Janus All Set to Rewrite Rules of India’s Burgeoning Brandy Market
AMONG THE many legacies of the British Raj, none has grown as much as our love for brandy — or found a greater fan following, next only to the English language. It is said that no southern prime-time soap is complete without a main character arriving in life and showing it to the world by reaching out for a bottle of Remy Martin. Though this romance may still be a southern phenomenon, but brandy is no longer viewed as a glorified cough syrup on either side of the Vindhyas — and it shows in market numbers.
Brandy today straddles 34-plus per cent of India’s spirits market, up from 26 per cent in 2008 (according to FoodNavigator-Asia.com), and India’s No. 1 brand, McDowell’s No. 1, is the World No. 2 in this category with 11.3 million cases (each case has 12 bottles of 750ml each) — two others, Honey Bee and Old Admiral, in fact, are at Nos. 6 and 8 in the World’s Top 10. And brandy’s expanding fan base among the upwardly mobile middle class is evident in the packaging of the products — slick and sensual in equal measure with lots of classical glass-embossing techniques at play.
There’s a critical difference, though, between the production process of brandy made in India and the way the French do it. The French make brandy by distilling grape wine (and much of the world follows in their footsteps), but thanks to our excise laws, Indians have been drinking brandy made with molasses-based ‘extra neutral alcohol’ flavoured with brandy essence. It is, in the technical sense, not any different than drinking a whisky — it’s just that the essence used is different from what goes into India’s ‘national drink’.
This technicality puts Janus, which will be first available in Goa, followed by Daman, Pondicherry, Karnataka,and Andhra Pradesh, in a league of its own. It is the country’s first 100 per cent premium grape brandy — and after tasting it, I must say it can claim to be the cognac of Indian brandies. It has a very cognac-like sensual nose and the finish is smooth, and although it is very young, which is why it doesn’t have the depth of flavours and the rich hues of a great cognac, it comes with the promise of being here for the long haul.
The similarities with a promising cognac may have something to do with the fact that the production of Janus started off as a joint venture between Sula Vineyards and Remy Cointreau, the makers of Remy Martin and its posh sibling, the Rs-2-lakh-a-bottle Louis XIII, also known as the Rolls Royce of cognacs. With the Chinese market for cognac tanking after Beijing’s crackdown on expensive gifting, Remy Cointreau had to shut shop in India as a part of corporate restructuring, but it left behind its production methods, expertise and even the Master Blender, Yonael Bernard. The brandy is produced in Sharad Pawar country (Baramati, Maharashtra) by Artisan Spirits, a 100 per cent subsidiary of Sula Vineyards, and it will be priced in Goa at Rs 1,500 (750 ml) and Rs 395 (180 ml).
Three table grape varieties — Bangalore Blue, Bangalore Purple and Thompson Seedless — that for many years went into the making of sparkling wines produced in India, are used to make Janus. The wine produced from them is then double distilled in small batches in age-old French alembic pot stills. The eau de vie, or the odourless liquor thus produced, is aged in small French oak barrels under Bernard’s supervision, imparting a smooth and distinctive taste, a honey-like hue, some exceptional aromas, an emerging complex character and a fairly long finish that announces the birth of the country’s first cognac-style brandy. As time passes, the searchlights of scrutiny will be sharply focused on the French Master Blender, for he would be expected to give the brandy a unique character to make it stand out in an already crowded field.
Janus, appropriately, is named after the ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking at the past and the other at the future. He was the god of new beginnings and transitions — somewhat like our Ganesha — and that explains why the calendar begins with the month of January, which is named after Janus. Like the god, the brandy named in his honour promises a new beginning — a premium grape brandy that can stand up one day to the might of the centuries-old reputation of cognac.