Success: Flavours to tempt Asian tastebuds

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India and China are key markets for this food and beverage manufacturer.

Manuka Gold liqueur is one of the many products Darius Karani has developed. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Manuka Gold liqueur is one of the many products Darius Karani has developed. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Only at the end of the interview does Indian New Zealander Darius Karani reveal this surprising fact: Auckland boasts the third-highest population of practising Zoroastrians in the world, outside Iran.

Asked about the non-Indian origin of his first name, Karani explains that Darius reflects his Persian heritage.

His Iranian forbears were persecuted for following the world's oldest prophetic religion, fleeing to India in the 7th century.

And in recent times, adds Karani, a sizeable proportion of India's Zoroastrian population migrated to New Zealand.

His sister and parents have lived here for many years, and last decade Karani followed their path, hoping to create a better life for his wife and two children after a career developing golf courses on the subcontinent.

Zoroastrians boast a strong tradition of creating successful businesses, and in 2008 Karani bought the global distribution rights to Koura Bay wines.

He then created his own company, Exotica Enterprise, and began exporting award-winning Marlborough pinot gris, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc under the Exotica label, primarily to India and Southeast Asia.

"To the rest of the world, New Zealand is an exotic place and has exotic products," Karani says of his choice of name.

Asian markets are beginning to change and "the biggest markets for New Zealand wine [will be] China and, soon, India". Karani deliberately developed the Exotica wines to better match Asian foods: "We made it sweeter; we changed it a little and it's doing very well."

But he was realistic about wine's future, given the current grape glut and depressed prices and so cast his eye on what he considers are the three key New Zealand commodities: dairy products, lamb and manuka honey.

Karani decided manuka would be the basis for his Kiwi business empire. He employed the technical expertise of Blenheim distilling company Prenzel to create a variety of products using manuka honey.

Pride of place in the Exotica range goes to Manuka Gold premium liqueur, which comes with a host of celebrity chef endorsements. I may not be a celebrity chef, but I can report that Manuka Gold is a versatile product boasting a mouth-watering flavour. It went well with tequila and elevated a dish of sliced yellow yams, onion, garlic, chilli and ginger into restaurant-quality fare.

The liqueur is 40 per cent honey, including blue borage honey to add sweetness, and additional manuka extracts.

"I wanted a liqueur that's not just sold as a liqueur," Karani says. "I wanted it to go into desserts, I wanted to use it in food and I wanted to make cocktails out of it - I wanted something unique that would put New Zealand on the map for making top-end liqueurs.

"It took us six to eight months just to get the consistency right and then another four months to get the trademarks and labels - I own all the intellectual property."

He has now unveiled a full range of products under the Love Manuka label, including lozenges, chocolate, mustard, vinaigrette, cordial, lollipops and manuka-infused coarse sea salt.

It's not just manuka; Karani has also created a sauvignon blanc liqueur, a chocolate liqueur and a product called "ecrevisse", the French word for crayfish.

"It's a crayfish liqueur, the first and only one in the world," he says.

"We got Tony Astle from Antoine's and [the Hilton's] Peter Thornley and they tried it in a Bloody Mary - there hasn't been a change to the Bloody Mary [recipe] for years and now this makes an amazing [cocktail].

"Some people do [drink it neat], a lot of people are using it in half-slit crayfish or a salad, in cooking and people are mixing it in cocktails to give it that fishy taste, which goes with seafood.

"The Japanese, Koreans [and] Chinese - they absolutely love it."

There is a clear commercial focus on China, India and other Asian markets.

But all the wares are available in New Zealand and Australia and Karani exports to North America, Britain and Europe.

The expenditure needed to develop the products and get the company to this point has, Karani concedes, been immense. Exotica has yet to turn a profit and a return on equity remains on the horizon.

But he says profitability will start in January and "by the end of 2012 it will be very profitable and very big".

He points to 42Below as a comparable enterprise: "If 42Below can grow to $300 million then, by the end of next year, [Manuka Gold liqueur] could easily be $30 million."

- NZ Herald

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