- By Cheryl Molen
- BBC News, Mumbai
Whenever Rahul Nair orders a daiquiri or dark 'n’ stormy at a craft cocktail bar in India, he pays close attention to his drink.
The 32-year-old graphic designer says she likes to ask the bartender about the rum added to her cocktail, or better yet, try to guess the brand of rum yourself.
That’s because in the last couple of years, several homegrown brands like Sirukatha, Makkah Joy and Kamikaara have been making significant strides in India’s rum scene.
They are experimenting with the way the spirit is made, its flavor profile and the ways it can be enjoyed, prompting consumers to be curious about the rum and ditch stereotype.
For too long, rum has been relegated to the bottom shelf of bar cabinets around the world, with whiskeys, cognacs and gins taking prime slots. In India, rum is a popular drink because it is cheap and easily available. But this is not a spirit that has seen a lot of experimentation.
„Even in countries like Japan, Thailand and Malaysia that are not traditionally associated with rum production, distillers are innovating with enthusiasm like never before,” says Arijit Bose, mixologist and founder of Countertop India.
India is one of the fastest growing alcohol markets globally, with an estimated market size of $52.5bn by 2020, according to the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
Rum contributes 11% of the total.
The spirit has its roots in the Caribbean—slaves working on sugar plantations discovered that molasses could be used to make alcohol, but colonization and trade took the spirit to countries around the world.
In India, Old Monk has been the most popular rum brand for decades. This expensive, sweet dark spirit has come to define what rum should be for generations. But this is changing now.
Siddharth Sharma’s Piccadilly Distilleries spins things up by making rum agricole, or French-style rum – their limited-edition 12-year-old Kamikara, launched in December, not from sugarcane juice (grown in their own fields). Molasses.
It is very rare in India at the moment and to understand why, one must first understand how the rum available in the country is made, at least until recently.
More affordable rums are often produced using a neutral spirit made from fermented molasses – the dark, viscous substance left over after processing sugar cane juice. Additives like sugar and caramel are added to give the spirit a more delicious taste.
Indian craft rum brands are giving molasses-spirited rums a flavor boost by adding new ingredients like coffee and spices; Some mix in internationally produced aged rums to enrich the flavor. Then there are brands like Camikara, who tweak the base spirit while experimenting with the distillation and aging process.
Third Eye Distillery’s Short Story Rum, launched last year, offers consumers a taste of rums in the Caribbean – a region known for producing some of the world’s finest rums. Their white rum combines Indian molasses rum with Jamaican, Trinidadian and aged Dominican rums.
Two years ago, Stilldistilling Spirits launched Maka Zai – one of the first domestic brands to experiment with spirits. Maka Zai offers a medium-bodied white rum with tropical notes and a blended golden rum with a creamy texture.
„There’s a lot of stereotypes around rum — that it’s only for winter or that the only way to drink it is with Coke,” says Kasthuri Banerjee, founder of Stilldistilling Spirits. „We wanted to break these stereotypes and present rum as a sophisticated yet fun drink – in cocktail form or as cognac.”
Fullerton Distilleries’ Segredo Aldeia hit the market two years ago and offers a white and cafe rum. Both are made from a blend of sugarcane and jaggery and their café rum is infused with roasted coffee beans sourced from South India.
Billed as premium or „craft” offerings, these rums can all cost upwards of 1,000 rupees ($12; £10) to 6,000 rupees for a 750ml bottle. While the price of well-made whiskey isn’t steep, Indian rum makers say it’s still a big shift from what consumers are used to paying for rum.
However, the main challenge they face when expanding their customer base is not cost; Rather, it is people’s lack of knowledge about rum.
Siddharth Sharma, founder of Piccadilly Distilleries, says, “There are many different styles of rum – French, Spanish and English are the main ones – and each of these styles is interpreted differently in different parts of the world.
Restaurants and bars are succeeding by adding new alcohols to tasting events or stirring up new cocktails. This positive sentiment is encouraging international rum brands to bring their products to India as well.
French artisan rum brand The plantation was launched in India last year. The range of double-aged rums (aged once in the country it represents and again in France) gives consumers a taste of rum styles from different countries in the Caribbean, such as Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad; Pernod Ricard introduced the Havana Club 7 – a sophisticated aged Cuban dark rum – last year in India.
But despite all the experiments on home turf, critics say India still has a long way to go to offer „craft” or premium world rums in the true sense. This is because the production of these rums is expensive and time-consuming.
Many of the domestic distilleries experimenting with rum at this time were small-scale and lacked the necessary funds to set up primary distillation units (where the molasses-based spirit is made from fermented molasses).
They rely on local producers to get their base spirit – the foundation on which their rum is built.
„Primary distillation is important when making rum or whiskey,” explains Mr Bose. „But getting a primary distilling license in India is difficult. When you rely on an external source for your base spirit, you cannot guarantee its quality,” he says.
Second, like whiskey, rum needs to be aged at least two years to get its deep, rich flavor. But warehousing is expensive; Barrels can cost thousands of rupees depending on the type of wood used.
But these brands certainly help start conversations about rum, says Mr Bose. And this, he says, is a giant leap in the right direction.
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