When Yash Sawardekar was working as a flight attendant for an international airline, a Polish colleague asked him about India’s indigenous alcoholic beverage. The Poles drink vodka, the colleague said, but there was no Indian beverage on board. Sawardekar mentioned feni, the favoured tipple of his village, Sawarde, in Goa, but the question got him thinking. When he went back home during the first pandemic lockdown in 2020, this member of the ninth documented generation of Sawardekars, once a family of bhatkars, or landlords, started learning about feni.
He researched the liquor business his family had once been part of, studying the nuances of distilling in local bhattis (distilleries) and combined this with modern design and marketing. Just over a month ago, Sawardekar launched Goenchi Feni (“of Goa” in Konkani) with his sister Tulika, coming up first with a coconut feni and, some weeks later, a cashew variant. They bring out a small batch of a thousand bottles a month currently, priced at almost ₹1,500 (750ml) in a scenario where a bottle of feni (filled in your own or bhatti-supplied Bisleri bottle) starts at around ₹150. Goenchi aims to take the feni business to the next level, making an ambitious charge to convert the spirit, considered a country liquor with all the negative connotations that come with it, into a premium spirit.
The Sawardekar siblings are not the only ones who are looking at Goa’s—indeed, one of India’s—unique spirits through a different lens. Another pandemic-driven venture, Aani Ek (“one more” in Konkani), brought out infused feni in the market over a year ago—they have three variations currently, honey-cinnamon, lime, chilli. Adinco Distilleries’ Tinto ( ₹500, for 500ml) and Moji (“my space” in Konkani, priced at ₹999, for 750ml) are other relatively new entrants trying to expand the base of the traditionally family-owned industry. While Goenchi pays particular attention to its design, Solomon Diniz, the fourth generation of the family-owned Adinco, brought Tinto out in more upmarket ceramic bottles of different sizes.
Feni, like gin and, more recently, tequila, is aiming to spill out of the confines of rural, hyper-local markets on to the global stage. Led by a few modern-generation distillers, decades-old businesses and government agencies, the aromatic, all-natural and highly misunderstood 450-year-old spirit with a GI (geographical indication) tag wants to shed the image of a country liquor and become hip.
It’s not easy, for cashew and coconut feni lovers are divided on whether standardisation of a local product with varying and distinct tastes, which will help it gain a market internationally, is worth the price of forgoing unique tastes of the brew across villages and towns. There are two views on whether feni’s smell needs to be made more palatable. There are issues of demand-supply and scarce labour; when it comes to coconut feni, the vanishing tribe of local toddy tappers, who are abandoning the family vocation, is taking a toll.
Coconut feni, which apparently predates cashew feni, is the preserve of south Goa, while cashew is favoured in the north. While coconut feni is milder, more palatable for the newly introduced, it’s also less visible due to the reasons mentioned above. The argument is that since many cultures make toddy/urrak, etc., out of coconut, the uniqueness of the cashew drink makes it “feni” while coconut feni is not “feni”. There is economics at play as well—coconut is all season; cashew is not. Besides, among the estimated 26 expressions of feni available, only cashew is GI-tagged.
Part of the evolution includes newer players and brands, well-crafted bottles, attempts to export—to other states and out of the country—premiumisation, higher prices and a story that’s rich in history and deeply cultural. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda), which is working with Indian alcoholic beverage associations to encourage export of indigenous liquor, is also seeking to promote them in the premium segment, with an established supply chain and volumes. This includes feni and mahua, which is native to central India, and made from fermenting flowers. The Goa government’s feni policy of 2021 also lays down the standards for the production, techniques, quality and hygiene.
Goa today has about 55,000 hectares of land under cashew crop. Productivity, however, is only 25% or 300-400kg per hectare, low compared to the 1-1.5 tons some other countries manage for cashew. Goa produces about 24,000 tons of cashew annually; this can potentially increase to 40,000 tons. The Goa Forest Development Corporation Ltd (GFDC), which has 9,000 hectares of land under its watch, is managing only 175kg per hectare.
When Deviya Rane, GFDC chairperson and member of the legislative assembly, was researching reasons for the low productivity, she realised a lot of the cashew apple is wasted too. Farmers who get a price for the nuts wasted the fruit. “We are ranked No.7 compared to other states (in cashew) because our production is much less. People from outside who have got into this industry are mixing all the nuts bought from different places and selling it as Goan cashew. That’s destroying the industry, the price and the farmers, which shouldn’t happen,” she says in her Altinho, Panjim, office.
This is what spurred her to hold the Cashew Festival at Campal’s football ground on 15-16 April, with thousands of people crammed into a square-shaped setting. Food and feni stalls filled three sides of the square, with the fourth holding a stage for musical performances. Technical sessions in the afternoon on the neighbouring Kala Academy ground brought together experts in the field of cashew, feni and agricultural practices to discuss what ails the industry and ways to improve productivity.
Introduced to western India by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the cashew crop was initially a tool for soil conservation. The no-fuss, low-maintenance wasteland crop soon became a cash crop and the Goan, invigorated by the abundant sea, sun and sand, learnt to juice the cashew fruit. Over the years, the nut from the fruit came to be processed and sold as the famous Goan cashew; the juice was turned into feni.
The worlds of cashew and feni are inseparable, with the latter still largely a cottage industry driven by the small bhatikar (artisanal distiller). The state’s excise department auctions roughly 2,000 zones every January, with each zone producing 2,000-3,000 litres in a season. Successful bidders get the licence to produce cashew feni. Most of the major players, like Rhea Distilleries (200-300 cases a month) and Cazcar Heritage Distiller, bid for the zones and also buy from local bhatikars.
Some companies already export feni, albeit in small quantities. Rhea Distilleries’ Fidalgo goes to Dubai and the Middle East while Madame Rosa, which makes Big Boss, exports to the US, Canada and Australia. Japan is widely considered a potential market because of its understanding of indigenous products, like its own rice drink saké.
Feni cannot compete with Scottish whisky and Mexican tequila in international duty-free shops. But feni evangelists believe the drink should at least be served at Indian embassies, to diplomats and visiting dignitaries to begin with, before making a larger leap abroad.
“It has the potential to be a global drink,” says Regan Henriques, a second-generation, 25-year veteran and director at the oldest operating distillery in Goa, Rhea. “Tequila has become famous for its shots. You need to create a trendy wave or system, like tequila did with shots-salt-and-lime. We need to create something, not imitate them.”
The math is simple: Higher feni sales would require greater cashew production and ensure a better price for the farmer. Better productivity will allow the grower to maximise the potential of his land. The cashew tree requires no water, no pesticides, and can grow on the poorest of soils. A bottle of feni in duty-free could fetch $70-80 (around ₹5,740-6,560), making it a lucrative export.
But export is merely the tip of the iceberg.
“I can export a product anywhere,” says Hansel Vaz of Vaz Enterprises, which produces Cazulo Premium Feni. “I can take tomatoes from Goa and export to Chile. But that’s not the point. I am more interested in building the category than exporting.”
At one of the family-owned distilleries of Cazulo in Consua, south of Panjim, Vaz conducts a feni tour that includes a history lesson, a view of the processes, a visit to a feni cellar and a “floating feni” tasting experience. Visitors sit by a table on a shallow stream bed, with an assortment of snacks paired with feni, even as tiny fishes nibble on their toes for an on-the-house pedicure.
Popularly known as doutor (or doctor in Portuguese)—and introduced as the Bruce Springsteen of feni at one of the Cashew Festival panels—Vaz is the go-to man for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. His parents started distilling in their home in Cuncolim in the early 1980s, launching the Dona Maria brand. Vaz, who once famously quipped, “drink feni and you will save Goa”, shut it down and started Cazulo in 2013 when he took over.
A trained geologist, he was working in New Zealand when he had an epiphany (in early to mid-2000s): to strip feni of its plastic bottle—as it was (and still is) sold—and elevate it to a premium product. “My vision for feni was to make it the world’s most exotic spirit,” says Vaz, seated in his cellar surrounded by garrafoes (jugs) that are waiting to be filled with the season’s distil. “This spirit has something that no other spirit has, from its culture, to the product, to its potential. Where we suffered all these years is we had poor execution. We had all the cards but we didn’t know how to play the game .”
With its strong smell and flavours, feni suffered a bad reputation, driven largely by spurious stuff made available in touristy centres, for a long time. People would crib about their sweat smelling of feni the following morning, about terrible hangovers and protesting tummies. Priced the lowest (till recently as little as ₹20 for a peg in a bar) among all alcohols, it was considered too plebeian, a perception that feni makers and marketers are striving to change.
When Clement DeSylva first went to the market last year with his infused feni, Aani Ek, there were supporters and critics. Purists believed infusion dilutes the essence of the drink, DeSylva says Goan households have been infusing feni for decades in their kitchens, for medicinal and entertainment purposes. But DeSylva, an architect with unlimited energy, was also aiming for something else—making the drink, largely an acquired taste, more palatable for the beginner.
“For us, it’s a bouquet of honey-cinnamon (one of their flavours) and feni,” says Aani Ek’s founding partner. “The cinnamon taste obviously dominates and the roughness of feni is absorbed by this. But a perfectly done feni, at the right temperature, right quantity, right quality of apple, is magic. It’s smoother than any liquor you will ever drink.”
Feni’s raw smell divides people; it could be either aroma or stink, depending on where you stand. While DeSylva’s infusions try to balance out the conflict, conformists believe the odour is intrinsic to feni. It should, therefore, be accepted with an open mind—and maybe a few cubes of ice.
The most powerful, expensive foods in the world, from blue cheese to caviars, are the most foul-smelling and strange-tasting, says Hansel Vaz. “It’s an acquired taste. But what made those acquired tastes become so famous is education.”
“It’s not rocket science (to take the smell out of feni)—we did it in our laboratory 25 years ago,” says Mac Vaz, director at the Madame Rosa Distillery and no relation to Hansel. “But how can you take the smell out of feni? Can you make jalebis white in colour?”
Going forward, one of the factors that may work in favour of feni is the popularity of tequila and gin, plant-based, botanical drinks with flavour. Tequila and mezcal are primarily consumed for the roughness, the rustic flavours that are similar to feni. “So we have that unique position where the gin, tequila, mezcal drinkers could convert to feni,” says Hansel.
Around 450kg of cashew apple gives 25 litres of feni. But cashew, like any crop, is dependent on the vagaries of weather. Last year, for example, it rained practically every month in Goa, taking a toll on production. “There is no systematic attention given to the crop and it is not economically viable. So, what happens is whenever there is a demand increase...,” Mac leaves the sentence hanging.
Two of the biggest challenges are demand-supply and labour, says the powerfully built Mac, who is greeted by almost everyone as he walks into the JW Marriott by the Miramar beach for lunch. In the recent past, demand has outstripped supply, since there wasn’t enough fruit. “So the double-edged sword is those who want to keep up to the demand end up compromising on what they put in the bottle,” says Mac, founder-president of the Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, set up sometime between 2006-08.
The cashew fruit is typically not plucked—the fallen fruit, ripened to its maximum, is picked off the ground. Since the pickings are in summer, Goa’s humidity makes it hard work (cashew feni is distilled between late February and mid-May while coconut is all-year round). Goa suffers from the availability and affordability of labour, most of which heads to Karnataka and Maharashtra. Moreover, the coconut feni business is on the decline owing to the falling number of toddy tappers, whose children do not want to take up the family vocation.
“Toddy tappers were associated as landless labourers; because it was such an essential and skilled job, they had to move from one estate to the other. India has also made the lower castes invisible,” says Hansel. He’s referring to toddy tappers who tend to be from lower castes and find it difficult to get married or escape discrimination if they continue in the same profession.
The solution, says Mac, lies in state support, as is the case with Mexico and tequila. “Though we come from the land of somras (an elixir from the Vedic times), when it comes to alcohol, we want to be hypocritical. You want to indulge in it. But don’t want to celebrate. Feni is a celebration, just like yoga and Ayurveda.” He is also keen to “evoke the Verghese Kurien emotion” create some sort of a green revolution for cashew. “The advantage he had is he was dealing in doodh (milk). Our disadvantage is we are dealing in daaru (spirit).”
“We need to treat cashew as a luxury item that grows seasonally only,” adds Sawardekar. “You compare it to wine. There’s a lot that we can learn from the way Westerners marketed their humble grape juice to be a billion-dollar industry.”
At the pristinely clean Cazcar Heritage Distiller in Nanora, down a discreet path surrounded by fields that suddenly opens into this facility, it’s 6pm when a fresh batch of cashews are loaded to be crushed. Most of the approximately 30 employees have left but one of the remaining few, Ramakrishna Shirodkar, talks about the 72-hour fermentation process, the old-fashioned clay pot (launi) method, and offers a taste from a bottle of Best, the brand sold locally for ₹600-800. Cazcar used to export to the US but the pandemic put a stop to that. “If you are going to take this (feni) abroad, hygiene is the most important,” says Gurudatta Bhakta, managing partner at Cazcar. “We use only stainless steel because cashew juice is astringent. Even our colmi (the stomping base) is stainless steel, fermentation is in glazed tanks, pipes inside the water (for cooling) are copper. The flavour is enhanced in the product you get and the (strong) smell is not there.”
Some feni makers believe standardisation of practices will help in exports, others feel it would kill innovativeness and the artisanal spirit, so to say. Hansel explains that the Portuguese, unlike the British, did not set up a central factory or distillery. They ensured that every village had its own little facility, catering to neighbourhood cravings and retaining unique identities.
“You can go to feni-makers 100m away from each other and the feni is different,” says DeSylva. “The fruit he uses maybe from the other side of the hill, the process of distillation, the temperature, the wood that he’s using to fuel that fire…. You sanitise it completely and put it into this laboratory kind of situation, we are going to lose something.” Except for the few large distillers, feni is still made in small bhattis in every other village, following traditional practices passed on from one generation to the other, making each bhatti’s produce different from the other. It is common for a feni lover to claim that the bhatti they source from is the best, which is often an initiation into debate and discovery.
There are no big, multinational companies in the feni market yet; this is again a subject that draws contrasting opinions. While multinationals have promoting power, the market is too small to attract them.
Besides, there is identity at stake. For the Goan distillers, feni is theirs, it is swadeshi. “The identity of Goa is three things,” says Bhakta. “Football and shevtto (mullet), which is the state fish. The third is feni, which has been declared a heritage drink.”
Being in an international market will also add to that pride, believes DeSylva. “Because, you know,” he adds, grinning, “a prophet is never recognised in his own country, nor is feni.”
“Nobody can touch this industry. We have only two regulators,” declares Bhakta, seated in his Mapusa office. “One is God, the other is excise.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.