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East India Trading Company Gin

Written by Gin Foundry

Very few Gin brands have proper archives. Fewer still have archives in national museums and just one has an entire wing dedicated to its company history. The East India Trading Company’s history is one that spans centuries. It literally shaped the world as we know it today and is as complex and controversial as it is fascinating.

The headlines of such an illustrious (and at times contentious) past? Over three centuries ‘John’ Company built industries, governed territories, and controlled sea routes. They were chartered as the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, but the company rose to such importance that allegedly at its height, it accounted for half of the world’s trade. During its first century of operation, the focus of the company was trade, but Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century and the Company’s history is key to understanding the British Empire and the history of India.

For some modern context on the company - by 1803 which was, arguably, at the peak of its rule in India, the British East India Company had a private army of about 260,000—twice the size of the British Army at the time, with Indian revenues (alone) of what would toady be worth in excess of £1.2 billion.

It literally minted its own currency named “cash,” a term we use all the time some three hundred years on. Just imagine that for a second. Picture the government giving a company the power to create its own currency. It would be like Google printing money that you’d readily accept in exchange for a coffee or a G&T.

Whether it directly introduced tea to Britain in 1664 or whether others did can be debated, but it was certainly through its ships that almost all the early trade was carried out and this produce, together with other spices, textiles, chintz, silks and porcelain, formed much of what was being sold within Britain, as well as manufactured and exported out of it.

To cut a huge story very short, ultimately The East India Company’s achievements formed the basis of the British Empire. By proxy and happenstance, it also formed the core pillars for gin’s flavours as it was their spices, their trade and their imports that influenced the way the spirit was being made, sold and which botanicals became core to the very idea of what a gin is.

So where does today’s gin come into all of this?

Sanjiv Metha – the owner – acquired the rights to the original East India Company over a period of two to three years. This in itself is a remarkable feat to have been able to do. There was an incredible amount of interest, so individuals etc had to be whittled down Highlander style. That anyone could become the sole proprietor is quite amazing.

Since acquiring these rights, Metha has developed a business rooted in the very DNA of the original merchants, so today The East India Company is a curator and purveyor of fine foods.

Naturally, tea forms a crucial part of the portfolio, alongside exquisite coffees, confections, condiments and biscuits. They also sell silverware from India and of course, as you do, they also have a bullion and coin business. Hey - if you could print your own face on next to Liz, you would too.

The idea for making a gin came in 2016 and it became a reality some 12 months later, making a low-key entry to the market. The primary challenge, we’re told, was taking the time and effort to establish the ideal blend of East and West botanicals and incorporating the design elements from the original East India Company.

So why Gin?  East India trading Co’s Steven Sturgeon told us “The East India Company was given a Royal Charter in 1600, to develop trading routes from South Africa into Asia. The early ships returned to the London docks from these distant lands ladened with cargos of rare botanicals and exotic spices. Fast forward to 1800’s and Company officers in Madras, India discovered that quinine sweetened with sugar, diluted with water and mixed with a touch of gin made for an extremely palatable concoction; creating the first Gin and Tonic. There’s so much more to these stories but given this legacy, it was only natural to develop a London Dry Gin.”

Given the centuries of archives to pick from – what then, makes the cut? Theirs is a blend of 12 botanicals. Six ‘classics’ are used: juniper, orris root, sweet orange, angelica and coriander seed. There are also six that are intrinsic to The East India Company, including amchur powder (dried mango), green cardamom and liquorice root from India, plus galangal and long pepper from Indonesia, together with African cocoa bean.

Within an instant you can see that while they might be intrinsic to the company and its history, most are intrinsic to gin as a category too, such is the confluence of the two. In many way, demonstrates that, whether people like it or not, colonialization and ‘John’ company are parallel to the story of Gin as a whole. One informed and influenced the other, from spices flooding into the hands of distillers, to quinine rations, G&T’s, Pink Gin drinks, Gimlets – there is no separating the two.

Talking about the flavour profile, Sturgeon comments “It was crucial to fuse East and West botanicals with a selection evoking the travels of the East India Company, yet retain the heart of London Dry Gin. The start point was six classic botanicals and 12 from the East India Company world. The final selection was honed down after five lab trials”.

The gin is made under contract at Thames and so the process is a familiar one for readers, and a classic one for Gin… It is a straight maceration with the botanicals steeped for 14 hours prior to distillation in a pot still (Thumbelina). The concentrate is added to neutral spirit and cut with deionised water to 42%. Each batch makes approximately 7000, 70cl bottles.

The East India Company Gin to taste:

On the aroma, it’s the touch of tropical mango that really enlivens the senses. There’s a clarity to the flavours, but not really botanical intensity that smacks you in the nose. This is a more discrete opening that rewards those who care to take a little time to fully dissect the nuance.

To taste, the sweet orange adds some additional presence to the amchur allowing for an almost fruity start, before giving way to a juniper and cardamom duo that places somewhere between verdant pine and spiced. The long pepper and galangal add some zing to a dry finish that’s more piquant than peppery. The overall impression is an easy to sip, accessible profile that manages to combine three clear moments on an enjoyable flavour journey.

In a G&T, a twist of orange peel to complement the sweet orange, but we’d recommend being a little more adventurous, find the inner explorer and add a sprig of rosemary to bring a herbal twang, or add some exotic rose buds and cardamom for an enticing twist.

There’s a lot going on for the gin and for a company that sees context through the lens of centuries, the pace of things has to be judged in a slightly different way. According to Sturgeon: “The focus for the team is to continue focussing on the overall growth of the brand, with an emphasis on markets that have a deep connection with The East Company from Cape Town to Singapore”.

It makes sense and there’s undeniably scope for growth there. We’d like to see a radical move around the brand, however, and for the gin to better connect the dots. There’s a lot that needs to be done to really link their massive history to the interests of modern drinkers and to make their story, their past, and the wealth of what they have to tap into relevant and exciting.

Speaking to the team, there was a clear acknowledgement that so far, there had only really been a dabble into this area. Patience, it seems, will see it all come right.

It’s understandable why that rich history is staying largely buried for now. There is a combination of the company’s attention being elsewhere (tea and high-end clients from the UAE and the far east being the majority of shoppers in store) and an unwillingness to really present both sides of the company’s past (from the glory days to the less than salubrious elements). While these stories might be interesting, they don’t particularly help sell super premium tea or fine foods, and so the resultant sanitisation of what is a complex heritage is easy to understand. It’s a shame, though, as for spirits and for gin in particular, we’re in an era of narrative forward brands and rich context, so they would benefit hugely from someone grasping that particular nettle.

We feel that this hesitance is most evidently played out in the aesthetic itself. It’s clearly quite nice and genteel as a design on the bottle, but we reckon it needs more grit. It’s completely understandable why the gold and white, the polished and premium, but where is all of that history? It’s surely about adventure, about pushing the frontier. There are ways to bring the luxurious opulence, the swashbuckling seafaring nature, the spice lands, the dockyard cargo stores and characters that made their company so renowned and somehow take these extremes and layer them together.

There’s a tapestry of history available to them and while the bottle looks fine, it’s a little safe for our taste and lacks the sheer depth of history and that visceral, tangible, multi-layered connection to history. Theirs is currently just another gin on the market. A good one, no doubt, but one that never really addresses that fundamental question: what are you buying into? They are uniquely placed to have a million answers to that conundrum, to be the embodiment of a million day-dreams and something no other brand has – and yet seem at present to be stumbling for words and leaving a majority of potential drinks disconnected.

It’s a complicated idea to grasp, we grant them that, and as the company represents so many things to so many people it will always leave some wanting more. That’s inevitable, but we bemoan so many for having pretty aesthetics and no soul to back it, no reason to believe it or to delve further, no reflection of someone’s ideals imbued into a bottle. Here the much bigger challenge is to present an overabundance of ethos, heritage and characterful stories and imprint it into the fabric of everything they are doing with their gin.

This leaves us excited and daunted on their behalf, but deflated at the current manifestation, despite the liquid itself having most of the thought process imbued into it (and tasting fantastic).

East India Trading Company Gin is ticking away currently, but it has the wealth of heritage to completely blow everything else that ever tried to lay claim to gin’s history away. If, and it’s a big if, they can harness what they have and bring their outstanding history to life and find a way of marrying the two – their gin will go from slumbering obscurity to something truly special.

In the meantime, we’ll gladly just sip away and watch on with fascination.

East Indian