Helena Nicklin interviews Paramjit Nagra

Helena Nicklin is an experienced wine and spirits writer, author, consultant, competition judge, podcaster and broadcaster with her own returning, global, drinks travelogue TV series on Amazon Prime: The Three Drinkers. After years of gaining experience on wine shop floors, as an advertising executive at Decanter and joining the buying team for a well-known wine merchant, Helena now specialises in communicating with exploring wine and spirits consumers, translating the geek speak into accessible, memorable, bite-size chunks through live events, broadcasting and the written word.

Over the years, Helena has become an advocate for a more inclusive drinks industry and talks today to a woman who has faced her own challenges while creating a successful drinks brand: Paramjit Nagra. Breaking boundaries as an Indian female in the drinks industry, Paramjit is the co-founder of Crazy Gin. A drinks brand born from a drunken Friday night conversation, Crazy Gin is globally recognised as the pioneers of “The World’s First Clear Lassi Gin”. Paramjit is passionate about breaking boundaries and stereotypes and is a proud mum to a 3 year old.

HN: Welcome, Paramjit. Let’s start with Crazy Gin. Tell us what it is and the story behind it. What makes it so crazy?

PN: The idea for Crazy Gin came about one Friday night. My husband Bruce and I had had a few drinks and were waiting for a takeaway curry to be delivered. We got to thinking about how our families would look at the curry and be sad that this was what people in this country think Indian food was really like. Then we got talking about how, as second generation British Indians, our mothers would want us to embrace British Culture but not forget our roots (I’m from Punjab). My mother particularly did this through food. It was her way of linking the two cultures together. Bruce and I discussed how important this had been for us and we realised that she had never done any experimentation with drinks. The wine had hit and we began thinking about what creating the perfect, British Indian drink would look like.

Growing up in one culture but living in another, I had often felt that I was a different person in different places, speaking English at school but Punjabi at home. Now that I am older, I feel that this has come full circle, where having two cultures is very much something to be proud of. We wanted to create a drink that was more than a bottle of gin. We wanted something that would bring people together; something that celebrated our Indian roots and British upbringing that was not just an ‘Indian drink to go with Indian food’, but a flavour-packed spirit that would suit many types of cuisine from all around the world. We went for gin as we knew that juniper would be a great, complementary starting point for the flavours we would bring in. The idea wouldn’t leave us alone. Not long later, we quit our London jobs, (I worked for the Met Police running events), sold our house and moved up to the Midlands to create and run a distillery. My mother referred to our not-so-little project as ‘Pagala’, which is the Punjabi word for ‘crazy’, to put it mildly. It stuck. Now we have our original, clear lassi gin, and have just launched our Punjabi Chai gin, which is based on an old family recipe for a Punjabi cup of tea. The company is doing well.

HN: I can see why your mother would say it was crazy, risking everything to pursue the dream! What made you take the leap?

PN: We decided on the name not just because my mother referred to this as our ‘crazy gin’; but because something happened that made us feel it was crazy NOT to pursue the dream.

My father in law was a brilliant man, always the life and soul at any party. He would always talk about his incredible plans for retirement, living six months of the year in the UK, then six months in India when the weather here got cooler and generally having a great time. Within one week of retiring, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Within six months, he had become very poorly and passed away. That awful, sad and stressful process really taught us something: when you see death so close by, you realise very quickly what is truly important and all the background noise starts disappearing. For us now, ‘crazy’ is a very positive word. It reminds us to live the best life we can, always learning and building something we love.

HN: We could all do with remembering this from time to time. It can’t have all been easy though. What have been the big challenges you have faced along the way?

PN: A big thing we struggled with was having a total career change in our mid-thirties. Any kind of funding or training programmes seemed to only be open to people much younger than us. Also at the very start of our process, we had been working with someone who made the gin for us and six months in, they suddenly announced that they weren’t going to be available to do this anymore. It was at this point that we decided to go all in, find a way to do it ourselves and that meant selling up and moving out. That was a challenge but it was all for the best, we finally realised. We could now concentrate on being completely in charge of every aspect.

My personal demon, my biggest challenge throughout this, was trying to do everything all at once and trying to do it perfectly - and there had been so many life changes. While the distillery was new, I got pregnant and had our son Zoro. I suddenly found myself spinning all sorts of plates, trying to be a good mother, trying to be a good wife, a business owner and partner, the ideal daughter, the ideal daughter in law... Looking back on it now, I can see that I had an identity crisis. I’d gone from a large job at a large company to working just with Bruce at the start. We’d left our friends behind. I wasn’t good enough at anything. I felt immense guilt for spending time working and not being 100% focused on Zoro and then I’d feel immense guilt about not working on the business when I was with him.

"I have also learned that trying to do everything perfectly leads to madness. If we always wait for the perfect moment, it might never come. My husband Bruce taught me that."

HN: As a mother running two businesses, I absolutely hear you on that. How did and how do you look after your mental health when this could be all consuming?

PN: We all wear so many hats and every hat has its own set of goals. Nowadays, I set much clearer boundaries with my time and approach things in blocks. If I'm working, that has my complete focus. If I’m with my son or my family, that is the only thing I am doing at that moment.

I have also learned that trying to do everything perfectly leads to madness. If we always wait for the perfect moment, it might never come. My husband Bruce taught me that. We had an opportunity with Harvey Nichols when the brand was still very young. We had literally one bottle of liquid as we had just finalised the recipe. The label was printed out on an inkjet printer and stuck on the bottle with sticky tape. Old me would never have wanted to send the bottle like that for such a high profile potential listing but Bruce saw the opportunity as one we simply had to grab - and grab now. We were launched by Harvey Nichols and the gin is now in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants and bars. We were also listed in the Observer Food Monthly’s famous ‘50’. It has all happened very quickly.

HN: I have huge respect for anyone who can keep their boundaries clear like that. These are huge learnings. Were there any more learnings you can share with us?

PN: Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with those boundaries at times. I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was before though. One thing I heard in a talk recently really stuck with me. It was around thinking of Zoro, our son, as a stakeholder in the business. He has just as much right to my time, as does my husband. It has helped to put the work down.  And it doesn't have to be a big gesture; sometimes it’s just going to the park or having a picnic in the living room!

What has also helped in a way that I never imagined possible however, is talking to other people about the challenges and juggling. As soon as I felt I could be honest enough and brave enough to do that, I found that others were in a similar position. I felt supported. There’s something immensely empowering about knowing there’s a whole tribe out there who absolutely gets what you are going through. Social media can make things harder for this as you just see everyone’s curated best life. Actually talking to people makes a difference.

HN: Being a mother in business is always certainly a difficult juggle. Simply being a woman in business often is! You’ve also mentioned the added challenges that can come with being an Asian woman. Tell me more about this.

PN: Oh, I’ve had the things many women have had to put up with; having backs turned on me while people would just speak to Bruce, for example. There’s always the assumption that it’s just my husband’s business. As women, we have to work much harder just to be seen.

Being an Asian female in the drinks business has been interesting. There is freedom in this though. I’ve always been the outsider, so I don’t feel the obligation to follow the rules in the same way that white women might. There’s a system. This is a positive to me; I see value in being able to offer another viewpoint. I get to say ‘why shouldn't we do that’ rather than ‘why should we?’

I still do get a lot of comments like ‘I thought ‘your lot’ didn’t drink?’, but these days, I see it as an opportunity to educate rather than mock any ignorance or take offence. There is a lot of confusion between religion and culture. There are so many conflicting views. This has really helped me look at how far we have actually come in recent years. Yes, we still have a long way to go but we really have come a long way. It wasn’t that long ago that Asian women didn’t drink at weddings for example - and now look, they are making the drinks! We should celebrate change where we can.

HN: That is an incredibly positive way to look at it. What else do you think our industry can do to become a more genuinely inclusive place?

PN: I’m a big fan of the publication SatedOnline by Vicky IIankovan, where she writes about leaving the door wide open. It’s about looking around the room and seeing who is not there, who does not have a seat at the table. We all need to take more responsibility for doing this in the workplace, especially those who put together events, debates and panel discussions etc. We need to be aware of our privilege. One thing I want to instil in my son is to be aware that at times, things will be easier for him as he is male. He will also be aware that sometimes, they will be harder because of his ethnicity. The important thing I want to teach him is to know when he is in a position of privilege and where he can play his part.

On a final note, I want to say how important visibility is. It’s no good me sitting at home complaining that there are not enough Asian or females in drinks. I need to be out there talking about my brand so my face can be seen and my voice is heard. This visibility is so important so others know that they are welcome. Young Asian women might see me and think ‘Oh, so I can do that too?’

HN: Thank you so much, Paramjit.

PN: Thank you for having me!

You can discover more about Crazy Gin and Bruce and Paramjit’s story here.