Bengaluru: Greater Than, India’s first and still the only craft gin brand, was created by two young entrepreneurs who knew only how to manage bars and about alcoholic beverages.
It took Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh three years and a month-long gin-making masterclass at Goa with a Gin Guild board member from the UK, and a surprising discovery on a trip to Delhi’s Khari Baoli spice market to create two of the country’s first craft gin brands.
Their company (Nao Spirits & Beverages) has sold 10,000 bottles of its London dry gin brand Greater Than since it was launched last September in Goa followed by Bengaluru in November.
Nao now plans to launch Greater Than in Delhi and Mumbai over the coming months. It is also gearing up to introduce its second craft gin brand, Hapusa, next month. There are also plans to take the two brands overseas, starting with Singapore and Norway.
Nao Spirits, which consists of only seven full-time employees including the founders, appears to have come a long way in a short span of time. But the foundation alone took three years to build before it commenced in 2015.
Virmani (30) and Singh (40) run a bar called Perch in Delhi. The duo realized that they didn’t have a good craft gin at their bar. Even though there was a revival of gin globally in 2015, there was hardly any sign of locally-made craft gin brands flooding the Indian market. So, they decided to take matters into their own hands and created Nao Spirits in October 2015.
Nao, which means boat in Hindi but is pronounced like ‘Now’, would stand for contemporary spirits infused with a bit of Indian heritage.
“Gin has a strong connect to India. Gin and tonic was invented here by the British. Half of the spices that go into making gin are even available in most of our kitchens like cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander seeds. So, we decided we would do two gins—one a classic London dry gin and another that tells the story of India and of our spices," said Virmani.
That decision was relatively easy to make. What followed was tougher. To get started, the duo had to scout for a good, consistent source of juniper, the key ingredient in gin. By then, they had researched enough to know they wanted to import the juniper for their London dry variant Greater Than. But the hunt for indigenous juniper for their second gin brand, Hapusa, was proving trickier even though the recipe for that was created first. Virmani had heard of juniper being used in Ayurveda, but nobody seemed to know of its existence. Then he decided to visit Khari Baoli. After three days of trudging around the market in Delhi’s scorching summer, the duo finally struck juniper at a small hole-in-the-wall stall, tucked away with some loose papers in the drawer of the stall owner’s old-fashioned writing desk. What they had found was Himalayan juniper, called hapusa (pronounced hapusha) in Sanskrit and Bengali.
Virmani and Singh confirmed that it was, in fact, juniper by taking the 10-15 berries the stall owner had given them to the UK where they were attending a craft distillers’ expo. At the expo, they would also meet a board member of the UK-based Gin Guild— Anne Brock. The following year, Brock would spend over a month with the duo to help them refine and set up their distillation process at Goa. Ironically, at the end of Brock’s stay at Goa, she was offered the post of master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, the world’s leading premium gin brand.
Although Nao Spirits has some very ambitious targets to achieve this year —of expanding to Delhi and Mumbai, going international and launching Hapusa—it has so far held on to its small craft roots. The company distills only once a month in a small portion of a distillery in Goa. It is not planning to distill more often, or hire more people, until demand picks up.
Virmani is not just the co-founder but also the co-distiller and everyone lends a helping hand at the distillery, especially when it comes to cleaning it up. “Cleaning the day after a distillation run is where we get to see how committed people are because cleaning a pot still is not easy. You’re elbow deep in botanicals, and something is always getting jammed," Virmani said.