Ask a random spirits consumer in America to name an Indian vodka brand, and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. Which is entirely understandable. While India produces some of the best-selling spirits in the world, the vast majority of Indian beverage alcohol brands never travel outside their borders. To date, name recognition in the U.S. has been limited to a few small whisky brands, but with the recent arrival of SMOKE LAB VODKA, the popularity of Indian spirits, especially clear spirits, is set to grow in the not-too-distant future. If Varun Jain has his way, your next martini might just be made with Basmati rice.
While Varun’s SMOKE LAB VODKA is a relatively new brand, the distillery behind it is no start-up. Far from it, in fact. NV Group, SMOKE LAB’s parent company, is one of the largest spirits producers in India, rolling out 50 million cases a year. To put that in perspective, Jim Beam, the second largest selling American whiskey brand, produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million cases a year. The company was started in 1994 by Varun’s father, Ashok Jain, who worked his way up in the industry from salesman, to wholesaler, to bottler, and ultimately distiller, eventually adding four different distilleries and two bottling facilities to NV Group’s expansive holdings. The operation is so large that they even produce spirits on contract for industry giants like Diageo and Bacardi.
As with so many family-run companies, the first generation has the difficult job of building something from the ground up, but the second generation has the daunting responsibility to preserve what has been built and grow it for a new era. Varun Jain, NV Group’s CEO, has embraced that challenge with the creation of SMOKE LAB, which is not just a brand but, according to Varun, “an incubation laboratory where unconventional and innovative minds come together to deliberate and develop new concepts, products, flavors and designs.” The first creation to come out of that lab is the SMOKE LAB VODKA premium spirits brand that Varun hopes will one day be recognized not just in India but around the world. Varun and NV Group took a big step toward that goal last fall with SMOKE LAB’s launch in the U.S.
Most vodka is made from corn, rye, or wheat, but SMOKE LAB VODKA is made from a grain indigenous to India that features heavily in their cuisine, Basmati rice. “The Indian climate supports the optimal conditions for rice crops,” Varun says, which is why India produces 70% of the world’s Basmati rice. But accessibility was not the most important factor in its selection. “Basmati is one of the easiest grains to work with during distillation,” according to Varun. More importantly, the rice provides complexity to a spirit often considered odorless and flavorless. The word Basmati means “fragrant” in Sanskrit, and that quality carries through in the aroma and palate of SMOKE LAB VODKA. “The distillate procured from rice as a raw material is subtle unlike a distillate obtained from popular whisky grains such as barley, corn, and rye,” according to Varun. “It creates a distinctive crisp, pure flavor and unique floral aromas.”
SMOKE LAB VODKA is distilled five times on a column still for a light, clean profile and then cut to proof using pure Himalayan spring water. In addition to standard carbon filtration, a second filtration is conducted using silver. “To remove the finest impurities,” Varun tells me. The Classic offering is then bottled as is, but a second variety is flavored with aniseed, a beloved Indian herb whose oils are carefully obtained using cold extraction. “This helps in maintaining the distinct notes of the spice which shines through in our liquid,” says Varun.
While SMOKE LAB VODKAs can easily be appreciated on their own, “there are so many great ways to enjoy them,” Varun tells me. “The SMOKE LAB team has been working with mixologists and enthusiasts to develop a range of unique cocktails that beautifully highlight our vodkas and evoke the spirit and flavors of India.” One of Varun’s favorite SMOKE LAB cocktails is a unique spin on the vodka sour using SMOKE LAB VODKA Aniseed, lime juice, and a Sancha tea honey syrup.
1 ½ oz. Smoke Lab Aniseed Vodka
¼ oz. Vermouth
1/3 oz. Fresh lime juice
1/3 oz. Sancha tea honey syrup
1 Egg White
In a shaker filled with ice, measure the above ingredients and shake well. Serve strained into a tumbler glass with ice. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of dehydrated orange.
When he’s not crafting compelling cocktails with his unique spirits, Varun is working to make his company as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. “Since we first conceived of SMOKE LAB, we have been experimenting with our resources, actively pursuing an aggressive, environmental, and civic-minded approach to producing our vodkas and other life-style endeavors,” says Varun. And those aren’t just empty platitudes for the environmentally conscious consumer. Varun’s philosophy is: “Live responsibly within the means of our planet.” To that end, NV Group is working toward a carbon neutral goal. Their distillery in Rajpura is one of India’s first designated Zero Carbon Facilities. “We are committed to converting all our production facilities over the next several years,” Varun tells me. “We want to give back to the environment in every way possible.”
So, what does the future hold for Smoke Lab? According to Varun, they are just getting started. In addition to increased U.S. distribution of SMOKE LAB VODKA Classic and SMOKE LAB VODKA Aniseed, “the team is currently working on additional [vodka] flavor variants that highlight flavor profiles representative of India.” But Varun isn’t stopping with just vodka. SMOKE LAB plans to introduce a range of premium spirits over the next five years, including gin, rum, and even a whiskey, which will also be produced from rice, a style that is already popular in Asia and gaining fans in U.S. and European markets by the day. “We are on a mission,” says Varun, “to amplify our story of quality, mastery, responsibility, and compassion from India to the world through our range of premium spirits.”