A toast to Indian country liquor

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

the ubiquitous kalu is a popular country liqueur 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 used to be one of the most popular drinks in 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 kalu is healthy, compared to arrack, which is distilled using chemicals and causes harm. The toddy trade has all but been wiped out and replaced by cheap foreign alcohol made in India, which is equally addictive and susceptible to adulteration.

In Thiruvananthapuram, women and children would walk to the neighborhood outlet to buy kalu to ferment their appam To beat. Until I moved to Kerala, I had not realized the role of kalu or palm wine in social life. Being a woman and a vegetarian, I only went to a store once to try to understand the cozy vibe my male journalist friends were talking about. Intellectual discussions, drunken conversations and violent arguments took place over countless glasses of kalu. Each kallu shap had an identity given to it by its customers.

More than 50 years later, 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 women and children too can be comfortable and enjoy the food. Some recreate the atmosphere of a mud hut in a field. The toddy shop is now a tourist experience.

On a feni tasting tour at the Hansel Vaz Distillery in Goa.
(Gita Aravamudan)

In Tamil Nadu, local alcohol has been banned for a long time. Despite protests from the toddy tapper community and others involved in the production of this liquor, it continues to be banned. In neighboring Karnataka along the Mangaluru coast, where toddy tapping was once a thriving business, many toddy tappers have found other employment. Since grog tapping is skilled work, the supply of palm toddy is now insufficient in many areas. In Mangaluru, where toddy is more readily available, kali (toddy in Tulu) bars have also had a makeover to attract young customers and families.

I recently did a feni tasting tour while on vacation in Goa. Previously, freshly brewed feni came in a plastic water bottle carried by a friend. My friend Hema Nadkarni, with whom I was staying, told me that in season it was still sold door to door but that the taverns had been replaced by resto-bars where the feni is sold with other alcohols. Branded Feni is available and enterprising entrepreneurs are selling a gentrified version overseas.

On the feni tasting tour, I was greeted with pink feni cocktails and ushered into a valley with a flowing stream. The gently flowing water trickled over our bare feet while tiny fish nibbled at our toes. We sipped coconut feni while gazing at the blue skies of Goa. This distillery in the middle of a village in South Goa is owned by Hansel Vaz, who comes from a family that has been making feni for generations. He told us how feni was once made from cashew nuts picked from the ground, showed us the old specially made pots buried in the ground, the old open hearth where the liquor was brewed and his large collection of ancient amphoras in which the feni was stored. We learned about the different herbal medicines used and how to pair feni with Goan fare ahead of us. During feni cocktail parties at his house, his visitors could listen to music and dance outdoors 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 Desmondji agave product. Nazareth’s aha moment came when he discovered that the Central American agave cactus from which tequila is made also grew on the Deccan Plateau. It took him many years of research and study before finally distilling an Indian agave liqueur that passed the milestone. His drink is a version of tequila but made from purely Indian plants. Within a few years, he had a whole range of products under the Desmondji brand.

This time, when I met him, he was launching his mahua on the international market. The liquor distilled from the sweet flowers of mahua has been the drink of the tribes of central India for centuries. In its raw form, the mahua is sweet but difficult to consume, especially for those accustomed to more refined spirits. His ambition is to declare the mahua drink emblematic of India.

Goa has a number of breweries, and the renewed interest in restoring and refining local heritage liquor and renovating old drinking establishments is bringing a new dimension to the scene. Young entrepreneurs are at the forefront of this new wave. Once the pandemic is well and truly over, we may be able to drink in this rebirth with our own unique Indian herbal liqueurs.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru.

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