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Goa's reimagined 'urraca'

‘Urraca’, once a summer drink enjoyed only by Goans, has moved from homes and tavernas to upmarket bars

Urraca Granita at Tesouro. (Photo: Karl Fernandes)
Urraca Granita at Tesouro. (Photo: Karl Fernandes)

For centuries, urraca was one of Goa’s well-kept secrets, a summer drink distilled and drunk at home, on cashew estates and in the local tavernas. About a decade ago, it slowly started making its way out and a few non-Goans became familiar with the seasonal drink mixed with Limca. Now it has arrived in upmarket bars, with mixologists making imaginative cocktails based on this spirit, which is distilled between March and May.

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Urraca is the first distillate of the cashew fruit, before it is distilled again to make feni, Goa’s most popular spirit. Unlike feni, it’s not pungent; it has a delicate cashew-y, fruity flavour. And its alcohol volume of 20-25%, just a bit higher than wine, means you can have more than a few drinks without worrying about a heavy head. “Urraca is naturally fermented and has no additives, so it’s an easy drink,” says Anika Proença of JUNGLE by Sturmfrei, a hostel with a performance area and bar in Vagator, north Goa.

Urraca also has a relatively short shelf life; it has to be consumed within two weeks of distillation. This, combined with the seasonality, made it less viable for bar menus. “Until recently, no distillery in Goa worked to produce urraca exclusively. It was drunk at home or sold as a way for farmers to make some quick money to buy firewood or pay salaries,” says Hansel Vaz, founder of the feni label Cazulo Premium Feni .

Its seasonality also makes urraca difficult to brand and bottle, something Karl Fernandes, head bartender at south Goa’s popular bar Tesouro, feels is needed to take urraca to the next level. “Even beer has a shelf life of six months. If urraca can be bottled, it will be accessible to more bartenders and can grow even further with government support.” Tesouro is known for its Urraca Granita, with sea salt, sweet water and hints of citrus finished with frozen raspberries and apple.

Since each farm distils urraca differently, it does not have a standard taste either, a fact that often sparks a healthy debate over who has the best urraca—north or south Goa. Most lean towards the latter. Sheldon Abranches, partner at the Hideaway Bar in Vagator, says urraca from the south usually arrives two weeks later than the north. “Distilleries in the south make the first batch only with fallen cashew fruits. Urraca from the north is fruitier and lighter, while that from the south has a heavier body.”

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Urraca has gained new fans over the past couple of years. “The crowd that moved from whisky to gin is now looking to try new spirits, with an emphasis on local and home-brewed options that are not commercial. This has led to a renewed interest in urraca, especially among tourists,” says Nathaniel Da Costa, partner at the Hideaway Bar.

Traditionally, a urraca cocktail would be made by adding Limca and a squeeze of lemon. Some add a split chilli to give it a bolder taste. But this standard recipe is now being reimagined in creative ways.

The Hideaway Bar, for instance, offers a Urraca Negroni, with hibiscus tea, campari and jamun vermouth, and the Marie Marie, with hibiscus tonic, Vimto syrup and sour acids, served in a glass rimmed with sumac salt and garnished with a hibiscus flower. This year, their best-selling urraca cocktail was a Mango Basil one.

The interiors of Antonio@31. (Photo: Siddhanth Sheorey)
The interiors of Antonio@31. (Photo: Siddhanth Sheorey)

Chef Pablo Miranda of the few-months-old António@31 in Panaji says their urraca cocktail was the highest-selling drink this summer until the lockdown. “Urraca was never available in upmarket bars until this year and the response has been phenomenal. Earlier, people wouldn’t drink it because it was mistakenly compared to santra (cheap country liquor) in Maharashtra and seen as a cheap drink,” says Miranda, adding that he managed to convert single-malt drinkers to urraca cocktails, including one with fermented kokum syrup for that extra umami flavour. “We educated them about the spirit, gave them shots to try and eventually converted them into die-hard urraca fans.”

Vipin Raman, partner at beach bar Jamming Goat in Utorda, south Goa, echoes Miranda: “We had a couple of urraca cocktails on our bar menu and a lot of tourists tried it this year.” They offer one made with lime and house-spiced passion fruit soda and another with lime and carbonated tender coconut water.

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Urraca occupies a strange space in the world of Indian spirits. While it is legal and can be sold in bars, it does not come under the purview of excise as it is not packaged and bottled—nor is it available through the year. Currently, the best urraca doesn’t cost more than 200 a litre, with options available at half the price too. Most bars, however, charge just as much for urraca cocktails as they do for regular cocktails. They justify this by saying urraca cocktails require a pour of 90ml compared to 60ml for other spirits—but it still seems a bit absurd to charge 400 for urraca cocktails.

Fernandes explains that mixologists are still figuring out which ingredients pair well with urraca—and it’s not available year-round. “Urraca is cheaper than beer. So selling urraca cocktails means your profit margins go up. But if people move from high-end spirits and only start drinking urraca, the bar will be at a loss eventually,” he says.

Proença convinced JUNGLE by Sturmfrei to bring the price down to about 250 for a urraca cocktail but most bars charge more, riding the wave of its newfound success. “Compared to three-four years ago, there has been a 40-50% increase in non-Goans drinking urraca during the summer season,” she says, adding that customers, in fact, seem hesitant to try drinks priced cheaper.

Proença says urraca is now firmly in the sights of the hospitality industry. “I am on a personal mission to introduce people to the real Goa. The best thing with urraca is that it rehydrates you, unlike chemical alcohol that dehydrates you. That’s why I think it’s the perfect summer spirit,” she says.

The Marie Marie urraca cocktail at the Hideaway Bar. (Photo: Priyanko Sarkar)
The Marie Marie urraca cocktail at the Hideaway Bar. (Photo: Priyanko Sarkar)

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based writer covering the beverage industry.

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