Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One equal temper

My favourite scene from Skyfall...

Monday, February 11, 2013

An ode to gin

When I was younger, I could quaff untold quantities of beer. It was my favourite drink by far. These days however, I find myself unable to go beyond 2 pints - anything more and my digestion gets messed up. The good news is that I'm not particularly missing beer. Gin and tonic is the new elixir. Such has been my dedication to the stuff, that most people in my family (wife, mom, dad, even grandmom!!) have become gin converts. May the tribe increase!

A recent article on the miracle drink and its history -

Indian Made Foreign Liquor is not a term that promises well. It admits upfront that it is a substitute and probably an inadequate one given that oxymoronic Indian-Foreign pairing. Add to that the knowledge that it is made from extra-neutral alcohol distilled from molasses, flavoured and blended to resemble whatever you want, and your expectations will not be high.

The exception, of course, is rum, which is made from molasses anyway, and Old Monk has always been justly celebrated as the one really good Indian liquor brand.

Is there anything more infuriating than pretentious (and greedy) Indian bars that don't stock Old Monk, but keep random international rums? Such places should be named, shamed and spurned till Old Monk is on their menus! Over the years other IMFL has been improving too, thanks to competition from real foreign brands and the growing sophistication of Indian drinking tastes.

Some premium whiskies are decent (even if, by international standards, their molasses base still make them a kind of rum) and vodkas like Smirnoff are as smooth as you'll get anywhere. I keep hoping that one of the better Indian wineries will grasp the challenge, which is mostly in terms of getting the licences, to distil real brandy from their wine.

Best of all, there are ventures like Amrut Distilleries with their really quite wonderful and authentically made single malt, and now the Goa based Desmondji who can't call their agave spirit tequila for fear of Mexicans sending hit squads after them. It is made from the same agave cactus plants though and tastes pretty good, as does the orange liqueur they are also making, flavoured with Nagpur oranges, so that all the ingredients for a desi margarita are at hand. But there is one inexplicable gap: why is there no good Indian gin?

This is one of the easiest spirits to make - unlike with whisky or tequila, the base material doesn't matter. GrainBSE -4.89 %is usual, but molasses will do, since all that's needed is good neutral alcohol. This is then flavoured with juniper berries, which can be easily imported (though it should be easy to grow them in the hills) and what are called botanicals, a varied mix of spices and flavourings, many of which, like coriander, cassia and orris root, come from India anyway. The mechanics of this flavouring process can vary, but none of it is rocket science.

And gin does not require ageing as whisky and brandy do, so production is faster and cheaper. Gin is also the one spirit with such an intimate connection to India that when Michel Roux, the man behind the creation of the Absolut vodka brand, decided to launch a premium gin that would do for the category what Absolut did for vodka, the name chosen was Bombay Sapphire, and an image of Queen Victoria, Empress of India was prominently displayed on the packaging. Roux and his partners were tapping into the exotic imagery of the Raj, where memoirs of the British in India always have them administering their empire with the help of a constant stream of Pink Gins.

This concoction got its name from the way in which the colourless gin was delicately tinted by a few dashes of Angostura bitters. (The British in Malaysia differentiated themselves by calling this a Gin Pahit, from the Malay word for bitter). When Jeremy Tait, a young British man, was sent to work for the HongKong & Shanghai Bank in Asia in the early 1950s, and landed up in Colombo he met an old friend of his father at the Colombo Club who offered him mango juice.

'I replied, "I think I'd prefer a pink gin." Captain Harper's response was immediate: "I don't know what else your father taught you, but he certainly steered you in the right direction."'

Tait's entertaining memoir, The Obedient Banker, proceeds to describe a career across that Asia that seemed to be spent staggering from one pink gin to another. In Japan he teaches a geisha how to mix one. In Singapore, in the days before Lee Kuan Yew made it the antiseptic place it is now, he sips gin slings watching the transvestites on Bugis Street.

And on one memorable occasion in Juhu in Bombay he and the other bachelors throw a party for all the married couples of the bank where the main refreshment is coconuts filled with gin and plum brandy. The couples are so overcome by this that many have to request retiring rooms to sleep it off. "We thought no more about it until almost a year later when several of the married couples reciprocated by inviting us to Christening parties."

In this, as with all the many British alcoholic memories of India, gin features so large for a fairly basic reason - it was a cheap and easy way to get drunk. Whisky was more expensive, rum was seen as a drink for the army and navy, while vodka was still unusual outside Russia. Gin's citrusy, spicy notes also had the advantage of mixing well with other drinks and juices, so it was an ideal way to take in a lot of liquid in a climate where one lost it fast.

It was also seen as an acceptable drink for ladies, perhaps because its lack of colour made it seem (deceptively) lighter. Most of all, the British discovered it made a brilliant marriage with tonic water, the bittersweet concoction that was originally devised as an easy way to take malaria fighting quinine by mixing it with sugar and soda. Gin and tonic had a vague connotation of health, which certainly helped justify knocking it down in quantity.

Yet this popularity became the problem. Throughout the history of gin we see alternations between periods of high consumption, followed by equally strong reactions against it. Most drinks go in and out of fashion, but only gin seems to do it in such extreme ways. After the 1960s, when expatriates like Tait became scarce in India, a reaction against gin set in.

The Indians who still drank it were derided, as Sagarika Ghose did in her novel The Gin Drinkers, as overly Westernised and alienated in their own country: "Gin with soda. Straight or on the rocks. Or with bitter lemon. Gin at the Gymkhana. Gin on the verandah. Gin at the club with cocktails at six o' clock. Gin was liquid colonialism."

Depictions like these, combined with the emergence of vodka as a stylish, less historically loaded, clear spirit, seem to have lead to gin's current sorry status. With few consumers, Indian manufacturers didn't bother investing in upgrading from the really raw tasting, crudely flavoured versions that they keep just to round out their portfolio. Yet a gin revolution is taking place abroad and it is time India caught up with it. We'll look at it in the second part of this column.