini or Negroni. In 2018, while on holiday in London and just as gin was taking off back home, the duo decided that India needed a great gin, one they would love to drink themselves. Over the next couple of years, Bachooali, along with Bhagat, who is also a screenwriter and co-wrote, among others, the engaging Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), subjected themselves to the rigours of importing equipment and setting up their company, Adventurist Spirits, in Goa. Towards the end of last year, they launched Tamras, a gin named after lotus flowers and copper in Sanskrit. Tamras, which uses 16 botanicals, including lotus flower and seeds, juniper from Macedonia, lemon verbena, and Cubeb pepper from Indonesia, is among the most promising gins launched in the last year or so in India. And one of the major reasons for its sprightly elegance is that Adventurist Spirits does everything themselves, starting from distilling the gin. “We did think about contract bottling, but that would have meant less control over how we wanted our gin to taste. Both of us have fairly good business acumen, but we also wanted to be proud of what we made,” says Bachooali. The couple threw open the doors of their distillery for tours in December, and, pandemic permitting, they are looking at launching a distiller’s cut by the end of this year as well as aged gin.
Kasturi Banerjee, Maka Zai rum
The talk in the industry is that we are on the cusp of a craft rum revolution. If it does happen, like the way it has with gin, Kasturi Banerjee ought to get her due for making the earliest attempt to plug the vast gap between Old Monk and imported rums. Banerjee, a former banker, who set up Stilldistilling Spirits in Goa in 2019, is a whisky nut — but one who always felt that India, one of the world’s largest producers of sugarcane, needed a good rum brand. Maka Zai, in gold and white, was launched a year ago in Goa, and Banerjee says that despite the pandemic, she is happy with the way things have turned out. “We never planned to hit Mumbai by November last year, but the demand has been strong. People would taste it at bars or spot it on social media, and they would want to have Maka Zai in their home bars,” says Banerjee. Plus, she says, several states now have more new-brand-friendly policies, which should help Maka Zai gain more traction. “But it is the bars that really kind of evangelise us. Bartenders keep telling me that they were waiting for a good, homegrown rum for ages.” Evolving drinking patterns, some of them shaped by the pandemic, have also helped Maka Zai gather momentum. “Mixers, cocktails, people have started getting into this big time at home, and a rum fits right in,” she adds.
This year should see Maka Zai enter north India, and Banerjee is also looking at foreign markets. Stilldistilling is sticking with rum for now, there is no gin on the drawing board, though Banerjee says there could be something in the offing in the aged rum space.
Varna Bhat, Rahasya vodka
Varna Bhat is a serial entrepreneur. Before setting up Blisswater Industries in Goa in 2020, she co-founded an eco-friendly fabric branding firm and events management company. Blisswater Industries, which recently raised Rs 2.48 crore in seed funding, launched Rahasya, a flavoured vodka, in early 2021 in Goa, and the vodka is now also available in Mumbai. “I spent nearly two years just studying the market and identifying a business opportunity,” says Bhat. “There is a clear space for well-made craft spirit, with a very ‘India’ story to tell.” The past 12 months saw Bhat negotiating unfamiliar terrain, but she says she was more than prepared for it. “I might be an outsider in the industry, but I ensured my team members were not. I’d say we got to about 70 percent of what we set out to achieve in terms of sales and branding, despite the second wave, last year.” With Rahasya, Bhat was also interacting more closely with the customer. “My previous companies had a B2B focus, but here, I was closely involved with the value chain and supply chain. And, thanks to social media, feedback regarding our product was near-instantaneous.” Bhat, who organised intimate dinners to spread the word about her vodka in Goa last year, hopes to extend the activity to other cities in 2022. And while the buzz is that Blisswater is also preparing to launch a gin later this year, the usually eloquent entrepreneur is mum on that one.
Jai Anand, Doja gin
Bandra boy Jai Anand has done some exciting things with his life in the last half a decade. The 30-year-old, who divides his time between New York and Mumbai, studied at the Berklee College of Music (at its Valencia campus) and in the years before the pandemic brought the world to a halt, brought down a variety of artists, including DJ Stingray and Ben UFO, to India through Milkman, his music curation agency. “We did tours every month and would produce these shows fully,” says Anand. As the pandemic dragged on, he decided to try his hand at making gin — not just a regular one, but an Indo-Japanese gin. “I have some roots in Japan and have been visiting it for years, and I’m fascinated by the country,” says Anand. So, towards the end of 2020, he got in touch with a distiller in Wakayama, which lies to the south of Osaka, worked with the family-run outfit on the recipe, and set up East Side Distillery in Goa (where else?) to make Doja gin. “We wanted a blend of Japan and India. Doja uses yuzu, sansho peppers, hinoki chips, and these are combined with cardamom, pepper, and coriander. Doja is refreshingly citrusy and yuzu-forward,” says Anand.
East Side Distillery is a distillery within a distillery, the 30-year-old says. “We’ve got our copper still from Holstein and have set the still inside the distillery to which we’ve sub-contracted the distillation. This helps us to keep a close check on things.” Doja, which uses the single-shot distillation method, was launched in Goa in December; it will hit Mumbai this month.