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From Colonialism to Craft: How India’s Gin Scene is Changing

Gin and the Indian subcontinent have a bit of a history and it’s certainly not without its ups and downs.

The spirit’s most popular drink, the gin and tonic, was created during the era of British Colonialism in India. With the threat of malaria looming, the British East India Company devised the drink in the 1700s. It was a military cocktail, consumed by troops with their gin rations and eagerness to stay healthy. At the time, the belief was that quinine cured malaria.

The medication was thrown into tonic water liberally, affording a bitter taste. Drinkers looked to find some balance to the drink with the aid of things like sweeteners or citrus that could play off of the botanicals in the gin. Thus, the formative gin and tonic was born. It was, essentially, a medicinal drink doctored up according to taste.

Eventually, quinine was deemed less useful in safeguarding against malaria. But because it had already established itself as a key player in the cocktail, tonic producers continued to use it, albeit in moderation. It’s still shows up in nutritional info tags today on a whole family of craft tonics.

Colonialism dramatically suppressed the Indian people and remains a nasty and quite extensive scar on the two countries’ shared history. India’s relationship with gin is not unlike the Caribbean region’s with rum, and many other examples across the globe and arc of time. But in the years since India’s freedom in the mid-20th century, the subcontinent has added its own voice to the gin conversation. Employing local ingredients and its own distinctive cultures, India is imparting a new sense of terroir into a spirit that dates all the way back to Europe in the 13th century, if not before.

jaisalmer gin
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Sanjeev Banga is Radico Khaitan’s President of International Business. The large Indian company used to be known as the Rumpur Distillery & Chemical Company. As of late, the outfit has been increasingly focused on craft-minded options including those in the gin category.

Jaisalmer is one of those offerings, a gin made with the intent of being a real reflection of the country. The name comes from the city of the same title in the northwest part of the country, home to a dramatic 12th-century fort. It’s distilled three times in copper pot stills in the foothills of the Himalayas. “The use of botanicals is a time-honored tradition in India and Jaisalmer Gin’s recipe is derived from the ancient Indian knowledge of herbs,” Banga says.

“Seven of the eleven botanicals used in the distillation come from India,” Banga continues. These include coriander and locally harvested vetiver. There’s also orange peel, along with cubeb pepper and lemongrass from southern India. There’s also lemon peel and Darjeeling green tea leaves. “We wanted to retain the classic gin flavor using juniper berries whilst adding a refreshing twist with Indian botanicals.”

The gin is quite evocative, with layers of aromatics and complementary flavors. The more expected ingredients — the anise, Angelica root, and caraway seeds — are dialed-in while the more exotic additions meld evenly. It’s a winemaker’s gin, with plenty to enjoy simply on its own in a glass.

Scores of producers throughout the world claim to make something that’s inspired by India, but that’s more of an homage to the spirit’s historical prevalence there than actual craftsmanship or ingredient sourcing. But gin is on the rise in India, both in terms of domestic production and consumption. Banga says the category was practically nonexistent just a few years back. “Globe-trotting Indians have lapped it up and no party in India is complete without a gin,” he says of the current climate.

Banga says his gin embodies the moments of leisure and pleasure enjoyed by imperial-age Indian rulers like the Maharajas. It undoubtedly brings a new palate to gin, a spirit that’s become quite worldly thanks in part to its ability to take on so many aromatic inputs and unique ingredients. Americans do gin differently than the Spanish, just as the Indians have a take on the stuff that’s not quite like that of the Australians.

But India is bound to the stuff in a socio-political way other nations can’t claim. And in that sense, it’s cool to see the massive country testing its own riffs and making versions that showcase India the sovereign country, not India the subjugated nation of a fallen empire.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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