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A toast to Indian country liquor

Every state has its own version of toddy that’s been maligned as addictive and adulterated. A new wave of entrepreneurs is trying to change that.

The final distil of cashew to feni at Cazulo Feni. (Edric George)
The final distil of cashew to feni at Cazulo Feni. (Edric George) (Edric George)

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One of the first things that struck me when I landed in Trivandrum in 1970 was the number of kallu shaps (toddy bars) dotting the streets. Since I lived close to one, I could see men and some women heading there in the evenings after a hard day’s work to relax and socialize over drinks and “touchings” as the snacks were called. The toddy shops, in small, dimly lit rooms, did brisk business. 

The ubiquitous kallu is a popular country liquor distilled from the sap of palm trees. It has a very short shelf life in its natural form and is best consumed within 24 hours. It was one of the most popular drinks across south India, especially among the working classes, as it was cheap but most states have now banned it citing adulteration and addiction. Most people believe kallu is healthy, compared to arrack, which is distilled using chemicals and causes harm. The toddy business has practically been wiped out and replaced by cheap Indian made foreign liquor that is equally addictive and susceptible to adulteration.

In Thiruvananthapuram, women and children would walk to the neighbourhood outlet to get some kallu to ferment their appam batter. Until I moved to Kerala, I hadn’t realized the role of kallu or palm wine in social life. Being a woman and a vegetarian, I only went into a shop once to try to understand the warm ambience my male journalist friends spoke about. Intellectual discussions, drunken conversations and violent arguments were all par for the course over innumerable glasses of kallu.  Each kallu shap had an identity bestowed on it by its customers.

More than 50 years later, the Kerala kallu shap is still flourishing. According to one estimate, there are 3,500 toddy shops of various sizes in Kerala. Some have ‘family rooms’ so that women and children too can be comfortable and enjoy the food. Some recreate the ambience of a mud hut in a field. The toddy shop is now a tourist experience.

On a feni tasting tour at Hansel Vaz's distillery in Goa.
On a feni tasting tour at Hansel Vaz's distillery in Goa. (Gita Aravamudan)

In Tamil Nadu, the local liquor has been banned for a long time. Despite protests by the toddy tapper community and others involved in producing this liquor, it continues to be banned. In neighbouring Karnataka, along the coast of Mangaluru, where palm-toddy tapping was once a thriving business, many toddy tappers have found other employment. As toddy tapping is a skilled job, the supply of palm toddy is now inadequate in many parts. In Mangaluru, where toddy is more easily available, the kali (toddy in Tulu) bars have also got a makeover to attract younger customers and families.

I recently went on a feni tasting tour during a vacation in Goa. Earlier, freshly brewed feni would arrive in a plastic water bottle carried by a friend. My friend Hema Nadkarni, with whom I was staying, told me that during the season it was still sold door to door but the tavernas had been replaced by resto-bars where feni is sold along with other liquor. Branded feni is available and enterprising entrepreneurs are selling a gentrified version abroad.

On the feni tasting tour, I was greeted with pink feni cocktails and ushered into a dell with a flowing stream. Gently flowing water washed over our bare feet while tiny fish nibbled at our toes. We sipped coconut feni looking up at the blue Goan sky. This distillery in the middle of a village in South Goa belongs to Hansel Vaz, who is from a family that has made feni for generations. He told us how feni was made in the old days from cashew fruit picked off the ground, showed us the ancient specially-made pots buried in the ground, the old open hearth where the liquor was brewed and his big collection of antique amphorae in which the feni was stored. We learnt about the different botanicals used and how to pair feni with the Goan fare before us. At the feni cocktail evenings at his place, his visitors could listen to music and dance in the open air under the old cashew trees.

The writer with Desmond Nazareth in Panaji.
The writer with Desmond Nazareth in Panaji. (Gita Aravamudan)

The next day, Hema and I visited my old friend Desmond Nazareth in Panaji. I first met Desmond 10 years ago when he had just launched his agave-based product Desmondji. Nazareth’s aha moment happened when he discovered that the Central American agave cactus from which tequila is made also grew in the Deccan Plateau. It took him many years of research and study before he finally distilled a liquor from the Indian agave that passed muster. His drink is a version of tequila but made of purely Indian botanicals. Within a couple of years, he had a whole range of products under the Desmondji label.

This time when I met him, he was in the process of launching his mahua in the international market. The liquor distilled from the sweet mahua flowers had been the drink of tribals in central India for centuries. In its raw form, mahua is sweet but difficult to consume, especially for those used to more refined spirits.  His ambition is to get mahua declared the signature drink of India.

Goa has a number of breweries, and the renewed interest in reviving and refining heritage local liquor and revamping old drinking houses is giving a new dimension to the scene. Young entrepreneurs are at the forefront of this new wave. Once the pandemic is well and truly over, perhaps we can drink to that rebirth with our own uniquely crafted liquors made with Indian botanicals.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru.

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