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Published on: Aug. 9, 2021, 12:18 p.m.
Nao Spirits is in high spirits
  • Virmani at the Copper Pot Still at Nao’s distillery in Goa

By Suman Tarafdar

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” – an unforgettable line from Casablanca (1942), uttered by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) about Isla (Ingrid Bergman), remains one of the most evocative in cinematic history. It proved to be a precursor for the spread of gin in modern society. Gin has featured prominently in popular culture, whether it was in The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye (1953), Philip Larkin’s poem, Sympathy in White Major and even as James Bond’s Vesper Martini. It was frequently consumed Upstairs in Downton Abbey and the long reigning Queen Elizabeth II is said to be partial to it.

A fondness for gin, which has been gaining ground as a cool, sophisticated drink, amply is reflected in popular culture globally. Of course, arguably its best-known version, G&T, or gin and tonic, was invented in India as a way to make the bitter tasting quinine – essential to cure malaria – palatable for British soldiers in the 19th century.

So, it was a surprise for Anand Virmani, co-founder & CEO, Nao Spirits, to find that, despite the drink’s global popularity, there was no Indian craft gin brand. “The idea of introducing our own craft gin brand was built upon the growing excitement around the gin category around the world and the contrasting silence in India,” he says. “It seemed to us only natural that a product rooted in herbs and spices should have its best expressions from India, the ‘spice capital’ of the world. There was a major gap as far as the product itself was concerned. This was also coupled with the fact that none of the imported ‘quality’ products were actually affordable. We stepped in to correct this imbalance and create a fantastic quality, yet approachable gin brand.” Virmani’s other partners in the venture include Vaibhav Singh, with whom Virmani owns Perch, a bar in Delhi, besides Aparajita Ninan and Abhinav Rajput.

Earlier this year, Nao Spirits raised $2 million in its Series A round of investment, taking its total funding to $5 million since inception. The current round of investment came from a boutique VC firm, existing investors, and family offices.

 Time to grow

The team senses significant opportunity for growth, both in India and internationally. India is of course a country of brown spirits with whisky dominating the spirits market in India. Virmani, however, says a shift in the preference of the consumers has been noticed as urban Indians are gravitating towards gin as their go-to drink.

According to Virmani, the gin market in India, about 1 per cent of the spirit segment, is dominated by the value and low-price category but the real growth is in the premium and standard segments currently dominated by imported brands, Local: 1.83 million cases (-12.4 per cent 5Y CAGR) and Imported: 66,000 cases (51.7 per cent 5Y CAGR).  

The Indian gin market is estimated to be about $278.5 million in terms of value in 2018. It is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 5 per cent during 2019-27 and is estimated to reach about $413.7 million by the end of 2027, according to a report by Coherent Market Insights.

  • The team at its distillery in Goa

Nao Spirits has grown exponentially since its launch. In 2018-19, it clocked a turnover of $450,000, while 2019-20 witnessed a turnover of $1.2 million; now, the projected turnover for 2020-21 is $3 million.

The reasons for growth have, of course, been the change in consumer preference. “While we cannot take full credit for that ourselves, we have definitely contributed to the ‘craze’ as first-movers in the space,” says Virmani. “It has also been important for us to keep up with demand, which is where we have found our built-in scalability to be absolutely crucial.”

The buying choice for Indian gin drinkers is definitely led by curiosity at the moment, though we have seen that consumers are also very brand loyal, adds Virmani. “While they will go out and experiment with new flavours and brands, most are not occasional consumers and will come back to one brand that they feel most comfortable with. This comfort is derived from a number of factors, of which price and brand relatability are the two most important. Price does not need to be the lowest – just fall within a range that is attainable for most consumers. What’s important after that would be that the consumer be able to identify with the brand and what it stands for.”

Every customer chooses one of our brands for their own individual reasons we are sure, elaborates Virmani. “We have tried to keep our brands approachable though and continue to focus on quality. While our target market has squarely been on the 25 to 35-year-olds, some of the more unexpected stories we get (quite often) are from millennials who suddenly realise that their parents or grandparents have also been drinking Greater Than – just goes to show how versatile the gin can get.

Greater Than and Hapusa

Nao has two variants – Greater Than and Hapusa, which are distilled in Goa’s Margao. Greater Than, a London Dry Gin made in India, has seven botanicals – lemon-grass, ginger, chamomile, fennel, Spanish orange peel, German angelica and Italian orris root, apart from juniper and coriander seed, which feature in most gins. Hapusa is the first gin to be made with the Himalayan juniper berry, along with other distinctive ingredients such as gondhoraj lime, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, almond and mango, along with coriander seed.

The challenges around developing both brands of gin were enormous, says Virmani. “In the case of Hapusa specifically, our biggest challenge was identifying and staying true to the India story. This was of course sparked by our discovery of juniper sourced from the Himalayas. The fact that this had never been used in a gin before made for an exciting story to uncover.”

The reception has been great, not just in India, but in over 15 countries, says Virmani. Consumers truly appreciate authenticity in the Gin world and Hapusa has really been able to stand out with its story as well as its flavour. In 2018-19, we sold a total of 72,000 bottles. Last year (2019-20), the tally was 260,000 and we are looking at doubling that figure in 2020-21 to 420,000. About 80 per cent of the sales are from Greater Than and the remaining 20 per cent from Hapusa.

  • Hapusa is the first gin to be made with the Himalayan juniper berry, along with other distinctive ingredients

    Hapusa is the first gin to be made with the Himalayan juniper berry, along with other distinctive ingredients

Virmani says the split between gin for home and HORECA consumption is about even for Nao, an unusual statistic for alcohol consumption in India. “When we enter a new market, the split between the two is fairly even since we focus on building the brand via HORECA a bit more,” he says. “Once the market begins to mature though, retail typically takes on a bigger role and covers about 70 per cent of sales. This stays true for most brands in our space”.

Greater Than (launched in 2017) is now sold in the following seven states: Delhi, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Telangana, West Bengal and Assam. Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin (launched in 2018) is sold in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. “The new infusion of funds will provide a working capital boost to help us expand to states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya along with new export markets,” explains Virmani. “In addition, we plan to amplify the marketing efforts and strengthen our team.”

The biggest markets for the brand have been Maharashtra, Goa and Delhi. Among the countries it is being exported to include the UK, the US, Italy, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Hungary, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand among others.

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