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Go for the rhinos, stay for the wine

Assam’s traditional rice wines are now available in still and sparkling bottled versions

Judima is the rice wine of the Dimasa community in Assam. (Istockphoto)

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 24.11.2023  |  02:00 PM IST

Winter with cerulean skies, foggy mornings and dew-coated grass is one of the finest seasons to visit Assam: the land of ghost pepper, tea and rice wine. While chillies and tea are available for purchase, indigenous alcoholic beverages were not retailed until recently. A few months ago, during a trip to Assam, I chanced upon the traditional drink bottled and labelled XAJ in a wine shop but (regretfully) didn’t buy it. Luckily, while browsing through the spirit section at Guwahati airport, I found another brand, Luk Lao, and picked it up for friends and family in Mumbai. While tasting it, the husband commented, “It’s just like sake."

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India’s home-grown liquor industry has grown exponentially, with craft gins, rums and whiskies. Another category that has found retail space, backed by changes in state liquor policies, is indigenous alcohol; be it Goa’s feni, Madhya Pradesh’s mahua brews, or the newest entrant—Assam’s bottled rice wine. From exploring age-old brews to distillery tours, there is much to discover in the land of rhinos.

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The “go local" shift in alcohol has also been boosted by Geographical Indication (GI) tags. Judima, the traditional rice brew of the Dimasa community in Assam, got a GI tag in 2021. Several communities in Assam make boozy rice brews with slight flavour variations, known by different names; Dimasas call it judima, Misings refer to it as apong and the Ahoms have xaaj or haaz. While GI tags are encouraging, the significant change was in liquor policies. In states where alcohol is legalised, there are two liquor licences for production: Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) for hard spirits, and country liquor. The state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Assam have issued a third, the Heritage Liquor Policy that legalises the production of traditional brews, like mahua spirits, feni and rice wine.

In Assam, the Heritage Liquor Policy was introduced in 2016. The following year, Jorhat-based entrepreneur Akash Jyoti Gogoi began working towards commercial production. Last year, he launched XAJ, a still rice wine; this year, he has introduced an innovative sparkling version, XAJ Ultra Lite, meant for easy drinking. Luk Lao, by Sivasagar-based Divine Grace Enterprise, was launched in 2022 too.

A bottle of XAJ made in Jorhat, Assam.

Gogoi has expansion plans and wants to introduce XAJ in Gurugram, Haryana, and Bengaluru. These cities are populated with people from the North-East; and Gurugram’s expat crowd includes Koreans and Japanese who would appreciate this drink. His reading of potential demand is backed by a solid understanding of taste preferences. The cuisine of the North-East shares similarities with Thailand, South Korea and Japan. From drinks to food, the staple grain that binds them all is rice. About a decade ago, on a visit to South Korea, he discovered two types of rice wine, soju and makgeolli. It sparked the idea of setting up a distillery in Assam.

Now, XAJ is available across the state and Gogoi has begun to welcome tourists for distillery walkthroughs. Describing the rustic smokey flavour of the drink, a British visitor aptly said: “It’s wine with a whisky taste."

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