A growing palate: How craft rum looks to emulate gin’s success in India

This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.

As a ‘craft rum’, Maka Zai is looking to do for rum what the likes of Greater Than and Stranger and Sons did for gin in India.

Nearly five years ago, I was at a house party when I was asked if I’d heard of a gin called ‘Greater Than’. To my pleasant surprise, I found a gin that, from its packaging to presentation and everything in between, looked no less than at par with international brands. It even looked Scandinavian, but with a touch of Indian warmth added somewhere. Students of design will agree how beautiful a combination that sounds to be.

Since then, India has seen a revelation of epic proportions with gin. The spirit quickly gathered pace, welcoming a host of fellow Indian brands that include the likes of Stranger and Sons, Hapusa, Samsara, Terai, Jaisalmer, and Pumori, to name a few. It became one that defined light-hearted fun, breaking a long-standing taboo of alcohol in India — that you had to be intoxicated if you preferred spirits.

In a breezy, free-wheeling chat with Kasturi Banerjee, founder of the Maka Zai rum (and its holding company, Stilldistilling Spirits), I realise that this is what she’s after — a seemingly uphill battle to show rum in a similarly fun and breezy manner that India’s craft gins have so very suavely mastered.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in India who hears the word ‘rum’ and does not think of Old Monk,” Banerjee says. It is this statement that stands out, as it personifies the kind of journey a ‘craft’ rum brand in the country would need to go through to find success.

But, it’s not just competition. Maka Zai finds favour in the fact that India likes its spirits brown — with whiskey, brandy, and rum being the preferred ones. However, rum is a spirit with a rich history and culture. It has long been known as the drink of the pirates, and of sailors and workers spending months out in the sea.

Does ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ really suit the drink of the pirates, then?

Turns out, such an idea isn’t exactly out of the question.

“If you look at England, rum turned out to be the best-selling spirit in the country last year, grossing sales worth over a billion pounds. The global demand, to be sure, is clearly there, and we’re making an early play with bringing a premium, smooth craft rum experience that’s purely made in India,” Banerjee says.

Key to Banerjee’s plan is to try and change a perception of rum as a winter-only drink, or as a ‘heavy’ drink, per se. In this pursuit, the brand already has three variants available — the light one, or the white rum, the gold rum, and the quintessential dark rum.

To be sure, it isn’t unthinkable to see the fun gin aesthetic being replicated by Maka Zai’s white rum. Bacardi, a fairly popular name, did so with white rum over the past decades — culminating in the brand headlining arguably one of the most popular music festivals in the country, the NH7 Weekender.

Looking abroad, the rum movement is picking pace. At a recent industry gathering organised by The British Council, a host of brands presented their take on new brands based out of England. Interestingly, a majority of them were offering tastings of rum. While some offered potent cranberry infusions, others sought the spirit-lover with various flavours of the dark rum — including spiced mango, banana, and caramel.

While these brands seek to test Indian waters, there is no denying that there is a growing market for new-age rum in the country. As the move to push rum as the spirit of choice grows, brands like Maka Zai hope to capture the front seat and emulate the success that India’s first craft gin brands savoured half a decade ago.

At the end of the day, they’re also looking to keep things simple — and evolve their products as India’s palate for rum expands.

As Maka Zai’s Banerjee puts it, “We’re looking to create a very good product that tastes very good. After all, who doesn’t love sugarcane?”

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