TWO BIG THINGS
#1. As a new brand in an increasingly-crowded market, you need powerful storytelling that allows customers to be part of an experience vs buying a product.
#2. Brands can embrace their Indian identity in sophisticated, nuanced ways.
“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives than all the doctors in the Empire,” Winston Churchill is supposed to have said. The G&T was originally concocted as a medicine. During the British colonisation of India, soldiers needed to take quinine to prevent malaria. To mask the bitter taste of quinine, they mixed the tonic with lime, sugar, and their daily quota of gin, creating what is today a popular cocktail.
However, India’s gin connection seems to go further back than the Raj. Several botanical ingredients used to make gin in Europe, may have found their way across the ocean via ancient maritime Spice Routes.
Surprisingly, India has not had a vibrant gin culture for over 200 years.
Well, until now.
Today, India is the 5th largest market for gin globally even though gin makes up less than 2% of the alcohol sold in India. Revenue in the gin segment amounted to US$1,754.00m in 2023 and the market is expected to grow annually by 8.01% (CAGR 2023-2027).
This growth has been spurred by homegrown craft gins with exotic botanical bouquets, coming mostly out of Goa. We picked five brands, each of whom have taken very different approaches to their positioning and packaging design. Their story highlights two important consumer trends in India – the waning desire to ape the West and the importance of good storytelling.
Nao Spirits: Ushering in the Gin-aissance
The first gin brand to open up the space was Greater Than from NAO Spirits.
Founders Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh had been running the Perch Wine & Coffee Bar in Delhi for a few years, when they noticed a rising interest in gin-based cocktails like negronis and martinis. Unable to find an affordable local craft gin, they decided to make one themselves.
NAO Spirits has two flagship brands: Greater Than and Hapusa.
Greater Than is a classic London dry gin aimed at new gin drinkers. Affordable, readily available, and with a clean, non-overpowering flavour, it is popular as a pouring gin for cocktails.
“As the first gin brand to come out of India, we were constantly urged to make our design more Indian. But we did not want to go down the paisleys and elephants route. Instead, we focused on what India has contributed to the world,” says Aparajita Ninan, co-founder and creative director of NAO Spirits.
The answer was mathematics. From here, the team took the idea of using a mathematical symbol as their brand name and identity — Greater Than. Their website says, “We didn’t invent gin. We just made it greater in India.”
Hapusa, described as ‘the world’s first Himalayan dry gin,’ has a bolder flavour of juniper berries and is for gin aficionados.
For the Hapusa design, the NAO Spirits team chose a stronger product connect.
Hapusa is the Sanskrit word for juniper berries which grow in the Himalayan region and are the key botanical used in this gin. The bottle itself is a deep purple-black, the colour of a ripe juniper berry. The label cues the shape of a mountain and uses minimalist lines to depict the Himalayas. The brand name is written in Devanagari at the bottom, the syllables spaced so as to be a pronunciation aid. “Hapusa is a gin best sipped chilled — at mountain temperature,” says Ninan, “That’s the cue the label gives: enjoy this gin with a view of the mountains.”
Stranger & Sons: Going Global
In 2018, Third Eye Distillery was established by Sakshi Saigal, Rahul Mehra, and Vidur Gupta, with the larger goal of enhancing the cocktail culture in India. Their gin brand Stranger & Sons was launched in Goa and is now available internationally in 11 regions.
“India was seen as a market that prefers dark spirits. There was also a perception that locally produced spirits would not match up to imported products in terms of quality,” says Arth Shah, Brand Manager at Stranger & Sons. “We wanted to put Indian spirits on the global map through a contemporary, premium gin.”
“Our gin celebrates contemporary India and its strange peculiarities — complex, both rooted and progressive, and with a rich culture of storytelling. There’s always something new to uncover and nothing is as it seems. Our label is designed to depict this India — it demands that you look again for elements that puzzle and intrigue,” says Shah.
The brand’s storytelling revolves around a mythical being (inspired by a tiger but with two tails and three eyes) that represents the mystique of India. The label background depicts a jungle that hides the nine botanicals used in the gin. The sun and moon insignias stand for the versatility of gin as both a daytime and an evening drink. The same mystical storytelling is carried forward on the brand’s website and on-ground activations. The brand identity and packaging for Stranger & Sons was developed by Argentinian creative studio Oveja&Remi.
Tamras: Proudly Maximalist
Tamras, a small-batch Indian dry gin, was launched in 2021 by Adventurist Spirits Distillery, owned by screenwriter Devika Bhagat and adman Khalil Bachooali. Given their creative background, they knew that storytelling was essential to stand out in the increasingly competitive Indian gin market. They partnered with creative studio Irregulars Alliance to do this.
“Tamras’ brand story centres around the Greek myth of the Lotus Eaters,” says Anant Ahuja, Co-founder of Irregulars. The story goes that a race of people lived on a Greek island, eating the fruits and flowers of a lotus tree of unknown botanical origin. Whoever consumed the lotus would be put into an altered state of mind and exist in a sort of timeless peace, forgetting all personal ties.
The myth makes sense for Tamras, a gin created in the sun and sands of Goa. Ahuja’s team created custom lettering for the logo and over 300 illustrations depicting scenes from the story. These feature botanicals and humanoids with bird heads and wings, depicting the gin-drinker’s pleasurable slide into a parallel universe. The colour palette has eight shades of blue and a secondary palette of two shades of sandy brown, picking cues from island life.
User research revealed that their target audience would be willing to pay a premium for bottles that looked opulent when placed in their home bar cabinets. “To be distinctive and cue a luxurious vibe from the get-go, we chose to take a maximalist approach to design,” says Ahuja. “Tamras has custom-bottles from Saverglass, a French firm globally renowned for high-end glass work. Instead of a label, we’ve chosen to print the intricate illustrations directly onto the glass, something that requires a great deal of creativity and precision-drawing. But the results are worth it.”
Terai: Indian Design’s Coming of Age
A ‘grain-to-glass’ gin made in Rajasthan, Terai is the first craft gin launched by Shekhar Swarup of Globus Spirits. The family roped in the studio Quick Brown Fox, with visual designers Hanumant Khanna and Kriti Monga as creative directors. They began work on the brand story even as the product recipe itself was being formulated.
Terai wanted a restrained, sophisticated design that captured the Indianness of the spirit without slipping into stereotypical depictions. “Rather than choose a single route to represent India, we opted for a broader definition of Indianness: the spirit of crafting by hand.” says Monga.
The Terai bottle has a tall, faceted design inspired by the hand-carved pillars of ancient Indian architecture. The stopper is made in Channapatna from backyard-grown ivory and hand-polished using tree lacquer and vegetable dyes by primarily women artisans. A collection of colonial-era coins unearthed in the Swarup family home inspired Terai’s illustration style for botanicals.
“Ancient texts and archaeological finds show that India has always had the rich botanical diversity and brewing know-how that gin needs,” points out Monga. “So the rising interest in Indian craft gin today feels like a true homecoming, not the mere co-opting of a western idea.”
The THC Take
The varied approaches taken by these young gin brands drives home the point that Indian design, like gin itself, offers plenty of room for interpretation and creative expression.
Defying every attempt to define and restrict it, Indian design continues to be experimental, pluralistic, and unique to the designer or studio working for a particular client who has their own objectives and audiences.
What is Indian design? There is no definitive answer. And that is as it should be.
Indian design is popular due to its rich cultural heritage, vibrant colors and patterns, fusion of tradition and modernity, sustainability, and handmade craftsmanship.
What a fabulous read. Gowri and THC – you have outdone yourselves. Can’t tell you how much it means to us to have Indian brands showcased in a meaningful way, instead of the usual twaddle.