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Indian agave spirit Pistola primed for growth following Diageo investment

After catching the attention of drinks giant Diageo, Pistola co-founder Rakshay Dhariwal spoke to Nimmi Malhotra about what’s next for agave spirits from India.

Indian agave spirit Pistola primed for growth following Diageo investment

Agave and alternative agave-based spirits are on the rise. According to IWSR, global demand for the category is growing at 7% volume CAGR (2021-2026), and the growth is not restricted to Mexico-based agave spirits.

Outside of Mexico, agave spirits from countries including Australia, South Africa, and India are gaining traction.

In April, spirits giant Diageo proved just how appetising agave spirits from other parts of the world really are, when Diageo India’s subsidiary United Spirits acquired a minority 15% stake in Pistola Agavepura for Rs. 5.65 crores (£541,000).

Raksay Dhariwal, co-founder of Pistola Agavepura, is heartened by the recent Diageo investment. “In this strategic investment, we get their advice and expertise in sales and distribution networks. They get a board seat and help us grow. More importantly, Diageo helps us build the India agave story,” he said.

The story of Indian agave spirits is in its early stages. Desmond Nazareth launched the first agave spirit, DesmondJi, in 2011 and remains the only agave spirit distiller in India. Pistola is the second brand which buys 100% agave spirit from Agave India Pvt Ltd, DesmondJi’s parent company, to reach new markets.

The sibling founding duo behind Pistola own 20 restaurants and bars across India, including SAZ, the speakeasy PCO bar in New Delhi and India Cocktail Week.

“We noticed our high-end clients opting for sipping Tequila and mezcals since 2016,” he said. “But the import duties for bringing spirit products to India are very high, especially during Covid.”

The pandemic’s on-trade lull granted him time and space to develop his plans for Pistola. Dhariwal approached Nazareth, who had identified wild agave plantings on volcanic soils in the Deccan plateau and set up India’s first craft agave distillery in 2010 on a 44 acre rural plot in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh.

Locally known as rambaans, the plant is identified as Agave Americana and produces an inulin-rich piña similar to its counterpart in Mexico. The local variation produces a heavier piña weighing 100 to 200 kilograms, compared to blue agave’s piña, which weighs half as much. The production follows the traditional Autoclave hydrolysis process in Central Mexico. The liquid is double distilled in a part-copper pot still, and the spirit is then matured in virgin American, ex-Bourbon or red wine casks.

The journey to launch wasn’t without impediments. In December 2021, right before Pistola’s launch, the distillery in Goa, where the spirit is aged and bottled, caught fire. As Dhariwal recalls, the entire distillery and 6,000 litres of maturing liquid went up in flames.

By this time, the seasoned restaurateur knew he was onto “something bigger than he imagined” and pledged to build a new distillery five times bigger than before. He also built a second facility to mature the spirit in the beachside state of Goa, which has become a hotbed for craft alcohol and innovation in recent years.

Given India’s proclivity for whisky and brown spirits, Dhariwal chose to launch the golden reposado in 2022. “This is why we have so many aged expressions. I wanted people to think of it as a brown spirit, not white,” he explained.

Indian agave spirit Pistola primed for growth following Diageo investment

Today, Pistola – the name refers to a small pistol – sells five different styles of colour and additive-free 100% pure agave spirit, ranging from joven, reposado, rosa, añejo and extra añejo. The spirit sells across India and has reached international markets in Thailand, Singapore, and the US.

With Diageo’s expertise, more markets should open soon. In contrast with the domestic market, Pistola’s clear joven expression sells best internationally.

The Indian agave brand continues to evolve. “We are now tying up with single estate farmers,” he says, as he plans to expand production with a distillery of his own to keep up with the rising demand.

Given the category’s growth, more brands will likely emerge, which does not faze Dhariwal. His take: “I’m not shy about competition; I encourage it. What I want is for the Indian agave category to grow.”

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