Traditional Hard Drinks
K V Priya September-October 2016
A for Apong, B for Bangla, C for Chhaang
Long before liquors around the world were commercialized, traditional hard drinks were the norm. Prohibited or not, some of them still remain popular across India.
Kerala, God’s own country, and its neighbour Tamil Nadu, as well as Bihar in East-India have had one thing in common lately: They have all imposed prohibitions on liquor to varying degrees. What does this mean? Prohibition means the ban on sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). Prohibition is imposed in India to grapple with the social consequences of alcohol consumption, such as alcoholism, indebtedness and domestic violence. Of course, this is not the first time India is facing the ill-effects of alcoholism.
Also, they are not the first ones to impose a prohibition of this nature. Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, continues to be a dry state since 1949. The states of Haryana and Andhra Pradesh too had resorted to prohibitions but soon abandoned it.
While foreigners can obtain special permits, it is a different story with regard to how locals have to face bootlegging, liquor mafias, spurious liquor, and a complicit police. It also deprives states of an important source of revenue.
But the immediate question is how do you quench your thirst?
Since long before modern factories manufactured alcohol, India has been a ‘spirited’ country. Rig Veda, the ancient religious text, mentions how celestial beings are privileged to have ‘Soma,’ ‘Sura’ and ‘Madhu’ (Liquor in Sanskrit). India still continues the divine tradition of home and farm brewing.
These local spirits are brewed out of anything and everything you grow – rice, barley, millet, palm, coconut, flowers, date palm, dry fruits, etc. Also these brews come cheap compared to IMFL.
Many of these drinks are offered to the gods and goddesses during festivals. It is also generously consumed by the mere mortals during festivities or after a hard day’s toil on farms or factories.
India & You gives a rundown of these exotic Indian local drinks that you will not find in any handbook of wines or whiskys. Feni: Goa, the tourist hotspot, is literally invaded by thousands of foreign and Indian tourists every day. Known as Feni or Fenim, it is produced from cashew nuts. Thanks to colonial Portuguese influence, this fruit has been turned into a spirit. If you are visiting Goa during April-May you may try Urrack, a seasonal Goan spirit which is made of the first distillation of cashew. It has a sweet and fruity taste. It is with the second distillation that Feni is made and is available throughout the year. However, it is a little stronger than urrack though it has the same fruity taste and smell. Locals advise both spirits are best had with lemonade, a pinch of salt and a slit chilli dunked in it.
Goa’s cashew feni, which got its Geographical Indication (GI) certification way back in 2009, is all set to be delisted as ‘country liquor’ and will be standardised and marketed soon beyond the state’s borders as Goa’s ‘Heritage Spirit’. That long eternal wait is finally coming to an end.
Kesar Kasturi: With its forts and living royalty, Rajasthan leaves any tourist mesmerised. This heritage drink known as ‘Kesar Kasturi’ consists of 22 dry fruits, herbs and spices with breathtaking fragrance and flavour, is picked straight from the kitchens of as many as 16 aristocratic families of the state.
The state-owned public enterprise, Rajasthan State Ganganagar Sugar Mills Ltd (RSGSM), produces the Royal Heritage Liqueurs. It is distilled at Jhotwara, Jaipur. According to RSGSM, the process of fermentation and distillation of the Heritage Liqueurs has also been kept similar to the process adopted by the then rulers, i.e. earthen pots, copper and brass utensils were used to these liqueurs.
The company has launched eight brands of Royal Heritage Liqueurs i.e. Royal Kesar Kasturi, Royal Jagmohan, Royal Chandrahas, Mawalin, Royal Ellaichi, Royal Rose, Royal Apple Orange and Royal Saunf. It is rumoured in the Indian media how Hollywood actor Rooger Moore, during the shooting of Octopussy, became a fan of this saffron tinged royal heritage liqueur.
Jou-Choko-Judima: After Rajasthan and Goa, it is now Assam planning to commercialise its traditional hard drinks. Located in the North East, Assam is in news after the national party BJP stormed into power there. Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, Minister of State, Finance, who steered the BJP to victory after being in Congress for several years, has now vowed to brew traditional sprits in order to compete Feni and even Russian vodka.
Fermented from rice and different herbs by the Ahom community, Xajpani or Kolohpani is called Joubishi by the Bodos. The Rabha community calls theirs Choko or Jonga-mod, and the Mishings Apong, the Karbis brew a beer Hor-alank, while what the Dimasa people make is known as Judima. Now it is to be seen which of these beers hits the shelf.
Chuwarak: Notwithstanding Assam’s finance minister’s new found enthusiasm, ask anyone in Tripura and they would bet their last rupee that Chuwarak is the best drink. Yet, unlike in many parts of India which regularly report death due to liquor consumption this Tripuri whiskey is safe. There are many varieties of chuwarak and is made of mami rice, pineapple, jackfruits, Guria rice etc.
Love Potion: More than 500 km from Assam is Mizoram where Hnahlan, a small village in Champhai district, hosts the first and only vineyards in the whole of India’s North-East region. It manufactured two varieties of port-wine under the brand names Zawlaidi and Zowine, which were and continue to be sold locally. They were for more than half a decade the only legal drinks available in Mizoram because of prohibition. Zawlaidi, translates to ‘Love Potion’. About 80pc of the families at Hnahlan are grape growers. Owing to this, it has become one of the most well-to-do villages in Mizoram and is aspiring to be the largest grape producer in India.
Kiad: Brewed out of millet, rice or star fruit, Kiads are sold clandestinely in Meghalaya. However, Kiad is banned at homes and the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) rules the market. Bitchi is a fermented rice beer brewed only in the Garo Hills in Meghalaya. Yet if you stop by a roadside stall in Shillong or elsewhere you can easily chance upon a glass of these local beers.
Apo or Apong: Made out of rice this beer undergoes three months of an elaborate process that includes drying, smoking, fermenting, filtering. Finally the concoction is drunk out of a glass made of bamboo shoot!
Chhang: Known for its Buddhist monasteries, Ladakh is equally popular for this barley-based alcoholic beverage prepared and consumed by the locals for centuries. No social engagement or cultural activity is complete without Chhang and also helps fight the biting cold.
Gudamba: This one is made out black jiggery in the Southern State of Telengana. One has to be very careful as it has high spurious content.
Kinnauri Ghanti/Lugdi: Known for orchards, Himachal produces drinks that have texture of cognac, from apples and apricots. Besides it also ferments rice or barley to make a crude beer known as Lugdi.
Raksi: Usually made out of finger millet or kodo, it is a strong drink and comes close to vodka and gin. Produced in Sikkim, India, Raksi has made Nepal and Tibet its home as well. It is quite a popular drink in social and religious events.
Kallu: Fermented out of the sap of palm trees it has a sugary taste and is famous in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It is also called Tadi in Maharashtra and Toddy in Andhra Pradesh.
Bangla: No extra glass for guessing this. Of course this liquor from fermented starch is from West Bengal. The intoxicant is also offered to Goddess Kali. Like many of the fermented brews, one has to be careful of high spurious content.
Mahua: Mahua, or Madhuca Longifolia, is considered sacred among tribal people in many parts of Central India. Highly potent and pungent, this drink is prepared from the flowers of this semi-evergreen tree picked in the months of April to June.
Sekmai Yu: The name of this drink is derived from Manipur’s town Sekmai which is famous for producing rice beer and wine. Prepared from fermented rice, Sekmai Yu tastes best if consumed right after it is distilled. In spite of government’s ban this drink flourishes everywhere in Manipur.
You may be world’s greatest sommelier who has tasted the choicest of wines, strongest of beers, smoothest of champagnes, but your spirited journey remains incomplete if you have missed out on these exotic Indian drinks.