“Brown Gins?!” Seriously?

Stranger & Sons Gin is matured in ex-Oloroso and Amontillado sherry barrels

Well, why not? Gagan Sharma talks us through an audacious product innovation by Indian gin makers

The science of distillation is India’s gift to the world. We enlightened the world with the study of botanicals, spices, citruses and their application as medicines, saving precious lives around the globe. Ayurveda literally means ‘the knowledge of life’. Ergo, we were bound to be proficient at making gins. Since the first Indian craft gin landed on our shelves, just five years ago, we now have approximately four dozen expressions. And, having gained confidence from creating and expanding this space, surviving the pandemic and altering the habits of the drinking classes, these craft elixirs are becoming experimental, even to the extent of changing colour. They are taking on the uber-attractive brown spirits market (rums, brandies and whiskies), of which we are champions
too! I call them ‘Brown Gins’. With several examples released, they’ve ignited conversations worth having, and raised a few questions: Is it just bonne chance? Is the brand- loyal, price-sensitive Indian public ready for this intruder into their drinks territory? Is there space on your shelves for these gems?

Broken Bat Gin from Greater Than is infused with toasted Kashmiri willow shavings abroad

Oak barrels
An oak barrel can add a great deal to an alcoholic beverage — nutty flavours, aromas of coconut and/or sweet spices, slow maturation, partial oxidation, character from previously used barrels and, of course, an alluring hue. However, barrels occupy space, need careful maintenance and put a dent in your bottom line, all of which are drawbacks for a gin producer.

Enter Oak Chips. They have the same effect on the liquid. Whichever type you use oak, oak adds a captivating vivacity. Gin makers looking at keeping their market excited with new variants, collectibles and limited releases have more than one reason to deploy the benefits of wood to their already tasteful liquids. Apart from the play of colour and flavours, oak allows them to open the door to the larger dark spirits market, in which India is already a presence among leading producers and consumers. There’s barely any limitation to what a gin-maker can throw into gin’s botanical mix. So why not oak as well?

Indian Brown Gins
Pumori introduced Ascent, Greater Than brought out Broken Bat, Nilgiris experimented with peated and unpeated cask-ageing for a few months, and now Stranger & Sons has contributed to the arsenal. While Pumori and Nilgiris mature their gins in barrels, and Greater Than infuse theirs with toasted Kashmiri willow shavings, Stranger & Sons is rising to new heights with their India Spirited Gin which is matured in ex-Oloroso and Amontillado sherry barrels. It is then brushed with wild honey and cascara influences, making it a unique proposition that India hasn’t yet experienced.

So what do these gins taste like? Perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have different personalities. Nilgiris carries only a slight suggestion of oak, while Ascent is the true-to-style barrel-aged gin. Broken Bat is a different personification of gin with a toasty, grippy mouthfeel while the Stranger & Sons exploratory spirit is a something of a departure from true gin. It’s a curious mix: concentrated oak meets savouriness from the sherry influence, while husky cascara adds to the earthiness and honey provides a candied roundness to the palate — all this while maintaining the warmth and spiciness of the traditional gin. However, to call it a gin would be a tad tricky. It can be better described as a sloe-styled gin (a fruit-based gin steeped with sloe berries) done differently or a gin Old Fashioned with a twist. If the latter, this will be the second cocktail in a bottle by this producer.

Ascent Gin from Pulmori is a true-to-style barrel-aged gin

Do we need Indian Brown Gins
Arrange all these innovations in a tasting flight and they provide an interesting study of what India is capable of producing. Although the question arises: Is this the time for Brown Gin? Does India need it?

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To answer this question, a dual approach is required taking into account the gin world’s simple response as well as the argument presented by the darker world. The former will simply ask, why not do it? It adds to the bandwidth of Indian gin makers, displays their craftsmanship with courage to experiment, and offers excitement and variety to local palates. There’s more. India likes storytelling, and no one has done a better job of putting India in a bottle and charming palates better than Indian gins.

Dark Spirits Argument
From the other side of the argument come some simple observations. Firstly, dark spirit imbibers are rather strict about the definition of whiskies, rums, and brandies. Whisky imbibers don’t solicit influences outside quintessential sweetness and oaky flavours. For brandies, added flavours are a strict no no. Rums do flirt with flavours; there are several flavoured white rums and RTDs, while their darker siblings ride solo or at most have a spice mix. Playing with flavours outside of this spectrum isn’t really encouraged or appreciated. Add a mix of citruses, herbs, roots, barks, seeds, spices and juniper, although it might not fly, at least in theory.

Nilgiris Gin has only a slight suggestion of oak

The Other conundrum
Then there’s the other concern: how are they to be served? In a Bar, drinking G&T (gin and tonic) is close to ceremonial. So is vodka-soda or vodka and juices. Whisky goes with water, and/or soda, unless it’s an Irish whiskey, which might attract ginger ale, or an American with, maybe, a cola. Rums are best with a splash of cola, water or neat. But brown gins have this puzzle which is still unsolved. Do we serve them neat? Ideally, yes. However, Indians are yet to fully catch on to this drinking style. The day they do, they’ll know what they’ve been missing. Until then, we wait.

If we serve them in a Martini, a Negroni, or a Highball, known as the ‘trio test’ in tasting circles, they reveal very little of their original selves or the influences added to them. A Negroni easily overshadows the oak’s subtlety, and definitely that of the gin’s junipery spine. A Martini might show right, but it will only be the finer palates who can appreciate it this way and view the experiment as a new pursuit rather than as a loss. As for Highballs, they just don’t gel with brown gins, because this experimentation takes away equally from the joy of drinking a Bushmill’s Ginger or a Jim Beam Cola as it does from a crisp Gin and Tonic.

This would tend to mean that Brown Gins only work as collectibles or limited releases. And all the effort of figuring it all out, developing a palate and a liking for just a small- batch that’s simply a passing fad on your palate journey, is pretty futile.

What’s The verdict, Then?
Although we are yet to find a balance and define our relationships with brown gins, they do offer an eyebrow-raising curiosity, and a conversation worth an evening over a few gin tonics or young malts. I personally wouldn’t mind an occasional Greater Than Broken Bat with ginger ale and lime, or a Stranger & Sons Barrel Aged Gin as a twist on an Old Fashioned or a Boulevardier, along with some adjustments on the amaro, vermouth and garnish.

These two are the ones available in the market now. And whenever they appear of an evening, they’ll carry the promise of sparking a conversation that’s sure to be enjoyable, even if it’s left inconclusive as to whether India could befriend Brown Gins as a style and category unto itself.