The Banned Booze Making Its Way Into Indian Hearts and Liquor Cabinets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Until recently, you could only find this floral spirit in tribal communities.
By Joanna Lobo
Once upon a time, the Gond jungles had to choose a king. From the two contenders, the mor (peacock) and the ullu (owl), the peacock was elected. The happy peacock danced all night in the rain, stepping on mahua flowers, which caused him to become intoxicated — so much so that he missed his coronation ceremony. So the owl was crowned king instead. The moral of this legend: There’s nothing as satisfying as power … unless someone is serving mahua.
Mahua is India’s most well-known indigenous liquor. It’s also the only spirit in the world made from sweet flowers. And unless you’ve visited one of the tribal communities pot-still distilling it, you likely haven’t tried this sweet floral beverage. Government restrictions and a dodgy colonial classification have kept the traditional drink out of the mainstream alcohol industry. But that’s about to change.
For over a century, the mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia), found largely in India’s central and eastern plains, has been central to the daily life and folklore of the indigenous tribal (Adivasi) community. A major cash crop, mahua is used for its bark, seeds and flowers (fresh flowers for preserves, dried flowers for wine). But the most common use is a delicious fermented pot-still distilled spirit.
Mahua (the liquor) takes just a week to create. The flowers, which bloom in early summer, are dried until they’re a rich brown and then fermented using a yeast-infused rice cake for three to five days; jaggery (cane sugar), jamun or fruit is added during this process to increase sugar and alcohol content. The fermented product is then distilled using clay or wood-fired pot stills, connected by a pipe to bottle or can. Every batch varies in clarity, potency and flavor, mainly because each household has its own method of preparation.
I want to change the perception that drinking is a culture we imported or inherited from colonialism.
Desmond Nazareth, the first distiller permitted to bottle and sell mahua commercially in Goa
“It challenges your notions of a spirit,” explains Susan Dias of Mumbai-based Native Brews, an organization that researches indigenous Indian spirits. Even after being distilled multiple times, it tastes un-aged, with a floral and earthy note, she adds. Dias is part of a movement to regulate and bottle mahua in Maharashtra — she’s created a recipe but is awaiting government approval.
Desmond Nazareth, founder of Agave India, got that approval last year. After five years of research, working with the tribes and fine-tuning the production process, he became the first distiller officially permitted to bottle and sell mahua in alcohol shops and bars in Goa and neighboring Karnataka (under spirits brand DesmondJi): DJ Mahua (made with cane sugar; 40% alcohol by volume; $14) and DJ Mahua Liqueur (with honey and spices; 40% alcohol by volume; $18). “Mahua is deeply connected to Indian heritage, much more than other palm or grain-based spirits or feni,” Nazareth says. The mahua is from sourced flowers from Odisha, distilled in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa.
This milestone is significant. There have been challenges to get mahua into the hearts and liquor cabinets of Indians. First, it continues to be known as a “country liquor,” an umbrella term applied to indigenous brews during the British era. International liquor was considered higher class, whereas indigenous brews were viewed as lower class, and production was discouraged with strict rules. Second, mahua is banned in prohibition states like Bihar and Gujarat, and production is limited — even policed — in some states. Thus, much of it is consumed in secret or crafted to navigate restrictions.
Nazareth is also working with tribal communities to create a standardized production system to ensure consistent quality and safety. This year the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED) plans to launch a flavored, lower-alcohol mahua across India. And Dias and Nazareth are campaigning to get mahua and other indigenous brews classified under a new, lower-taxed category of “heritage spirits.”
“I want to change the perception that drinking is a culture we imported or inherited from colonialism,” Dias explains. “Drinking is organic to us — we know how to distill it, how to drink [it].”
Nazareth’s recommendation for drinking mahua? Pair the spirit, with its versatile “almost vodka-like cleanliness,” with tonic water or fresh juices or use it as a cocktail base. Cheers!
- Joanna Lobo, OZY AuthorContact Joanna Lobo