Goa-based rum startup is re-inventing India’s favourite brown liquor

After she gave up her career of sixteen years in the financial services industry to establish a craft alcohol company, Kasturi Banerjee realized it was an opportunity knocking on her door a second time.

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 specializes 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 appropriate tribute to where the company’s distillery is located, as well as where it primarily sources its raw materials from.

Kasturi says there were two major reasons she decided to focus only on producing quality rum:
Whiskey, rum, and brandy are the most-consumed liquors in India. While whiskey bags the gold, rum is widely drunk across the country.
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 realized I wanted to be in the quality rum space,” says Kasturi.

The startup was established 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 savor. I love my alcohols, but I’m not a big drinker myself, so I wanted to create an experience,” says Banerjee.

With no prior experience to fall back on, Kasturi began her journey as a liquor entrepreneur by hitting the books first. She enrolled in 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 visiting sugarcane plantations and 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 rum with liquor scientists and chemists.

This eventually resulted in her crafting two kinds of rums — the Makazai Gold Rum, meant primarily to be a sipping rum which has notes of dry dates, praline, figs, caramel, cinnamon, and honey with a vanilla accent, reminiscent of a dessert; 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 a “tribute to the unsung passion and talent of those bartenders who have enough stories for many a lifetime.”

The next immediate thing Kasturi is focused on is doing around two strong quarters in Goa, establishing 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.