The magical wine to aspire to in the New Year may be the four limited edition labels named after Frodo, Aragaon, Gandalf and Galadriel, main characters of The Lord of The Rings
, but if you are trying to ring in the new year with more accessible drinks, look no further than an Indian cast, oops, cask!
In many ways, 2017 was both the worst year and the best for Indian alcohol. The highway liquor ban and policy conundrums in different states meant that the wine and spirits segment in the country took a financial hit. Irrational policies, more states announcing plans to go dry and political statements against spirits in general continued to play dampener, so much so that world-renowned wine columnist Jancis Robinson began her definitive piece on Indian wines earlier this year with the words, "It's a miracle, Indian wine exists at all"!
The real miracle, however, is how much Indian liquor has managed to mature and shine despite odds. 2017 saw many of these hitting high notes globally and managing to garner the attention of millennial middle class consumers back home too. The perception that Indian spirits are somehow inferior to foreign labels has been changing slowly but stea
dily, and 2017 was quite a watershed year.
In Black Label land, Scotch and Taiwanese whiskies may be the markers of class, but Paul John, made in Goa, is the increasingly aspirational single malt for discerning drinkers these days. The label's latest limited edition expression, Kanya, has just been anointed 'The Asian Whisky of The Year' by Jim Murray's prestigious 'Whisky Bible 2018' – its honey notes at the end beating other Asian heavyweights in the fray.
For the brand that launched its first single malt in the UK only in 2012 but is now present in 35 countries, that's quite a success. The international acclaim is spurring domestic interest too. The whiskies are now available in 15 cities as compared to just Goa, Bengaluru and Mumbai earlier.
Paul John, founder of the eponymous label, attributes the quality of his single malt to the 6-row Indian barley, the water and barrels used along with the accelerated maturation process. "This is aided by the humid climatic conditions in Goa where our single malts are created," he says. Kanya will be limited to just 1,500 bottles worldwide with a retail price of around Â£200. It will be available in markets in January should you aspire for a sip.
The country's first craft gin also made its debut this year. Gin is, of course, one of the trendiest spirits internationally with aficionados seeking out craft labels with complex botanicals. In India, the choice till now was between a few expensive imported labels and lower-end stuff with synthetic flavouring. Greater Than, produced by bar entrepreneurs Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh at a distillery in Goa, plugs the gap between the two. Produced in limited quantities with juniper berries from Bulgaria, orange peel from Morocco and 5-6 other botanicals, this is a neutral gin for bar use. The duo is also planning to launch Hapusa with more complex botanicals (it has notes of mango, haldi and gondhoraj lime). You may just start quaffing this one in your gin and tonic instead of the cucumber-roses foreign tipple.
The tide seems to be turning even as far as Indian wine goes. "After the financial crisis, the lower segment had boomed but now the accent is going to be on premium wines," says Rajeev Samant of Sula, India's biggest winemaker, when we meet him at the launch of Kadu, the country's first wine for a cause (tiger preservation). Kadu, made from primarily Karnataka grapes, marks Sula's foray into Karnataka and offers some fairly drinkable varietals. More importantly, it shows how the wine industry dominated by just 50-odd mainly small producers is now in a phase of consolidation. Sula bought out the boutique-y Heritage winery near Bengaluru this year and is producing Kadu from here. The consolidation will hopefully mean that only serious winemakers remain in the fray, quality stops fluctuating, and with big money backing them, better wines get made. While the jury is still out on how much the market in India is maturing, it is perhaps inevitable that first-time drinkers of five years ago graduate to more quality stuff.
Fratelli, whose Sette, is one of the premium wines to drink in the country, launched its magnum bottles (1.5 litres) for Sette in Delhi this year – priced at Rs 3,590, clearly targeted at the parties, weddings and gifting segment. This points to a growing acceptability of wine as a lifestyle drink – and for Indian wine labels over imported plonk, earlier thought to be superior solely because of a foreign label. "The quality of Indian wines has improved and with our food and social culture changing rapidly, wine is an ideal fit," says Kapil Sekhri, director, Fratelli Wines. What the New Year brings is still to be uncorked but there is hope in an Indian bottle.