Anjali Batra On How Craft Gin Redefined The Way India Drinks

There have been few comebacks in history that can parallel the rise of Indian gin. From a dusty back shelf liquor to being a staple bottle at every bar, the last decade has seen the spirit go from virtually unknown to one of the leaders in the alco-bev space. 

The gin-naissance has been in motion since the late 2010s with consumers coming around to the potential of homegrown brands and championing locally produced spirits which highlight Indian ingredients. While over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of nascent brands entering the space, one brand that has been steadfast at the roots of the movement, is the Gin Explorer’s Club.

Ideated in 2017 by Anjali Batra and Shuchir Suri, they envisioned a small event where like-minded Indian gin lovers could meet and explore the developments in the world of giin. When it began with a cosy group of 50 in Delhi, they never imagined that it would soon grow to be the largest gin festival in the world.

This year they’re returning to Mumbai with a Retroverse Edition of this hit event and are ready to showcase 20+ local and international gin brands as well as curated workshops with brands like Hoeegarden, Malhar, Greater Than and more, to introduce audiences to the true potential of the spirit. 

As they gear up for their next edition, which will be held at Jio World Garden on the 20th and 21st of January. We caught up with Anjali Batra, co-founder of the Gin Explorers Club to find out what’s new in the world of gin and what we can expect from this edition of GEC.

How have you seen the gin space change over the last year?

It’s been exciting to see how homegrown gin is taking over the entire international scene. When we started GEC, we had only international brands. Over the last couple of years, we've seen the ratio of homegrown to international rise to almost 60:40. That shows how India has evolved so much in the gin scenario. This is exciting because now you don't just have everyone from the Indian landscape doing a London Dry, we have a lot of craft gins coming from India as well. A lot of smaller regions coming up with their own products. 

And what makes craft gin production so popular?

I think Gin has given people this new way of bringing in and creating a product without having to become this massive investment because the way you make gin is much simpler than how you make a lot of other spirits. I think it's given a massive surge in the entrepreneurial space for the Indian liquor industry because you don't have to be a big company to bring out a new brand. It's more about buying spirit, getting a great distiller infusing them, coming up with an interesting story, and building a product out there. 

How does the Gin Explorers Club fit into this movement?

GEC was designed as a canvas for exactly this, we started with a very simple idea, we wanted to introduce people in India to the concept of gin. And now what's great is we're getting to introduce India to the concept of Indian gins and not just emulating something from the West. That just really solidifies the journey we started five years back, which was to make this small impact in the gin space, and it’s currently the largest growing spirit in the country. It's at about a 30% rise year on year, which is massive. It's been incredible building this product and this brand. 

How have you adapted your approach to align with the changes you’re seeing?

A couple of interesting changes we have made in GEC since we started is we tapped the scale. While the first couple of years it was really about growing in size, now we are working towards making sure that we are giving the people who walk in a premium experience. By having ample bars, a great lineup and slowly it’s gone beyond being just a gin festival, it’s transformed into an entire lifestyle of everything that you want to enjoy when you're sipping gin. We're not very commercial in our music, we are slightly eclectic, a little off-centre, we have a theme every year and this year, we're very excited to kind of kick back and take it all back to the retro space yet keeping it forward thinking as well so the theme brings a whole new experience and an era. Our music programming will also be based on that and we can try and imbibe a vibe every year. So last year we were all about being mythical, before that we were I think we would all have that space before that we were all about taking you to the jungle so we become a very diverse team every year and we really try and build an experience around it. And what was great was in Bangalore when we did you know the retroverse for the first time we actually saw people come in team I think it was something that is very relevant with today's fashion. So we're excited and hoping Bombay does the same as well.

How do you feel the meteoric rise of craft gin has affected the rest of the Indian alcohol industry?

It’s definitely given people a lot of food for thought, because if you look at the whisky space, for the longest time people were only consuming what came from the West. And then came homegrown gins. And suddenly, people were boycotting international products and looking at celebrating things that are more homegrown. It gave rise to the flavours of India because of all of these interesting homegrown brands, if you look at Stranger and Sons it imbibed a lot of Indian flavour, so did Hapusa, which is all about using Juniper from India, and people were suddenly investing their money and choosing to drink homegrown, which I think would have definitely inspired a lot of brands to come up with other spirits as well. Now there's a massive rise in the category. I was reading an article the other day about how in India, homegrown whisky from the blended as well as the malt space, is actually being consumed more than international brands. So I think homegrown gins gave people a reason to start exploring more within the Indian landscape and not only consuming things from the West because we always believed anything made here is inferior. But I think gin started to change that narrative a little in a very interesting way, where you saw great experiments, and you saw people truly wanting to say we are from India.  It’s beautiful to see the flavours of our country coming up, and to see entrepreneurs with their amazing stories and then taking him there to a global lens, that perspective. It's slowly changing the narrative of how we look at things that are made in our country. So made in India is no longer looked at as a bad thing in the spirit space. Now, it's something that people are interested in exploring.  

How does it feel to know that India now boasts the largest Gin festival in the world?

Massively exhilarating. And I don't think we realised what we were creating till we started to see the response. We've had a lot of international bartenders that have come down for GEC who would turn to us and say ‘This is this is unlike anything we've seen before’. I remember in 2020, when there was a bunch of bartenders that had come down from London to do a takeover at one of the bars and turned to us and said, We've never seen anything like this in the UK, because everything that happens, globally, is done in a very serious format. It's more like a trade show. And where they have about 100+ gins, and maybe 2000-3000 people, we have the opposite. We have 15 to 20 gins, but we have about 15,000 people. Celebrating with us, sipping their way through all of these gins and really building a lifestyle around it. So it's really exciting. 

How has success changed your perspective on the potential of craft gin?

There are conversations that we've had with so many brands that didn’t believe in the vision, but then we built a canvas for people to understand the spirit, which is why we've gone out and created something. In fact, my business partner Shuchir has a tonic brand, which subsequently started about two years after we started GEC because I think we finally had that understanding of the opportunity that lies in the space of premium mixers. 

It’s just been really exciting to know that we have been part of creating something so big in a country where people weren't drinking the spirit so much, but now the awareness that we were able to create, has maybe taken the small ripples that had started back in 2018 to a much larger wave because we had the consumer in our pulse and then we said let's take something and build something out of it and everyone thought we were crazy all gin brands that we first approached that there is no way you can get 1000s of people together to sip on. You know what is right now that one bottle two bottles and behind a bar when you enter the restaurant. And now if you walk into a restaurant, you will see very many terms, an entire shelf of maybe categories of menus dedicated to just gin cocktails or infusions. I think the idea of GEC was a festival. But somewhere I think we've made that impact in a much larger way across the country, where the platform, the community, the conversations, and the people, has led to more than just these three events that we do. But a much, larger impact on how people look, and sip on gin now.

What are your predictions for the gin space in 2024, and are there any changes you’re hoping to see in the alco-bev space overall?

So what I would definitely like to see, I think, in the next coming year is a lot more international-Indian collaborations. I think there's space for a lot of really cool things to happen, where homegrown gins are taking over the space with international brands creating co-curated products, that would be very interesting. I'm also excited to see how Indian gins are making their way to the global space now and owning enough mind space and share of the throat and spotting them behind shelves even in other parts of the world. I think that small presence proves India is starting to make it the global industry now, which is very exciting. For me, I think we've nurtured the space of gin for a really long time. And I think our next steps are going to be on a larger scale, maybe even going beyond gin and doing newer experiments introducing more spirits, because this journey has been incredible so far. But we feel like it's time to add new layers to it as well. And just continue to build on the homegrown space in a larger way. We've always been at the forefront of creating trends. And that's something that we want to continue to do. I think next year, we might actually be uplifting to adding more spirits to this space and not just limiting it to the category of gin. That's an experiment that we're thinking of.