Conversations with men and women of wit, humour and letters
Rahul Mehra of Stranger & Sons fills us in about the excitement of making gin, his favourite bars across the globe, and the overwhelming task of coming up with a name for a brandDo you enjoy reading? If yes, when do you usually get your reading done?
I won’t say that I’m an avid reader. While I enjoy reading, I’m never committed to finishing a book. I usually read 7-8 books at a time, and have this knack of picking them up from where I left off — this applies to people too. I enjoy reading when I travel or when I’m on the road; it is entirely skewed towards non-fiction — history, psychology, politics, CIA and Mossad with a bit of Douglas Adams for good measure.
The most recent book I read was So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, which is the fourth book in the ‘trilogy’ and it’s the second time I’m reading it. Too many numbers too soon?
Do you think India is going through a revolution of sorts when it comes to the sudden proliferation and consumption of craft alcohol and homegrown spirits?
It’s about time! I think calling it a revolution might be a bit dramatic, but it’s definitely remarkable. There is a shift in the way people purchase, from ‘imported is best’ to ‘hey, that’s made here, let’s try it’. This, I believe, is pretty much the first step that encourages local industries to focus on making quality products and sell them within the country rather than just export them.
What was your reaction when you first saw how gin is made in a distillery?
As a home-brewer and with an understanding of fermentation, I’ve always considered the importance of the process — distillation is just a natural next step. I could tell you all the stories about how wondrous my first experience was, but the truth is that it’s a highly technical task which unfortunately has more myth around it than facts and needs more skill than art or magic. The real marvel lies when you see how you start with a grain or a single ingredient and watch it transform into a distinct tasting liquid, and how by tinkering a few steps, the same grain will create something entirely different. This is part of the everyday for me, whether it’s beer, tonic waters or gin.
How important do you think is design and packaging when it comes to liquor bottles? What’s the story behind the double-tailed tiger that features on the label of Stranger & Sons?
Packaging is as important as the liquid, never more, but equal. I’m never a person to judge a book by its cover, or a person by their shoes, but for a bottle, it completes its voice and personality. When we wrote the brief to our artist for our label, we spoke in length about the traditions, mystique, myth and wonder about India and how the oddest and strangest stories coming out of here are probably true or at least considered to be so. Instead of demystifying any of them, we added another story of this three-eyed, two-tailed being with one paw and one hand that makes this gin in the jungles of Goa and beamed her recipe to us. If we keep saying it enough, I’m sure it’ll be taught in schools someday!
What were the challenges you faced while creating Stranger & Sons?
I think apart from the regular challenges for setting up any business in India, which are equal for all, the most difficult process is naming your business. There’s so much newness and excitement at that stage and the rush of thoughts that keeps you awake. It then becomes difficult to separate what identity you want for your gin from something that sounds great, and they’re usually two different things.
Did your research for Stranger & Sons allow you to travel to different places? What do you usually get back from your travels?
I shop for three precise things — mezcal, gin and rum, and if my bag has more space, I’ll fit in vermouths, bitters and rye. Between work making you travel and travelling for inspiration, I think Gateway, Svami and Stranger [& Sons] have excited me so much as products, but they’re perhaps the results of travelling and getting inspired, rather than the other way around.
Which are the bars — both in India and elsewhere — that never fail to disappoint when it comes to creating drinks with enough thought and skill?
Well, considering you’ve narrowed it down to thought and skill, and I’m writing this on a Sunday morning at 10 o’clock, I’d say The Bombay Canteen (Mumbai) for their provenance and commitment to indigenous ingredients; Koko (Mumbai) and Hoots (Delhi) for constant experimentation and imagination in making refined cocktails; and The Table (Mumbai) for their simplicity and that bloody Bloody Mary. I can spend days together at Bramble in Edinburgh and Amor Y Amargo in New York. Then there’s Operation Dagger and Native in Singapore; Old Man and COA in Hong Kong; Old Fashioned in Barcelona; and Buck and Breck and Mr. Susan in Berlin.
How much gin did you consume during the process of research and recipe-testing? Tell us the truth!
If you start any question with ‘how much gin do you consume...’ — the answer will always be ‘not enough’. The same holds for mezcal, rum or rye.
If Stranger & Sons were to feature in a film or a book of fiction, which one would it be?
Stranger & Sons is so many unexplainable things — we run it like a small family business, started by my wife Sakshi [Saigal], her cousin Vidur [Gupta], and me, which explains the ‘& Sons’. There is intrigue and pride in our provenance and agricultural heritage which the gin promises to not just showcase but to celebrate. There are also layers of oddness, myth, wonder and curiosity that Stranger & Sons represents. I’m not sure if there is a single movie or book that I can relate this to, but if RK Narayan wrote Alice in Wonderland or Lewis Carroll wrote Malgudi Days, we would probably be closest to that.
Mehra also gave us recipes for his favourite gin cocktails — you’ll find them here.