Wine & Dine
Text by Joanna Lobo. Photographed by Tenzing Dakpa
There’s a new gin lining the shelves of certain Goan supermarkets. It’s a flat, hip flask-shaped bottle, and the liquid inside shimmers with a faint hue of blue. This butterfly pea gin is marketed as the cheapest craft gin in Goa. And at 245 rupees per bottle, it’s a well-founded claim.
The past few months have seen an influx of new liquor brands: the above-mentioned Clearly Good Gin, Maka di craft beers, Maka Zai rum and Rahasya vodka. On the anvil are Matinee Gin, Aani Ek infused feni and GinGin. And so my recent sojourn back home found me exploring liquor shops with a keen eye, and I spot shiny new bottles of gin, vodka, beer and whisky. They boast tags like “local”, “home-grown” and “craft”, and the producers are a mix of locals and non-locals who’ve made Goa their temporary home.
Above: Maka di; below: Aani Ek
“Goa is opening up beautifully in terms of experimentation. Tourists and travellers are willing to try something new here, and they carry back that memory with them. Whatever happens in the alcohol industry here spreads far and wide,” says Varna Bhat of Rahasya.
A couple of years ago, the liquor market in Goa got a boost with the arrival of craft options. The state offers favourable excise policies, an abundance of raw materials, a relaxed drinking culture and atmosphere, a vibrant tourist scene, and bartenders and mixologists who are eager to diversify their cocktail menus and include more local options. In addition, there’s the promise of finding the work-life balance that’s often missing in bigger, more crowded cities. The lockdown has seen many people migrate here in search of a change of pace, and this crowd is adventurous in its tastes and willing to experiment.
To understand more about this second wave of alcohol production in Goa, we speak to the minds behind the newest liquors in the market.
Shubham Khanna, Clearly Good Gin
Shubham Khanna is a familiar face in Goan bars. Bartenders will tell you he is the guy who always brings a bottle of his gin with him.
It’s part of Khanna’s routine. Mornings are spent distilling the gin at a factory in Maina Curtorim, the agrarian village in South Goa. In the evenings, he steps out of his home in quiet Parra up in the north, with a bottle of Clearly Good Gin. He picks a random bar, walks in and introduces himself.
It’s a similar strategy that helped Khanna, 25, finalise his gin recipes.
Five years ago, he was working in his family business in Delhi designing swimming pools, but he wanted to do more. He tried “every odd job there is”: travel photography, receptionist, bartender, IT, sales. Nothing clicked. One night, while having a drink, he was struck by the idea of making liquor and chose gin after looking into it because “it seemed easiest; it was versatile, and the market had just opened up”.
Khanna spent two years creating 45 recipes for gin by “throwing anything into the pot” – spices, fruit, hemp, rain-fed mud and even Maggi masala. He carried these experimental concoctions to different bars, conducting tasting sessions and gaining feedback. The best recipe [the one with hemp] would become the yet-to-be launched GinGin. In between, he took off to New York to learn flavour pairings under a mixologist. On his return, he designed a steel distillation column in his family factory and moved it, and himself, to Goa.
Khanna had wanted to release GinGin earlier, but the lockdown delayed the production and bottling process, so he released the affordable Clearly Good (previously called Pan-gin) in November last year. GinGin has nine botanicals, all flavour-infused, and possesses floral and savoury notes. Clearly Good has 15 botanicals and is citrus and juniper-forward. It is a light, fairly smooth and faintly floral gin. It is superior to the other cheap gins available in the market and pairs well with juices or even kombucha. Add tonic water or any citrus element, and it changes colour from blue to pink. To allow for the low price point, Khanna cut down on costs by using PET bottles, creating a label from Instagram’s Stories feature and doing the marketing himself. He had expected 60 first orders – he sold 500 cases.
The venture is self-funded. He now has a team to handle social media and marketing, though he still visits local bars every evening.
If you can’t find Clearly Good at a liquor shop, head to the nearest bar and chances are you may bump into Khanna with a bottle to spare.
Clearly Good Gin retails across Goa; 245 rupees for 350 ml. Instagram
Aditya Ishan and Anish Varshnei, Maka di
The Varshnei brothers are an unusual pair. One loves structure, the other craves unpredictability. One loves cooking, the other prefers brewing. Deciding to leave the USA, move to Goa and start a craft beer business, however, was something they could both agree on.
Aditya Ishan (28) and Anish (26) Varshnei set up Latambarcem Brewers in 2017. For Aditya, it was a chance to leave behind the monotony of his job at a San Diego hedge fund for the excitement of start-up life, and Anish would be able to practise the skills he had picked up as a culinary science graduate from The Culinary Institute of America, in New York.
In India, Goa was the obvious choice. “It has abundant clean water, favourable bottling and brewing conditions, a big beer market, is close to major metros and the culture is the perfect fit,” says Aditya. “And, our parents live here.”
Left to right: Aditya Ishan Varshnei and Anish Varshnei
They found an abandoned distillery in Latambarcem, a small village that’s part of Bicholim tehsil in North Goa, and restored it. In the interim, Anish and his mother ran a restaurant for two years. They also utilised an empty shed on the property to make kombucha with interesting flavour profiles like roasted coconut. It started as a hobby, but Borécha (“good tea” in Konkani) soon became a commercial undertaking.
Maka di (“give me” in Konkani) craft beer emerged in October 2020, in four variants: Belgian Tripel, Bavarian Keller, Belgian Blanche, and Honey Ale. The brothers import hops and malt and ingredients like Valencia oranges. The branding is centred around outer space: “Our consumers are astronauts who explore the unchartered craft beer universe and discover something new,” says Aditya, who handles sales and marketing while Anish looks after R & D.
The brothers also live together; their breakfast table often becomes an impromptu meeting venue, and they always make time for family outings on the weekends.
“Goa is the ideal place to live in and work out of,” says Anish. “The work atmosphere is good, and people have been supportive and cooperative. I don’t think we would’ve been able to do this anywhere else,” adds Aditya.
Goa is prominently featured in the brand: their venture is named after the village that houses their factory, both brands have Konkani names, and their team is largely made up of Goans.
On the cards is a beer museum, tours of their brewery, five new variants across both brands and food pairing sessions.
Maka di retails across Goa, Bengaluru and Mysuru; 90 rupees to 145 rupees (in Goa). Website
Jill D’souza, Aani Ek
Jill D’souza, 34, is your regular feni-drinking Goan. She and husband Karlyle Gomes have a “feni guy” who keeps them supplied with fresh liquor, but they often source the spirit from taverns (local drinking holes). D’souza has a staple feni drink – made with either Limca or lime and chilli, and she avoids the branded kind. “I make sure I only drink locally made feni and not the bottled stuff,” she says.
The couple’s love for Goa’s favourite liquor found kinship in architect Clement DeSylva. One evening last year, while at his home in Assagao, they experimented with feni cocktails and infusions. The use of local chillies was a hit. “We liked the infusions and decided we should continue doing them,” says D’souza. Kokum, coffee, lemon rind, lemongrass – everything was fair game. The experiments yielded four flavours that were so good that they “had to share this with everyone ”.
Enter Aani Ek, an artisanal, infused feni (cashew). They will launch in April with three variants: limon, chilli and honey + cinnamon.
The initial plan to keep it small and only sell to friends changed when the fourth partner, Pritesh Desai [head of distribution] joined.
Aani Ek is Goan. The founders are Goan, they source ingredients locally and the name owes its origins to tavern culture. “The common refrain I heard at these places was people asking for another round by saying ‘aani ek’, [Konkani for ‘one more’]. We want people to ask for repeats of our feni too,” she says.
The founding team does everything themselves, from creating and pasting the labels to curating cocktail menus with the feni. “The flavours are fun and can be had as shots or in cocktails. This is not your typical sit-down drink. Our design thus reflects our modern fun approach to feni,” says D’souza. The bottles are tall with wooden corks and a splash of colour on the labels.
“We found that infusing feni cuts the smell by 70 per cent. The chilli smells spicy, the limon is fresh, and the honey + cinnamon has a light aroma,” says D’souza. Tasting sessions thus have revealed that theirs appeals to first-time drinkers of the triple-distilled liquor.
D’souza has now switched to drinking only cashew feni. “Most feni drinkers believe there is only one feni and that it’s cashew,” she says. “I have become one of those people.”
Aani Ek will launch in April; 750 rupees for 750 ml bottle. Website
Varna Bhat, Rahasya
Vodka usually occupied prime real estate in Varna Bhat’s alcohol cabinet. It was the first liquor she reached for and was the featured choice during celebrations. At one point it took a backseat to gin, but fate had plans to bring this clear spirit back into Bhat’s life more permanently. In January 2021, Bhat launched her own creation, Rahasya vodka.
The birth of Rahasya owes itself to a booze-filled party. Three years ago, Bhat was drinking with some friends, when the conversation veered to the absence of an alcohol that “imbibed India”, like the Japanese sake. Mahua and feni came up. “The point that stayed with me was that none of the liquors we discussed really tasted like India,” says Bhat, 35.
The spark was lit, and Bhat and her husband set out to create “India in a bottle”. “We wanted it to be a white spirit. India already had many gin brands. In the West, craft vodka was getting popular, and, we could be the front runners in India,” she says.
Bhat then took off to Poland and other European countries around 2019 for a few months, meeting up with mixologists and blenders to “understand the essence of vodka”. It took her two years to perfect the final blend, her “secret sauce”, which remains undisclosed – customers are challenged to guess the ingredients and flavours they are tasting. Rahasya is a clear and crisp drink, especially strong on the nose and ideally paired with more flavourful mixers. “This is a ready-to-pour drink you can sip through the night,” says Bhat, adding that it works well with tender coconut water.
The mother of two has an entrepreneurial background, which helped her create Blisswater Industries (the company that retails Rahasya vodka, currently stocked only in Goa) and understand the importance of good branding. Rahasya, thus, is all about India. The logo’s design incorporates sacred, geometric lines and astrological motifs but with a neat, contemporary edge. The apt name, which means “mystery”, was chosen because “it has a sense of familiarity yet doesn’t reveal too much.”
Rahasya stocks only in Goa; 850 rupees for 750ml. Instagram