India’s beverages scene is experiencing a seismic transformation because of a bunch of enterprising and inventive young professionals who have been relentlessly pushing the envelope of creativity. The India Gin Story, far removed from the industrial spirits that would rule the market, takes me back to the early days of our wine industry, when it bubbled over with new ideas and inspired hope, and visibly transformed the Nashik-Baramati-Solapur agricultural belt of Maharashtra.
Sadly, the wine story did not become as big as we, back in the sunset years of the 1990s, had hoped it would, but gin is definitely the flavour of the season, and it is not likely to go out of fashion very soon. Surprising—our generation thought gin and tonic was too pucca sahib and colonial to be cool, but the Millennials and the younger Generation Z have embraced gin with the same passion with which Generation Y was in love with vodka. Yes, gin is the new Lord of the Drinks, and Indian gins are now a force to reckon with.
I was inspired to write about Indian gins because of the #IndianGinTrail Review, a virtual blind tasting of our own craft gins organised by Magandeep Singh and Gagan Sharma of the Delhi-based Institute of Wine and Beverage Studies. (Magandeep has been among the country’s most eloquent wine educators for more than 15 years, Gagan is his most accomplished acolyte, and their institute has produced some really fine beverage professionals.)
Each of the 82 invited participants—a mix of restaurant managers and other F&B professionals, media influencers, and representatives of gin brands—received seven identical 30ml glass bottles, each filled with one gin brand, identified only by a letter from the alphabet. When the 82 people met on Zoom on Wednesday, November 18, they prepared their own GNTs (the only tonic water allowed was Sepoy and Co., which, without doubt, is the most popular Indian brand today) and got down to the business of rating the six brands in contention.
The brands were Greater Than, Terai, Pumori, Hapusa, Stranger & Sons, and Samsara—Magandeep said India has four to five more homegrown craft brands, which will be added during the virtual tastings planned in the months ahead. I was aware of Greater Than, the first Indian craft gin rolled out in 2017 from Goa, and Hapusa, named after the Sanskrit word for juniper, which is found abundantly in the Himalayas, because they are the creations of Anand Virmani and my dear friend Vaibhav Singh, whom we know better as the guys behind the immensely popular ‘wine and coffee bar’ Perch.
The others equally were revelations for me. Terai, although inspired by the Himalayan foothills, is produced in Behror, Rajasthan, not far from Delhi, by an old producer of mass liquor brands; Pumori, named after a Nepalese mountain range, is made in Goa in really small quantities; Stranger & Sons, also produced in Goa, comes from the same company that created India’s first distilled cocktail—Perry Road Peru (gin, pink guavas known locally as peru, and red chilli flakes to rim the glass) —for The Bombay Canteen; and Samsara, a London Dry-style gin produced in gin in collaboration with the Ratan Tata-backed Bombay Hemp Co.
Gins stand apart because of the botanicals that go into making them. Although five of the six Indian craft gin brands are made in Goa, the botanicals—from Alphonso mango to black pepper, from gondhoraj lemon to Nagpur orange, from coriander seeds to cassia bark, from hemp seeds to rose petals—robustly express the diversity and depth of Indian agriculture. Macedonia is the popular source of juniper, but our gin makers have discovered Himalayan sources. From the Malabar and Konkan coasts to the banks of the Hooghly and the monsoon forests of Tamil Nadu, India has a treasure trove of botanicals to offer.
Based on feedback received from 52 participants, Hapusa topped the pecking order with 7.5/10, followed very closely by Stranger & Sons (7.2), Greater Than and Terai (7.1 each). Pumori and Samsara notched up 6.8 and 6.5 respectively. Our oldest craft gin is just three years old, and more brands are entering the fray, so it may be too early to start ranking them. The #IndianGinTrail, though, was a worthwhile initiative and great way to flag off the Great Indian Gin Revolution.
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Wine to bring in the much needed warmth this winter
With the festive season on, people are happy to celebrate whatever opportunity they get, especially after the dank Navratri and Durga Puja, which is usually a grand affair for many. The winters have come early this year with temperatures dipping steadily, along with the smog in the city, which is not so welcome. However, the true spirit of the season is now upon us and there is a lot of planning going on across the country, especially in terms of food and drink.
Winters mean that the consumption of alcohol will pick up as well, and though India is the largest consumer of whiskey in the world, there may just be another beverage catching up fast and moving beyond the gender bias: Wine. However, during this time, when the Covid-19 cases are going up in the city, the wine experience is lagging behind somewhere and it is affecting both the social life of many as well as the alchobev industry as a whole.
From a global perspective, India is an emerging wine market, having picked up as recently as say 5-7 years ago. The literati in cities like Delhi, the millennials in Bengaluru, and possibly the glamour industry in Mumbai have been leading the way, mostly. Even though fruit wines from the hills have been around for a while now, they haven’t quite made a mark in the main cities since those are not available readily in our local ‘thekas’, to begin with. However, for the uninitiated, since fruit wines are made of every conceivable fruit like peach, litchi, kiwi, gooseberry, pear, they are a great way for someone to start drinking the beverage since they are sweet on the palate and extremely, if I may say, fruity.
In terms of the various markets, Mumbai still leads the pack with the highest consumption of wines, followed by Delhi and Bengaluru possibly, with its preference for international wines rather than domestic ones. The reason is that consumers here are well-travelled, have been through wine tastings in different countries, and are conversant with various varietals of wines with the right pairings of food. Although the taste preference in India is still towards wines, there is a sizeable market that is developing rapidly for champagne and sparkling wines as well.
Mostly, wine is seen as a gender-biased drink, with more women lining up for it than men. Again, it is more common in urban areas with it being the preferred drink for launches, to be served in art galleries, fashion shows, and so on. In fact, wines have found more acceptance even as a daytime drink than any other spirits for that matter, especially the chilled whites. Earlier, it would be mostly the imported labels in these gathering but lately there are quite a few Indian brands that have found their way in.
According to Malay Kumar, brand ambassador of Van Loveren and Four Cousins in India, wine drinking is picking up in the city, but generally “we do a lot of commercial wines, which has almost a 45% market share in the country. These are pocket friendly wines and slightly on the sweeter side with a fruity taste, which helps someone get initiated easily into drinking the beverage, before getting into mature wines… In Europe, it is a culture to drink wine; in India, it is about whiskey, but the good thing is that the trends are slowly changing.”
When it comes to wines, Kriti Malhotra, a sommelier by profession, feels that people are not very open to take an opinion from an expert because of various reasons. However, she says “The younger lot is well travelled and they know their wines and know what they want. For most others, wine is intimidating and they would rather order a whiskey or a mojito than risk it with a glass of wine, or take professional help! The important thing in terms of developing taste is to drink by the glass and develop the taste, without having to worry about pairing it with food.”
Magandeep Singh, a professional alchobev consultant and sommelier, feels, “Those taboos are gone; both men and women savour wine equally if they are open to tasting new wines.”
However, during Covid times, most of us haven’t had a chance to taste anything new or go out to enjoy the festive season due to the pandemic looming large. Magandeep Singh, for one, has caught the bull by its horn and he says, “We take the experience online from now on with a select few people. We conduct a lot of social events on Zoom and make sure that everyone is able to taste a new product and have the same experience in their own style. It benefits the trade, the makers and the consumers in a big way, especially when the discussions around the products are so invigorating.”
That’s the new-age solution that we are all looking at right now. Despite the odds, consumption may have actually gone up since people are preferring to stay indoors and spending time with friends and family over some great wine and dinner. In fact, with the pandemic situation worsening in the city and the winter chill setting in, there is nothing better than some beautifully spiced mulled wine to bring in the much needed warmth, flavour and some life into our otherwise dulled social existence.
There’s more to do with a pistachio than chew on it
Pistachios can be put to multiple culinary uses beyond sweets, such as the roasted whole cauliflower that celebrity American chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton presented to an international audience comprising journalists in India, China and the US.
This is the age of virtual travel—and my latest destination this past week was California, where I saw pistachios being harvested from trees, which, as I learnt later, can live up to 300 years. The United States (mainly California, New Mexico and Arizona) and Iran are responsible for 72 per cent of world’s pistachio production, although most of us labour under the misinformation that Iran is the primary source of the nuts.
After getting a ringside view of the harvest, a group of journalists and bloggers brought together by the Food Bloggers Association of India (FBAI) joined our colleagues in China and the United States for a cookery class conducted by Nancy Silverton, the much-honoured California chef and restaurateur who is famous for having popularised sourdough and artisan breads in the United States. In India, you associate pistachios with desserts—from barfi to kheer and kulfi—and the view is strengthened by their profuse presence in baklava and Turkish delights. Silverton showed how you can put the nuts to good use in savoury dishes too. Her roasted cauliflower with a pistachio crumble and green onion crème fraiche looked positively delicious. Sadly, you can’t taste when you go virtual.
Kwality is still going strong at sprightly 80
Kwality’s founders Pishori Lal Lamba and Iqbal Ghai created India’s first international restaurant brand. The restaurant, which has turned 80, is famous for its Pindi chana and bhatura, apart from its mutton seekh kababs and tomato fish.
It is not often that one gets to write about a restaurant that has completed 80 years—after having written about it on its platinum and diamond jubilees. When Pishori Lal Lamba and Iqbal Ghai, two young men from Lahore, opened a shop named Kwality at Connaught Place in 1940 to sell slabs of hand-made ice-cream to American GIs barracked in the vicinity for World War II action, they must never have imagined that they would go on to create India’s first global restaurant brand, a number of trend-setting hotels of their time, and an ice-cream sensation, which is now a part of the HUL brandwagon.
The birth of Kwality, the ice-cream brand, in fact, was assisted by an American soldier, Irving Zimmerman, who was so impressed by the duo that, after the War got over and he had established himself as a celebrity vet in New York, he introduced Lamba and Ghai to American ice-cream makers. Kwality is one of those rare restaurants where you’re still served a Sicilian cassata or a tutti-frutti. In the early 1950s, the restaurant extended its operations to open a corner named Gaytime Espresso just below the Regal Building. It introduced Delhi to a novel coffee experience.
Over the years that I have dined at Kwality, I have been struck by the unswerving quality of the food served there. The Pindi chana, whose recipe Lamba had picked up from a street vendor in Mussoorie, still owes its rich dark hue to the tea leaves, which are added to the whole spices in a bouquet garni that is added to the chana when it is pressure cooked after being soaked in water overnight for eight to nine hours. And each bhatura has to puff up to a particular size and stay that way till the guest tears it apart. Even till this date, a bhatura that doesn’t come puffed up is not allowed to be served.
The leadership baton may have passed on from Pishori Lal Lamba to his son, Sunil Lamba, who, in turn, has handed over the leadership to his Yale University-educated son, Divij, who, incidentally, worked with Hillary Clinton when she was a US Senator from New York. Kwality looks all set for its century.
DIWALI GIFTING DIPS BUT GETS INNOVATIVE
Sid Mathur, creator of the Khoya brand of designer mithai, says his big buyers now insist that the Diwali dabbas must be accompanied by innovative new products such as meetha paan-scented incense sticks.
Taking about people changing professional tracks and discovering their core competence, I must mention Sid Mathur, who was a banker in London till he was bitten by the food bug. Coming from an Old Delhi Kayastha family, good food comes with Sid’s territory, and being an alumnus of The British School (and St Stephen’s), he has sees a procession of hoteliers and restaurateurs come out of his alma mater, but not everyone with his lineage chooses to get into the F&B business.
He did—and he wisely started out some 15 years ago with Riyaaz Amlani, who has created heavy-hitter brands such as Social, Mocha, Smoke House Deli and Salt Water Grill. Sid, in fact, worked overtime to breathe life into the idea of Social, making it one of the most successful F&B brands before Covid struck. He also launched his own hospitality consultancy company, Secret Ingredient, but I was most excited when I heard that he was gentrifying Indian mithai by launching the Khoya brand.
Now present at exclusive addresses such as The Chanakya and The Oberoi New Delhi, Khoya has a discerning clientele, but this December, bulk orders have dried up. “Just ask yourself how many Diwali gifts you have received thus far and you have the answer,” Sid says. Diwali gifting has declined precipitously because of the ominous shadow of Covid. (Or, is it because people are eating fewer sweets, anyway?)
Young couples, though, are ramping up orders at Khoya—their numbers make up for volumes—and they are getting drawn to new ideas. Khoya’s Diwali package, for instance, comes with a bottle of mouth freshener (mildly sweet and flavoured supari shavings), meetha paan-flavoured incense sticks from Phool, and a jasmine diya designed by Kama. Normally, I pass on any sweet boxes I get to my domestic helps and driver, but I will definitely keep the contents of the Khoya box for a longer time.
RESTAURANT BRAND DESIGNER CREATES ‘CLOUD KITCHEN’
Ankur Gupta, seen with his wife and business partner Aparajita, has designed big-ticket restaurant brands such as Yum Yum Cha and Farzi Cafe, has launched Sloppy Sticks with a menu sprinkled with Japanese and Pan Asian favourites.
Ankur Gupta studied fashion design at Central St Martin, London, and worked with designers such as J.J. Valaya before branching out into brand designing. It was a project at Hyatt Regency that got Ankur interested in restaurants and it so happened that The China Kitchen, the five-star hotel’s signature eatery, happened to be the favourite of Dabur Chairman Amit Burman, who was then planning to launch Lite Bite Foods.
They met—and Burman asked him to do the branding for his company. The rest, as they say, is history. Ankur today is the most sought-after designer of restaurant brands—his clients extending from Varun Tuli (Yum Yum Cha and Noshi) to Zorawar Kalra (Farzi Cafe) and Avantika Sinha (Kampai). With so many restaurants happening in his life, it was bound to happen one day. Ankur was planning to launch his own restaurant at Khan Market, but lockdown happened, and even after restaurants have opened up, the food and beverage business has seen only a 30-40 per cent recovery.
“People not only fear the virus striking at them in closed spaces, but also are reluctant to spend—the pandemic has taught us all to be careful with our money,” Ankur points out. With a new restaurant not being viable for some time, Ankur and his wife Aparajita have teamed up, with professional advice from the master of cloud kitchens, Raminder Bakshi, to launch Sloppy Sticks, a home delivery service based out of an 800-square-foot facility in Kalkaji with a footprint extending from Delhi to Noida and Sector 56, Gurgaon. The food is well-made, the portions are generous and the orders are trickling in steadily. With minimum overheads and a staff of eight needed to run the place, the Guptas have good reasons to shelve the idea of running a standalone restaurant—and to start planning their second cloud kitchen.
IT’S TIME FOR US TO RAISE A CHEER FOR INDIAN CACAO
Sheetal Saxena, creator of the craft chocolate Colocal and the ‘chocolate dining experience’ that goes by the same name at Dhan Mill, is the newest votary of the goodness of Indian cacao.
When Australian lawyer-and-chocolate-maker-turned-yoga junkie Jane Mason and her French husband (now ex-), Fabien Bontems, a sound engineer by training, launched their artisan chocolates named Mason & Co. from Auroville in 2014, I discovered India produced top-notch cacao, the basic building block of chocolate. Along the way, I met Nitin Chordia, who, apart from being (or so he says) the country’s only chocolate taster, produces the Cocoatrait bean-to-bar craft brand. His passion and products convinced me that Indian cacao is one of our biggest well-kept secrets, in urgent need of exposure to the world.
My faith in it was solidified when on a food exploration in Francisco late last year I spent an afternoon at the factory and shop of Dandelion Chocolates, a local craft brand founded by two dotcommers. There, too, India followed me in the form of a discovery—I stumbled upon Cacao from Annamalai Hills, which was to be the new flavour being mulled over for introduction into the American market by the owners of Dandelion.
Indian Cacao is definitely going places and its most fervent new advocate is Sheetal Saxena, who, after spending five years as a wealth manager with ICICI Bank, has created the Colocal craft chocolate brand and a cafe of the same name at Dhan Mill, 100 Foot Road, Chhattarpur, where the chocolate drink has become the toast of this hotspot of Delhi’ young and smart people. Sheetal sources her cacao from Kerala’s Idukki Hills and the neighbouring parts of Tamil Nadu. For inspiration, though, she doesn’t have to travel far.
Sheetal’s husband, Nishant Sinha, a hotel management graduate who launched Hyderabad’s hugely successful Roastery Coffee House three years ago after stints with Lavazza and HUL, is a trained cacao roaster. Roasting is the foundation of good chocolate. It follows the fermentation and drying of the cacao beans in the plantations where they are grown. The process defines the personality of the beans, which, in turn, gets reflected in the final bar of chocolate.
If there are so many votaries of Indian cacao, what has prevented it from getting the kind of attention that Indian coffee has lately been lavished with? It is not a coincidence that the rise of artisan Indian coffee has been driving the growing visibility of Indian cacao. I, for one, discovered Mason & Co at the original Blue Tokai outlet in Lado Sarai. Sheetal provides an explanation.
She says the mega multinationals in the chocolate business taught our coffee farmers how to grow cacao, but thanks to “age-old contracts”, they end up getting Rs 60 a kilo, but producers of craft chocolates, who also believe in fair trade, pay from Rs 350 to Rs 450 a kilo. The price differentiation incentivises the farmers to invest more time and effort in the fermentation process, which, in turn, does wonders to the finished product. “Fermentation is critical to the development of the profile of your beans. Your chocolate can only be as good as the quality of the beans,” says Sheetal. Sound advice from a passionate chocolate maker.
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