Mexico has tequila, Sri Lanka has arrack and South Korea has soju – but what's India's heritage alcohol? Locally, spirits production is divided between what's made for the local market and what's made to be exported abroad – the latter category makes up for nearly three-quarters of all alcohol production in India. However, there's a growing demand from Indian drinkers for homegrown alcohol brands – especially as alcohol consumption in the country continues to climb. The rising star? Local gin brands.
Typically, the spirits market in India is split between extreme price points, according to Aparajita Ninan, co-founder and creative director of Goa-based Nao Spirits. But, recently, new mid-market options have taken the local gin industry by storm. Take TERAI, a family-owned company brewing in Rajasthan, and DOJA, a Goa-based craft gin distillery that combines Indian and Japanese botanical flavors. There's also a growing bar scene in major Indian cities, Aparajita adds, which fueled the development of the Nao Spirits line of gins.
One sip at a time
Gin hasn't always been the easiest to sell to Indian customers, Aparajita says. UK brand Hendrick's Gin and its industrial Victorian theme failed to excite the Indian market (not to mention the colonial history of gin and tonic), while the price had drinkers reaching for a beer instead. But Aparajita's partner Anand Virmani had noticed a shift at Perch, the wine and coffee bar he co-ran in Delhi. ‘Five or six years after it opened, people were beginning to ask for cocktails and gin and tonics,’ Aparajita says. ‘Bartenders had just begun to refine their skills to make negronis and martinis, too.’
It's surprising that India hasn't so far been a key location for gin brands, she adds. ‘We have all the botanicals locally – coriander seeds are used on a daily basis in most Indian homes.’ The Nao Spirits team currently produce two gins: Greater Than, a classic dry gin, and Hapusa, a more premium product made with Himalayan juniper berry. The idea behind having these two distinctly different products is to cater to two target markets within India: while Greater Than is aimed at new gin drinkers, Hapusa is for alcohol aficionados who already know their stuff. What ties both audiences together is their desire to support local, independent brands instead of buying imported goods.
Why design matters
Having two products for two very different audiences in a country with a relatively small gin-drinking population was a tough start, Aparajita admits. First, the team had to find a manufacturing unit, for which they moved from Delhi to Goa. Then, there were challenges setting up a copper still for gin distillation in a very humid climate. Finally, for former graphic designer Aparajita, branding and packaging were crucial elements to ensure success – it took two years of designs, money and focus groups to nail the brand's look.
‘We haven't changed the design since we launched in 2018,’ she says. ‘If you want to have a classic product, you need to create something that isn't trend-driven.’
The team were consistently advised to make the brand feel more ‘Indian’. Investors would encourage them to incorporate paisley patterns and elephants into their branding, to which they firmly pushed back.
‘We want to become the gin of India, but without exotifying the country,’ she says. ‘The consumer we're targeting is well-traveled, well-read and highly intellectual. You can't mess with that demographic.’