How Indian liquor brands are cracking the label code
In the past three years, around two dozen gin and over half a dozen rum brands have come up. On the shelves, they must jostle for your attention - and loyalty
When Tarang Doshi, founder of Mumbai-based Pilcrow Spirits Pvt. Ltd., and his team of collaborators at Define Design & Strategy were coming up with a brand concept for their to-be-launched gin label, the name suggestions followed a wide, wild arc.
The gin was their take on the speakeasy, prohibition era in the USA of the 1920s, and 30s. They visualised non-descript bars hiding a bustling world of drinks and parties, jive and jazz. They wanted intrigue, a noir wipe to their brand story. Quirky name suggestions included Bobby is Free before they decided on Terry Sent Me.
“We wanted to build an aspirational gin brand that creates intrigue from its name, how it looked and felt. The visual design builds that world. The name is derived from a speakeasy password and it stuck,” said Broti Bhattacharya, Define’s founding partner.
Launched last October, Terry Sent Me is one among a crowd of Indian-made gin brands that’s cluttering liquor stores in Goa—the state where almost all new alcohol brands are first launched, and tested before expanding to other regions. While gin may have the most number of entrants, liquor companies are experimenting with other varieties too, with rum set to see a gin-kind of overflowing growth. In the past three years at least, about two dozen gin and over half a dozen rum brands, homegrown, have made it to the shelves.
Goa presents another advantage to liquor manufacturers. Tourists on holiday are more inclined to experiment with new brands. But unlike metropolitan centres like Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru, the home delivery model is not as developed in the Sunshine State. So, consumers will show up at retail stores and ask, choose, and challenge themselves with something new rather than the tried and tested.
The challenge for new brands that have launched in the last three years then, is in acquiring visibility, attracting attention, and creating curiosity.
“Today’s consumers are looking at the label, at colours, a story, design… these interests are due to travel, exposure, sometimes to foreign experiences. The consumer today is interested in brands and labels, not just in drinking,” said Kasturi Banerjee, founder of Stilldistilling Spirits Pvt. Ltd. that launched the rum brand Maka Zai two years ago and the newly-launched Mesma.
New founders looking for an advantage in a competitive market realise that a strong brand story, a snazzy bottle, brilliant label designs and a funky name could entice a customer to pick up their bottle from a crowd of several others. Before the taste or the flavours, all alcohol brands are battling initially for, as Banerjee put it, “the first seven seconds of impression”.
Sector (London Dry Gin) takes its name from an assumed physical location where some of the best gin is made. Because its distillery is situated near the Dabolim airport in Goa, close to an airbase, the Sector label includes an MIG and a flight radar.
Oregin, launched in July, uses oranges, which is reflected in its name. Maka Zai is Konkani for “I want” while flavoured feni brand Aani Ek translates to “one more”. Earth (rum) is a tribute to nature. The Sanskrit word Tamras, also a gin brand, loosely translates to copper-coloured, in a reference to the copper stills the distillery uses.
Some believe an Indian or Indian-sounding name works best for a brand that’s indigenous; others prefer a westernised one since gin, for example, was initially introduced to India by the British in the 1800s. “Romanticised Indian names evoking the colonial era, like Sepoy, Bagh, Malhaar, Monsoon etc. that hark back to nostalgic times don’t work in my opinion,” said Lavanya Jayashankar, founder of Speakeasy Spirits Pvt. Ltd. that makes Matinee gin since 2021. “Matinee has a positive connotation, with theatre and The Great Gatsby. It resonates across generations and audiences.”
“Our brief was to embrace India without the peacock, elephant or taking the Taj Mahal route. It’s not a white person making an Indian brand. Matinee, like the afternoon show, works as the first drink of the day.”
New-age Indian brands also want to shed any kind of colonial representation, preferring something that can be identified by a contemporary consumer. “A lot of people have tigers, lions and snakes, which is a relic of the past. Maybe 75 years ago it would have worked,” said Bharat Bhagnani, founder of Living Root Beverages which makes Sector gin.
The beverage founders who spoke to HT Premium said it took them from three months to about a year to get a fix on the brand name, and label design. “We didn’t want an anglicised name,” said Khalil Bachooali, co-founder of Adventurist Spirits Distillery—makers of Tamras gin. “We wanted an Indian, Sanskrit name because there is something valuable in adding to a global vocabulary. Ours was always an Indian gin made for India and the world.”
Bachooali and co-founder Devika Bhagat, had a working title of Lotus Eaters, but Tamras (which also means lotus in some languages) fit it well because their products use lotus flowers, stalks, roots and seeds.
Terry Sent Me took the illustrative route with the label, sketching out a bar that has glamorous, mysterious people, the door with a peephole, jazz musicians and even someone in an old diver suit. The Oregin’s design team went for a splash of colours, with the main OG logo depicted by an orange slice with coriander, juniper and all the other botanicals in the forest behind. A pair of hands are meant to show farmers that take care of “their produce like a baby,” said Manpreet Singh, one of the founders of Oregin, which is supported by state-funded Punjab Agro Industries Corporation Limited. “I am not a minimalist. Gin is a happy drink with a fun vibe. The goal is to make you happy, so we focussed on vibrant colours.”
One of the things that stuck with Jayashankar about the Matinee label was that “the more you drink, the more shapes you see emerge on it”. The bottle label has thick colourful lines that on closer look, take the shape of two faces. “We wanted to embrace colour. The thinking was to have two ageless, genderless faces. The idea of waves and chemistry put the design together.”
Maka Zai went with light blue, olive green and earthy coral colours, deliberately moving away from traditional dark shades associated with rum. They added an ‘M’ and a ‘Z’ in Devanagari on the cap, with symbols for sugarcane, the sun, and an Olive Ridley turtle on the bottle. For their limited edition Mesma, they took a drop of the rum, crystalised it, and put it under the microscope to capture the different patterns it threw, said Bidisha Roy Chowdhury, founder at the design firm Popping Mustard who worked on Maka Zai.
Tamras went with four shades of blue—because it connotes freshness, the skies and regality—and one shade of copper. The label has a hand-drawn illustration, which is digitised and screen printed. A bunch of characters are on it, including Goa’s state animal, bird, fruit and tree, a man who is on top of an hourglass “owning time”. Several illustrations show a man with nature and possibly one human figure on a crocodile.
Bachooali wanted a clear glass bottle for his clear white spirit that’s slowly diluted over 28 days. They picked one with a heavy base, something with a tactile feel and one that could be upcycled. “You pick it up because it doesn’t have a paper label and once you have it in hand, it feels heavy, premium. You wonder if it’s expensive and turn the bottle around to see if you can afford it,” said the ad-film maker.
Earth decided to stay minimalistic, sticking to white and black, in sync with their philosophy of being closer to nature and giving back to the environment. The design has “every element, water, air, and Mother Earth’s hand, which is cradling a star. We had the idea of a celestial body connected to nature, surrounding all other elements of plants, mountains, birds and the moon cycle,” said Sachin Bhamri, founder of Surbhi Beverages which makes Earth rum.
“Discoverability is the mark of a good design,” Chowdhury added.
The whole branding exercise could cost anything in the wide range of ₹75,000 to ₹25 lakh. But the more common spending range is between ₹5-10 lakh, industry experts said.
The sales of new brands depend on a few factors—in an industry that’s not allowed to advertise, suffers several stigmas and already faces mercurial excise laws. Social media is the primary outlet for brand marketing, though most brands prefer subtlety to noise. Some do bar takeovers, tastings, and sponsored events. Much depends on the enthusiasm of the retailer when, for example, a customer walks in and asks “Naya kya hai (what’s new?)”. Finally, the number of restaurants a brand reaches aids visibility, because that’s the easiest way for a consumer to taste something new without investing in a bottle.
“Word of mouth is the fastest influencing factor,” said Jayashankar.
There is obviously a flip side to the branding business. Some people have told Doshi that the name Terry Sent Me is too long. Bhagnani presumed the Zeppelin sketched on the Sector label would work to symbolise a vehicle that goes from sector to sector. But many people could not figure it out, asking if this was a ship or a car or something else.
“There are legal restrictions but you can take more risks. I not saying two opposite things. What I mean is that the approach can be free from a narrative, it can be eccentric. The competition is so hot that you have to set yourself aside,” said Define’s Bhattacharya.
Time in the market also allows liquor manufacturers to figure out what’s working and what’s not with their brands. Sector, which recently completed a year, is launching another label for a flavoured gin. Jayashankar is working on a redesign for Matinee to avoid excise and licensing restrictions in certain states.
All of them agree that the brand name, label design and origin stories will only take them that far. “The customer wants something which the other person also wants. The market is filled with people with FOMO (the fear of missing out),” said Bhagnani.
“You can do promotions, amazing content, but only once they taste it are they going to buy more or again,” said Doshi. “The only thing that will take you forward is the liquid on the lips.”