In 2011, when Anand Virmani was organizing events for Hendrick’s Gin, in his native Delhi, he discovered a problem—no one in the city wanted to drink it. “People would always say the event is great, but, ‘Hey, can I get a glass of wine?’ or ‘Can I get a whiskey?’” he tells me.
Nighttime drinkers thought gin was a daytime drink. Men thought it was for women. Young people thought it was for grandparents.
Twelve years later, Virmani, 35, and his signature gin brands, Greater Than and Hapusa, which he operates under his umbrella company, Nao Spirits, have surpassed sales of Bombay Sapphire in India. In January, The New York Times published a story about the country’s craft-gin boom, largely attributing the trend to Virmani and his partners, Vaibhav Singh and Virmani’s wife, Aparajita Ninan, and their distiller, Jay Dhawan.
Gin’s popularity makes sense. Its ingredients, such as junipers, turmeric, raw mangoes, and ginger, grow in abundance in the Himalayas, and India’s warm climate makes a gin-and-tonic an ideal cocktail year-round.
It wasn’t always Virmani’s drink of choice. Wine became an infatuation in college, when he was studying economics at Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and was assigned a case study about the beverage. In 2009, after he graduated, Virmani spent a year working as a consultant at Deloitte. (“I hated it,” he tells me.) A year later he took a job, in India, at William Grant & Sons, a distiller and distributor that specializes in whiskey.
By day, Virmani worked at a desk, identifying marketing strategies for Glenfiddich, a Scottish whiskey. By night, he bartended at PCO, a prestigious mixology bar in South Delhi. “It was the only Prohibition-style cocktail bar in the city,” he says. Then, in 2013, he moved to France and enrolled in a year-long master’s program in wine and spirits at the Burgundy School of Business.
Upon his return to Delhi, in 2015, Virmani decided to open his own place, Perch Wine & Coffee Bar, with Singh, the former manager of PCO. While they worked behind the bar, they noticed a trend. “Suddenly there were people coming into the bar and asking for gin,” he explains. “They were being specific. ‘Hey, can I get a Hendrick’s-and-tonic with a slice of cucumber?’”
They kept Gordon’s London Dry Gin as their bar staple, but taxes and customs meant it was hard to make money on imported British gin. “The only other option of gin available in India was really cheap—$2 a bottle, $3 a bottle—which are mass-produced, and cold-compounded,” he explains. “That’s not something we were proud to serve.”
They served the premium stuff, but as costs crept up, they started fantasizing about making their own gin. “It almost started off as a joke, to say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we did it.’ But we did. We went out and made it ourselves.”
They faced two main hurdles: there were no large-capacity copper-pot stills in the country—an extraction apparatus that concentrates botanicals—and they needed a distiller. They took a trip to Hungary, where they purchased a copper-pot still, and tapped Anne Rock, a master distiller from the United Kingdom, to move to India.
After launching, in September 2017, word about their gin spread like wildfire. Despite prohibition in some regions of India and long-standing, complex bureaucracy around liquor laws, Nao Spirits was an immediate hit. Calls poured in from bars and buyers across the country.
“Prohibition actually worked in our favor, because, for example, advertising on billboards and advertising on TV is not allowed,” Virmani explains. “Even if it was allowed, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. It gave us space for organic growth.”
In 2021, they officially surpassed Bombay Sapphire’s sales and became the first premium-gin distributors in the country. Virmani is still in disbelief. “I mean, who overtakes Bombay Sapphire?”
When asked about future plans, he shrugs. He’s too excited about the present. “We’re just riding the wave. People are ecstatic about it,” he says, “which is just an amazing feeling.”
Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor at Air Mail