Tequila is in Vogue globally. The Gin craze continues to rise across Europe, bars in New York & as far as Sydney. Rum is Lifting Spirits across American Markets. It seems to be great time for tipplers!, In India whilst most have been enjoying generous drams of whisky, now Craft Beer & Gin too are pleasing their palate. Beer is gaining momentum more than ever with microbreweries offering the freshest on tap. Cocktails are becoming more and more exciting with the finest premium and imported spirit base coupled with exotic ingredients, innovative global mixology influences. Sitting across all this one wonders, while we enjoy the many global tipples on offer right at our table, why not give a thought to what remain our traditional and local spirits, produced and conceptualized right here.
Like Tequila from Mexico has become a global craze, what could be the almost equivalents of Indian native spirits that are appreciated by Indian across and could possibly have an opportunity on a platform worldwide.
There isn’t a confirmed timeline on the preparation and consumption of alcohol by humans, although the consumption has reference in the oldest books like Veda, Bible etc. Interestingly, there are many varieties of alcohol prepared by women. Alcohol in olden times was conceptualized and produced for celebratory consumption, for medicinal and for offering to their deities. The production was fairly simple, limited to brewing, fermenting and distilled for local consumption. Nectar of the Gods as some are referred to, were offered to the regional gods for warding off evil, blessing the harvest and for general well-being of the communities.
There are several alcoholic drinks that have been around since ancient times. The earliest mention of alcohol in records of the Harappan civilization in 3,000 B.C. Interestingly, alcohol is as inherent to Indian culture and customs as Indian costumes, food, or rituals. These age-old recipes have been passed down generation to generation for as long as centuries. These brews were concocted for survival in extreme conditions and for medicinal purposes. They went on to become a celebratory mark for religious or social gatherings. From olden times, consumption was influenced by social caste and class, also many religions proscribed its use. The availability of alcohol increased following the entry of East India Company and excise policies of the government.
The early twentieth century witnessed demand for prohibition, but the trend was reversed based on excise revenues from alcohol sales. Liberalization and modernization have also influenced an increase in alcohol consumption, which in turn has had an impact on the social and religious distinctions to a large extent. While some of the Traditional Indian Spirits, have gone on to become territorial protected product, some are now getting government recognition to boost economic growth in certain tribal sectors like Mahua in Maharashtra & parts Chattisgarh.
Alcohol consumption in India is still viewed as a public health problem, as a social stigma as well as a necessity.
Though contrary to the perception of alcohol being taboo in India, different regions have had a history of their own local liquors — Be it Goa’s cashew and coconut Feni, Rice beers from the Northeast, different Toddy versions from Kerala to Chhattisgarh, Mahua from Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra and local version of the most sought after “wines” like Rajasthan’s Kesar Kasturi, from dried fruit and saffron. These were all inherent to the local agricultural region-specific produce.
In fact, some local brews are getting international recognition too like Paul John whisky, distilled in Goa, now available in 38 countries across the world, but what about Feni, inherent to Goanese culture for over 200 years but has only managed a brand placement in the USA.
While the future of most of these brews internationally is somewhat uncertain, we take a walk down for Indian spirits which form an integral part of our traditional drinking culture across India.
- Kesar Kasturi, Rajasthan
True to its name, the concoction’s prime flavour tingle is Kesar or saffron, also responsible for captivating the gold color of the drink. The beverage from Rajasthan, despite its deliciously smooth texture, has many other additives including local spices, milk, honey and dried fruits.
The exact ingredient profile of this spirit varies from one manufacture to other. The fact to note here is, there are only seven families that are engaged in the production of this rare spirit. Kesar Kasturi still hasn’t received its share of recognition, but it did get some recognition by Roger Moore (James Bond-Octopussy) during the shooting of the movie in Udaipur, he was bowled over by the delicate taste; and also, when Travel and Living Channel was working on a documentary on Indian wines. The alcohol content of the beverage is between 42-45%. Thus, making it highly potent.
A sip of the spirit: The is brew is sweet to taste with a mildly spicy profile with a distinct flavour of Saffron. Milk and honey give the drink a fuller sweet taste.
- Chhang, Ladakh
This Barley Beer from Ladakh is said to entice even Yetis. It is something else to experience Chhang amidst the beautiful landscapes of Ladakh. Perfect to against the biting cold or to simply rejuvenate.
The drink forms a part of sociocultural life and no social activities is complete without the
beverage. A marriage proposal involves offering of chhang by the maternal uncle of the to be groom to the family members of the suitable match. Acceptance of the chhang by the prospective groom signifies his consent of the proposal. The preparation includes cleaning and boiling of barley grains, cooling, addition of starter
culture, fermentation, filtration and blending. The fermented result contains 5-7% alcohol.
A sip of the spirit: The brew tastes like ale. Upon consumption it immediately produces an intense feeling of warmth making it ideal for enduring the temperatures which go well below freezing in winter.
- Tongba, The Sikkimese ‘Hot Beer’
The ‘Hot Beer’ from the North-east is the perfect drink for the freezing winters is a whole grain millet/barley-based liquor. Production of this beverage is done in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Spiti, and Ladakh, and comes with an alcohol content as low as 5-7%.
A sip of the spirit: The taste is sour, very yeasty, like a beer that’s only partially fermented, and yet strangely warming. Although low on alcohol percentage, seems stronger because of the complex fermented flavour.
- Royal Chandr Hass, heritage liquor of Rajasthan
It is a royal winter drink made with an unbelievably exotic blend of 84 different spices including many dry fruits and sandalwood. The exotic spices are soaked in spirits and water for seven to eight days and are then put into a distillation plant prior to brewing. The alcohol content is 42% in the beverage.
A sip of the spirit: The taste is sweet and spicy, sandalwood gives a very earthy feel to the drink.
- Zutho, The sour beer from Nagaland
Another one from Nagaland, yet another rice beer, but completely different from the others in that it has a fruity aroma and the taste is little sour. It works best with roasted soya bean, millet, and red chillies. The procedure of production of this rice wine is known only to the Angami Nagas. It stands apart from other rice wines because of the usage of sprouted rice grains. Alcohol percentage in Zutho is 5%(v/v)
A sip of the spirit: Fruity aroma and sour taste. Its unique aroma has characteristics like Japanese sake and sprouted rice sake.
- Chuwarak, Tripura
The Easternmost state of Tripura is known for its cultural heritage and picturesque beauty. The place is also known for Chuwarak – a popular century old local whiskey. It is made from fermented rice types including Mami and Burra, from pineapple, or from jackfruit. In addition, indigenous ingredients like Tokhiseleng and Thakathor leaves are also used in the brewing of this alcohol. The alcohol percentage is between 7-10%.
A sip of the spirit: Fruity and tart, uniquely pleasant taste with distinct aroma.
- Handia, Jharkhand
Handia (Also handi or hadiya) is a rice beer in Jharkhand and also found in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh and West Bengal states of India.
Process of making involves the use of ranu tablets, essentially a combination of about 20-25 herbs to act as a fermentor. These tablets are then mixed with boiled rice and left to ferment. The mix is ready for consumption generally within a week.
This brew is offered to local deities and also form a critical part in dead ancestors’ rituals. The use of Handia is also very common on occasion of marriages, birth anniversaries and festivals. Its lower alcoholic content is 1.21 ≠ 0.98% making it very low on potency.
A sip of the spirit: Pungent smell and mordacious taste.
- Feni, Goa
Feni, is a local brandy made from the fruit of the cashew tree. Like Champagne or tequila, it is a legally protected product; technically Feni cannot be made anywhere other than Goa. Traditionally Feni would be made from apples fallen to the ground (they were never actually plucked from the trees), which are then crushed by foot and triple-distilled in earthen pots in small batches, the process for making the spirit is revered by many Goans; harvest season is looked forward to every year. The first feni brand, Spirit of India, was made available in the U.S. two years ago and it has since then found its way increasingly onto cocktail menus. Josh Relkin, head bartender at Proxi in Chicago, uses it as his twist on the Manhattan called the Long Layover.
Feni is distilled to a proof of 42.8%.
A sip of the spirit: Distinct flavour or cashews and coconut, depending on which base of the brew you taste. Sharp and fruity, makes for a refreshing drink.
- Kodo ko Jaanr, Sikkim
This hot Sikkimese beer made with finger fermented millets. Traditional alcoholic beverages are deep-rooted in the cultural heritage of the various ethnic groups in the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim. In these regions social activities require provision and consumption of appreciable quantities of alcoholic beverages of mostly tribal communities. Kodo ko jaanr is essential to perform various cultural functions and religious offerings to deities.
A sip of the spirit: Fermented finger millets-based mild alcoholic beverage with a sweet–sour and acidic taste
- Mahua, Mahrashtra
Felix Padel has rated this local brew better than scotch!
In tribal area, the tribal people collect the Moha/Mahua flowers and make the liquor.
Mahua — perhaps the most widely made “home spirit” in many parts of central and western India, where different varieties of mahua trees grow and flower between February and April. The alcohol content is 18-25% making it highly intoxicating.
A sip of the spirit: Aroma of musky cooked rice, sweet and fragrant taste from Mahua flowers
- Lugdi, Himachal Pradesh
Lugdi is an alcoholic drink which was traditionally prepared from cooked cereal grains. The cereals are left for fermentation and consumed without any distillation. Usually it is prepared in the summers as the heat helps the fermentation process. The drink is stored and saved for winters as it helps in keeping the body warm. Lugdi is also consumed during celebratory occasions, religious festivals or weddings.
A sip of the spirit: A fermented white liquid, tastes like slightly sour curd and offers pleasant, mild highs.
Highly recommend our thirsty travelers to sip and sample these local spirits and let your palates tingle. Enjoy these local brews in the true flavour of the region, amidst the locals in country style.
Slainte and enjoy responsibly!