For many cultures, communities and families across the world, a cup of tea is much more than a beverage to keep us warm or to quench our thirst. A cup of tea is a gesture of hospitality and kindness, and for Kartik Kamat, the fragrant aroma of cardamom, clove, ginger and various other spices feels like home. His mother’s chai tea recipe, to be exact, is a family recipe that’s been a staple in their household for as long as he can remember. Kamat revels in the familial joy that comes from the full-bodied warmth found in that cup of tea. It is a formula derived from an Indian cultural pantry, rich with spice and heritage, and he wants others to feel it, too. That’s why, when he founded Distillery America and set out to create a product that would add a new dimension to Louisville’s spirit scene, he knew that a chai recipe would be the beating heart of his creation. Three years later, Holi Gin is in restaurants and retail stores across our city and bourbon enthusiasts (including myself) are welcoming this delectable chai-spiced gin.
Ten years ago, Kamat received a gift from a friend. A simple pencil holder designed in the image of the elephant-headed god in Hinduism, Ganesh. It just so happened that Kamat received this gift during a Hindu festival that his family would celebrate, Ganesh Chaturthi, and they were just about to head to a community member’s house for pooja (prayer worship). Because he’d received this gift, his family took it as a sign and began hosting pooja at their home.
“A priest comes to our house now,” said Kamat. “The community started coming over – it changed my life.”
If you’ve bellied up to the bar at the likes of The Limbo, Odeon, Ciao and even Safai Coffee, among other establishments, you may have noticed the beaming splash of color and elephant-adorned bottle (inspired by his gift) amidst a sea of amber-hued 750 milliliters. That’s the Holi Gin bottle, the one that Kamat and his associate, friend and former classmate, Mike DiCenso are shouting from the rooftops about. Holi Gin is named after the Hindu spring festival, originating in India, but celebrated widely across the globe. Holi is the festival of colors, love, signifying good over evil, relationships new and old and the arrival of spring. You may have seen, or participated in, The Color Run — those iconic bursts of color dust thrown into the air are derived from Holi Festival celebrations. The elephant that’s now on the Holi Gin bottle is a symbol that inspired Kamat to create the very product in the first place.
Kamat and DiCenso are passionate about changing expectations when it comes to spirits and the reputation of gin. “Gin is typically a white, affluent, young male drink,” explained DiCenso. “We want to break the stigma behind gin. We’re very inclusive, focused toward millennials, and our bottle is Instaworthy!” he said.
It’s true, y’all — it really is.
As is the color-splashed mural on the outside of Distillery America, where Holi Gin is made (the tasting room is expected to be open by March, and the guys hope to host a celebration for the Holi Festival around that time, as well).
When it comes to the classic, botanical spirit, some folks associate gin with our grandmothers’ bar cart, or a floral, perfume-like essence that may not be palatable. If you’ve got an aversion to gin, I suggest you try Holi, as I’ve even taken a liking to drinking it neat (something I’d never imagine doing with gin). “People aren’t used to change, so it’s hard to get them to try it,” said Kamat, of the folks who are self-proclaimed haters. “It’s a bourbon drinker’s gin.”
Perhaps Holi is a bourbon drinker’s gin because it’s got food notes — an attribute bourbon purists find appealing. With cardamom, ginger, clove and more, it’s incredibly balanced, yet spiced just enough to be spirit-forward in cocktails — a botanical spirit with Indian flavors pushing through. “It’s the best gin and tonic in the world,” said Kamat, who insists it must be poured at a 1-to-1 ratio. DiCenso prefers a Holi Gin and soda, but said the options are endless (FYI: We can all try one at the Mermaid Wars Tiki Cocktail Competition where Holi will be a featured spirit at The Limbo on Feb. 24).
Holi has familial ties for Kamat and that kind of passion is something that transcends into the Holi experience. “It’s a feeling I want everyone to have when they come to the distillery or are having Holi, our gratitude for you coming to visit us — it’s an honor.” So, grab a friend and, in lieu of a tea date, make it a chai-spiced gin and nurture your relationships as if it’s the Holi festival. Cheers!