Why you should care
Because this spirit tastes like a tropical vacation.
The first sip of it comes over me in waves. It starts with tropical fruit: ripe, golden pineapples, juicy guava. Next there’s a warm wash of nuts and spice, with cinnamon and clove lingering on the tongue. It tastes like a vacation, like a tropical beach somewhere I’ve never been. Because where I am is the liquor aisle of the grocery store, drinking out of a tiny plastic sample cup. What is this entire tiki drink’s worth of flavors packed into one?
Feni, a brandy made from the fruit of the cashew tree, comes from the state of Goa in western India. Like Champagne or tequila, it is a legally protected product; you cannot technically make feni anywhere other than Goa. Traditionally made from apples that have fallen to the ground (never 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. And unlike many other types of alcohol, feni is distilled to a proof of 42.8 percent, meaning that no water is added to cut its potency.
I think that when people first try Feni they are overwhelmed by the boldness up front … but that’s part of what I enjoy.
Josh Relkin, head bartender at Proxi in Chicago
For Goans, feni is a vital part of food culture. Until recently it was viewed as a more working-class drink, and used to be served as a shot to day laborers. Now found around crowded family dinner tables, at local fairs and in small, street-side restaurants as well as fancy cocktails programs, it is ever present in Goan meals. Local food writer and feni connoisseur Revati Upadhya enthusiastically recounts in detail how it’s typically served: with a citrusy, carbonated beverage like Sprite or the local Limca. “A sprinkle of salt and a slice of lime are popular additions,” she adds. “I like my feni with a slit of green chili dropped into it. It gives it a nice zing and bite.”
Since the first feni brand, Spirit of India, became available in the U.S. two years ago, it has increasingly found its way onto cocktail menus. Josh Relkin, head bartender at Proxi in Chicago, uses feni in a spin on the Manhattan called the Long Layover. He says that the nuttiness and fruit notes of the spirit pair well with other similar flavors, which is why his drink includes sherry and cherry-vanilla bitters. The spirit “has a flavor unlike anything I’ve had before,” he says. “I think that when people first try feni they are overwhelmed by the boldness up front … but that’s part of what I enjoy.”
Upadhya points out that the popularization and expansion of feni can lead to unintended consequences: “Most larger distilleries lose out on taste and flavor because the rush to mass-produce large volumes means they have to compromise on the traditional techniques.” This can mean anything from using underripe fruit to artificially speeding up the fermentation process. For that reason, at home in Goa, Upadhya prefers to drink feni made by local families.
Though this isn’t an option in the U.S. (you’re stuck with the $29.99 commercial version for now), the success of a larger, more commercial feni brand may open the door for smaller producers to begin exporting their product, as has happened with mezcal over the last few years. When it does, I’ll be the first one in line, glass in hand.
Make One: A Feni Daiquiri
The tropical notes in feni lend themselves perfectly to classic warm-weather cocktails like the daiquiri. This version is spicy and fruity, and gets a nice amount of depth from the combination of aged rum and feni.
- 1.5 oz. golden rum
- 0.5 oz. feni
- 0.75 oz. lime juice
- 0.75 oz. simple syrup (Heat one cup water and one cup sugar on the stove until sugar has dissolved. Let cool before use.)
- 5 drops habanero bitters
Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe, and garnish with a lime wheel.