Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Let’s be clear from the get-go. London Dry Gin doesn’t need to be produced in London to be labeled as such. It doesn’t even need to be made within the United Kingdom. In fact, unlike spirits that are defined by a Denomination of Origin (DO), such as bourbon or tequila, gin of any sort can be made anywhere in the world.
Up until quite recently not many producers were taking advantage of this freeing fact, which meant most of the gin served at cocktail bars were the usual suspects: Tanquerey, Hendrick’s, Bombay Sapphire. But, over the past decade, nations around the world have been experiencing what some now call “Ginaissance,” marked by a period of immense growth for the spirit category.
One heavy hitter is none other than the country of India, where a nationwide love for gin during the British Raj actually served as inspiration for the name of the aforementioned Bombay Sapphire, coupled with a nod to the Star of Bombay, referring to the colorful blue stone which was once mined in Sri Lanka.
Many years later, gin is once again becoming India’s tipple of choice, but this time it’s thanks to local producers both big and small. Already the fifth-largest consumer of gin worldwide, India has been raising the stakes even higher for their gin production as of late, resulting in award-winning distillations that have finally been putting the country on the global map for spirit-making.
What makes Indian gin special
Perhaps one of the most special aspects of gin is its ability to reflect its origin’s terroir (a fancy word for a place’s natural environment). When speaking about wine or mezcal, it refers to the specific environment where the crop grows, and how the elements have influenced its taste—the soil, the proximity to water, the altitude. When it comes to gin, it’s all about the botanicals.
“We have been experiencing a wonderful transformation in India in the understanding of what gin can be. In many ways it has been a journey of cultural reclamation.”
Gin’s only legal distinguisher is the inclusion of juniper berries, which grow in clusters on coniferous shrubs and give the spirit its signature pine-like, citrusy or fruity flavor. Aside from juniper, most distillers add a bouquet of other botanicals to their gin to give it a stand-out flavor. Previously, those botanicals would come from all over the world—many, actually, from India. Now, craft distillers are beginning to recognize the potential for hyper-local gins whose farm-to-bottle ingredients give the end product a distinct identity.
“With the creation of Jaisalmer, we sought to exhibit a real sense of place rather than a preconceived expectation,” says Sanjeev Banga, president of International Business for Jaisalmer gin’s parent distillery, Radico Khaitan. “Seven of Jaisalmer’s 11 botanicals are sourced directly from the four corners of India to showcase our rich agricultural diversity. Among these flavors one will find elements both familiar and distinctly Indian. For example: Darjeeling green tea, produced only in eastern India; vetiver, an aromatic grass prized in the perfume industry; and cubeb pepper, which was once a cornerstone of India’s trade with China and the rest of the world.”
Gins produced in India like Jaisalmer do more than just provide people with something delicious to sip on—they act as storytellers.
Two of Jaisalmer’s key botanicals, coriander and vetiver, are sourced from nearby fields. “But our connection to our namesake city goes much deeper than simple trade routes,” Banga says. Known as “The Golden City,” Jaisalmer is known far and wide for its allure and princely history, Banga says, adding that, at certain times of day, Jaisalmer even appears to radiate light rather than reflect it.
“We feel that to be symbolic of India itself. This is a place that must be experienced to be understood: One must indulge in its aromas, flavors, and textures to fully understand its rare luminosity.”
How Goa became a hotbed for gin
Since its launch in 2019, Jaisalmer has already won several international awards, including the “Best Gin Gold Medal 2020” by the Fifty Best, USA, but it isn’t the only Indian gin making waves in recent years. Stranger & Sons is one of the now-many gin brands operating out of the state of Goa, located on the western coast of India along the Arabian Sea. It debuted in 2018—just a couple of years before a massive gin boom caught fire in the state—and even amongst the heightened competition, Stranger & Sons continues to find international distinction.
Stranger & Sons unique flavor is directly attributed to Indian botanicals, found as close as their backyard. The flavors of black pepper, nutmeg, mace, coriander seed, angelica, liquorice, cassia, citrus peels, and Gondhoraj lemons all play in unison with the only internationally sourced ingredient: juniper from Macedonia.
Today, bartenders and local imbibers have their pick of around 11 native gins from Goa, many of which were launched in the last two years. This widened availability means there are now numerous ways in which Goa’s story can be told through flavor, from Tāmras’s sweet lime-lemon-verbena and Nilgiri tea to Jin Jiji’s India dry gin, packed with botanicals such as chamomile and tulsi.
“We have been experiencing a wonderful transformation in India in the understanding of what gin can be. In many ways it has been a journey of cultural reclamation,” says Banga, proudly. “Currently, there is a flourishing recognition of the sense of place and history these prized indigenoues ingredients bestow. This is especially true in India, where only recently has there been gin production on any grand scale.”
Some Indian gin producers have been pushing the local envelope even further thanks to the discovery of Himalayan juniper, which has helped create taste profiles that are distinct to the country. One of the best examples is Hapusā, whose name means “juniper” in Sanskrit. They forage their Himalayan juniper near the snow line in the Himalayas, and its bold flavor already helped the distillery bring home an IWSC 2021 Gold Award a mere three years after their launch in 2018.
“Indian gins are celebrating unique stories, spices and curiosities from India. Most Indian craft gins are the brainchild of well-traveled and highly educated hipsters and hence represent a melting pot of progressive ideas assimilated over travels and one’s own interpretation of their motherland,” says Samsāra founder Aditya Aggarwa.
Another award-winning gin to come out of Goa, Samsāra has been pushing the boundaries of what makes an Indian gin in a different way: It launched the country’s first-ever pink gin in 2021.
“To me, this is what makes Indian gin unique,” says Aggarwa. “It’s a bunch of global ideas, blended with Indian tradition, a few familiar flavors, a few mind-bogglingly new flavors and a whole bunch of great stories.”