Kasturi Banerjee is a woman for all seasons, but the best way to describe her is “banker-turned-bartender”, she says. After she gave up her sixteen years of unparalleled experience in the financial services industry to establish a craft alcohol company, she realised it was opportunity knocking on her door a second time.
No stranger to the world of entrepreneurship, having started her own cybercafe business at the age of 17, Kasturi decided in 2018 it was “not a matter of ‘if’, it was a matter of ‘when’”, and traded in crunching numbers for bitters, bar spoons, and blending to start a boutique alcohol company called Stilldistilling Spirits.
Goa-based Stilldistilling specialises in producing high quality, easy-to-drink and sip rum, and sells two variants of it under its brand ‘Makazai’, which means “I want” in Konkani — an apt homage to where the company’s distillery is located, as well as where it primarily sources its raw materials from.
Why rum, specifically? Kasturi says there were two primary reasons she decided to specialise in and focus only on producing quality rum:
- Whiskey, rum, and brandy are the most-consumed liquors in India. While whiskey takes the gold, rum is drunk across the country, widely.
- India has the perfect temperate climate for rum.
“If you see how we’re placed as a country in terms of climate and weather, we are quite similar to tropical climates in the Philippines, Thailand, South America..and all these countries make amazing rums. I thought to myself ‘why doesn’t India make great rums when there’s an abundance of sugarcane in the country’. That was when I realised I wanted to be in the quality rum space,” Kasturi tells YourStory.
The startup was incorporated in 2018, but Kasturi put two years of R&D into it before launching, which happened towards the end of January 2021.
“My focus from day one was to make quality rum that one drinks to enjoy and savour. I love my alcohols, but I’m not a big drinker myself, so I wanted to create an experience,” says the former banker.
When drinking on duty isn’t a bad thing
Having no prior experience to fall back on, Kasturi started her journey as a liquor entrepreneur by hitting the books first. She undertook a course in bartending to learn the art of mixing cocktails, and then took up freelancing gigs at events, parties, and tasting sessions.
“That opened up a whole new world for me — being on the other side of the bar table. I understood not only the passion and love with which bartenders mix drinks, but also the things they struggle with, like finding the right liquors with the right notes to enhance a drink,” she says.
She also spent a lot of time touring sugarcane plantations, visiting distilleries at home and abroad, tasting different kinds of rums, talking to and learning from brewers, understanding the notes she wanted her rum to hit, and then perfecting the recipe for her rums with liquor scientists and chemists.
All of that eventually culminated in her crafting two kinds of rums — the Makazai Gold Rum, which has notes of dry dates, praline, figs, caramel, cinnamon, and honey with a vanilla accent, reminiscent of a dessert and meant primarily to be a sipping rum; and the Makazai White Rum (aka Bartender’s Edition), a light, floral, herby, medium-bodied drink, which tastes just as good in a daiquiri or ginger ale, as it does on the rocks.
The White Rum, which costs Rs 1,000 per bottle, is made with sugarcane grown in and around the Panchaganga river in Maharashtra, and pays an “homage to the unsung passion and talent of those bartenders who have enough stories for many a lifetime.”
The Makazai Gold costs Rs 1,300 per bottle, and strives to transport the drinker to a “sunny, later afternoon” when life was simpler and quality liquor aged in oak barrels.
“That has always been what I wanted to create with my rum. When you take a sip of the drink, the expression on your face should be very pleasant, or happy, or smiling. Makazai wants to make people happy and think about good things instead of thinking about how the alcohol burns their mouths and throats,” Kasturi says.
In just two months of its launch, the startup has sold over 600 bottles of rum and had to pull up its production timetable to increase the pace of production. The products are available across leading liquor stores in Goa, as well as boutique, chef-run restaurants, which is where Kasturi says ger rum is most creatively used.
“We’ve received really good feedback from chefs who’ve been using the rums in desserts and to cook up dishes.”
Make drinking acceptable again
Kasturi says her long term vision for Stilldistilling is to play her part in dispelling harmful myths about alcohol drinking, especially in India where it’s considered taboo.
“Education around the good and bad of consuming alcohol should be part of the school curriculum, just as sex education is. Drinking to get drunk, or alter your state of mind isn’t all alcohol is about..it’s so much more than that,” she says.
In fact, most of her target audience is the kind that prefers to enjoy a quality drink, slowly — whether it’s the quintessential millennial who wants to spend money on good quality, conscientiously-produced product, or someone from the older generation who wants to wind down with a sipping drink that has multiple layers to it.
The next immediate thing Kasturi is focussed on is doing around two strong quarters in Goa, building a presence there, and then thinking about expanding to other cities.
The startup had raised money from friends and family initially, and then Rs 2 crore from marquee angel investors and family offices, among them, Tushar Patel ex-COO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, and Dean Menezes of Cosme Matias Menezes. The venture was initially bootstrapped, but has now been spending money to scale quickly.
Makazai’s competitors include legacy rum brands such as Old Monk, Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and others, as well as boutique brands such as Wild Tiger, Fullarton Distilleries and a slew of other rum startups that are popping up all over the country.
According to a report by Craft Drinks India 2020, the Indian alcohol industry is the third-largest in the world, valued at $35 billion. Statista states that the Indian Alcoholic Drinks market generated $49,029 million in 2020 alone, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.3 percent until 2023.