- Nikhita Venugopal
What spice means to gin
There’s an ancient legend, a story told by Greek and Roman scholars, about a large mythical bird in India and the Arabian peninsula that would scour untraceable lands in search of cinnamon quills, using the bark to build its nest in the tallest of trees and other spots unreachable by ordinary men. The cinnamon could only be procured by leaving a hefty piece of meat within reach of the bird, allowing it to swoop down, grab its feast, and head back up to its home. The additional burden would prove too ponderous for the cinnamon-laden nest, tipping onto the ground and into the hands of the people below.
It’s said that native growers would recount this story as a way to signify the value of spices like cinnamon, though European traders needed little persuasion on that matter. “As noble a sight as I ever saw in my life,” is how diarist Samuel Pepys described seeing quantities of pepper, cloves and nutmeg on Dutch ships captured by England in 1665. By the early seventeen century, the Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC, or the Dutch East India Company) was extracting an abundance of spices from what was then called the East Indies. And it was around this time that the Dutch had developed a keen interest in a malted, grain-distilled spirit, an ancestor to modern-day gin, called genever. Richard Barnett writes in The Book of Gin, “The Dutch Golden Age was the first consumer revolution, bringing spices, silks, ceramics, tobacco, coffee, tea and sugar and many other commodities into the heart of Europe. And genever was a prime example of what happened when these exotic imports collided with increasingly cosmopolitan Dutch tastes.”
Pick up a bottle of gin from your bar cabinet and you’re likely to find anywhere from two to half-a-dozen botanicals listed on the label. Honeysuckle. Cassia*. Lavender. Clove. Each is inextricably tied to the liquid in the bottle, the character it presents, and the provenance of the product. Together, they form an identity, a way of setting the beverage apart from others. It’s no secret that spices are a cornerstone of the way we cook in India, countless variations and combinations forming the country’s regionally specific cuisines. Beverage consultant Karina Aggarwal compares the creation of a gin to putting together a recipe for a dish — it isn’t about being able to taste every individual flavour, but rather, a balancing act that creates a really great meal.
In the last few years, India has gotten a long-awaited taste of locally made gin, under a number of craft labels such as Stranger & Sons, Greater Than, and Jaisalmer - in a country where the gin and tonic has long been associated with its colonial history, it’s about time. Aggarwal, who told me the cinnamon bird story, founded Gigglewater Beverage Concepts, her consulting company. She is also a VP at the India Craft Spirit Co., which makes Terai, a brand of Indian craft gin that launched in 2020. Founder of Terai, Shekhar Swarup, tried over a hundred different botanicals to create what would become their gin, ultimately landing on eleven that adorn the label in illustrations reminiscent of ancient botany texts. Nearly all are sourced from Asia’s largest spice market, Khari Baoli, in New Delhi. When Aggarwal first joined the company, she realized that almost all the eleven botanicals — holy basil (tulsi), coriander and fennel, among them — were commonly found in Indian kitchens. “That was something that was important for us,” she said.
Understandably, you may not be terribly interested in the way chamomile works with dried ginger when pouring your evening G&T, but the memory of flavour can drive you to seek out a certain feel and aroma in a drink. Think of times you’ve gone to a bar and ordered a cocktail because it had tamarind or hibiscus or curry leaves in it. “You know what fennel tastes like, you know what tulsi is like... The familiarity is that ‘oh, I'd like to try that in a drink,’” Aggarwal said.
The prehistory of gin goes back to the tradition of distillation, a process that, in some sense, can be traced to the Vedas as well as ancient Chinese philosophy texts, but is generally credited to the Islamic Renaissance of the Muslim Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. “It’s an alchemical tradition, it’s a philosophical tradition and it’s also a medical tradition,” Barnett told me in an interview. It spurred a centuries-long exploration into the creation of perfumes and medicines wrung out of anything from sandalwood to pepper to juniper.
When Anand Virmani, the co-founder and CEO of Nao Spirits & Beverages, began his journey to create an Indian craft gin he started by distilling one botanical at a time, creating separate little bottles for each distillate and flavour. “The first step was to go to the kitchen and find herbs and spices. So things like cardamom, clove, pepper and cinnamon, all those were the first ports of call.” The addition of coriander seed has become a near prerequisite to most gins made today, Virmani said, infusing a citrus touch while balancing the distinct juniper berry. A berry that grows on a tree or small shrub, particularly throughout Europe and North America, juniper is central to both the origin and the modern-day taste of gin. While at the Khari Baoli spice market, “we found someone who had access to this funny-looking juniper, which turned out to be Himalayan juniper.” They distilled it, and what they found was unlike any classic gin on the market.
An attention to the origin of spice and other botanicals is, of course, not limited to India. The gin industry world over hasn’t been left out of a movement towards locally-sourced ingredients that tie back to the land, and some of the most common flavourings for gin can be found growing wild in the West, juniper and lemon among them. Barnett pointed to Caorunn and Hendricks as examples of this, the former drawing its five Celtic botanicals from the Scottish Highlands and the latter using rose petals and cucumber to create a distinctly British flavour. Cinnamon can be found in many different varieties, though the most familiar are Ceylon cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka, and cassia, grown in China, south and southeast Asia, and frequently found as a flavouring for gin. Stranger & Sons, which started in Goa in 2018, features cassia bark as a botanical, as does Maharani gin, which is distilled in Cork, Ireland, and sources its ingredients from a women’s organic farming cooperative in Kerala called Vanamoolika. The launch of an Irish gin that emphasized the addition of spices from Kerala, while using Malayalam, the state’s language, on its label, caused a bit of excitement back home.
Nao Spirits went on to release two craft gin labels. The first is the classically flavoured Greater Than that adheres to the traditions of a London dry gin, familiar to even the most occasional gin drinkers. While Greater Than uses juniper sourced from Europe, the bold, aromatic Himalayan juniper became the centrepiece for the second, called Hapusa. “Everything going into there had to compliment the Himalayan juniper itself,” he said. That meant deep, earthy flavours to heighten the experience of that unique berry — fresh turmeric, raw mango, dried ginger, cardamom, and the peel of an indigenous lime called gondhoraj.
In India, the stories of both gin and spice are wrapped within the veil of colonial history, a fact that can obscure more than it clarifies. You can look no further than the supposed origin story behind the gin and tonic that has been told often and largely romanticized over the years — to ward off malaria, British officers in India used gin and soda to mask the bitter medicinal taste of quinine. But there is little evidence to suggest that this was the true innovation behind the gin and tonic, Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt write in Just the Tonic: A Natural History of Tonic Water, “we believe these origin myths for.. gin and tonic are more likely to originate in the long and true history of the admixture of quinine with alcohol as a medicinal tonic.” The book also notes, “while quinine has a long history in alcohol as a general tonic, it is from the 1840s that we find the consumption of quinine in spirits specifically as a palatable antimalarial. In the Netherlands, the 1841 English Journal complains of a visit to Holland, where gin and quinine must be drunk to keep malaria away.” In the British Army, they were much more likely to use local spirits or ones that were available like whiskey, brandy and rum and it was only in the 1850s that quinine became part of the British army's routine as not only a cure, but an antimalarial preventative. By 1868, the first documented reference to the drink – Gin & Tonic – appeared in Oriental Sporting Magazine, an Anglo-Indian publication.
The cool, summer drink has become a hallmark of the British Raj, so much so that even today’s most popular brands frequently hark back to the “good ol’ days.” Aggarwal has seen several international brands attempt to claim an exoticized notion of India and the Middle East both in and out of the bottle, some that overwhelm with flavours of linked to India, and others that cast an uncritical eye to its oppressive colonial history.
For the founders of Terai and Greater Than – and anecdotally, many of the craft Indian gins I’ve seen on the market – there is a conscious effort to avoid those colonial trappings, which includes botanicals that offer a flattened understanding of the Indian flavour palate. It wasn’t always simple, Virmani said. “It’s an easy story to tell, right? Slap something colonial on it and that’s our story. We don’t want to do that.”
Instead, they wanted to tell a story that is representative of the India they live in. The arrival of Indian craft gin has meant accessibility to a relatively affordable, delightfully drinkable spirit that just didn’t exist a decade ago. Gin bars and experimental cocktails have allowed gin to flourish in small but significant ways, while introducing a new generation of drinkers to something that was once considered old-fashioned.
Large mythical birds aside, cinnamon’s tangled history carries the immense burden of a global spice trade, the shadow of colonialism and the roots of European imperialism. As Virmani says, it’s almost too easy to leave it at that. The challenge is taking a story that’s frequently passed through a Western lens, just as gin’s has been, and reclaiming that narrative and origin.
With Terai, Aggarwal said, the flavour profile had to mirror the verdant land at the foothills of the Himalayas, from where the gin takes its name. The elongated panels of the bottle take inspiration from ancient architectural designs, while the stopper is made in Channapatna, Karnataka, a town in south India that has crafted traditional wooden toys for generations. “There's no way I can tell you that story without bringing India into it,” she said.
*Cassia is part of the laurel family, and known as a ‘type’ of cinnamon. In the Global North most commonly used is Ceylon cinnamon or Cassia cinnamon. Cinnamon season introduction piece talks of the difference, and this piece by Clarissa Wei talks of Taiwanese cinnamon.