Hansel Vaz is looking forward to the day when tipplers will keep a bottle of feni next to their Johnnie Walker. He would, of course, love it if the bottle were from his own brand. Vaz calls himself a feneiro, a word he coined to describe a new generation of feni-makers like him.
Two years ago, however, at Goa’s annual fair, his goal seemed laughable. Vaz, 33, had pitched a lone feni booth at the Summer Carnival, hoping to draw in the Goan crowd with his feni cocktails. He managed to sell an embarrassing 15 glasses in five days. This February, 620 cocktail glasses went off the bar counter at the same fest. The millennials turned up, lured by test-tube shots of feni, served by waiters dressed as mad scientists.
This is a season of mellow fruitfulness for feni. After many failed summers, a rich cashew-apple crop has been harvested. More importantly, the central food and drug administration has scrubbed the drink clean of the “country liquor” tag and classified it as “heritage liquor”. That makes it possible for feni now to be sold at neighbourhood liquor shops and marts across the country. Till now, you could only buy feni in Goa, making it an exotic souvenir that did not travel well across the state borders. It was allowed to be exported to Canada, but not sold inside the country, even in Maharashtra.
“I will be drafting letters to my counterparts across the country. We are bottling our state’s culture and now we want others to taste it too. They should and will be able to buy feni at liquor shops in their neighbourhood,” says state excise commissioner Menino D Souza.
A clutch of Goa’s feni-makers has been waiting for just such an opportunity. Distillers like Vaz have been tweaking the drink’s aroma, taste and strength, tamping down its strong notes, and playing up its cultural wealth to make it a drink whose time has come.
“Every drink has managed to fashion an etiquette around it. Feni somehow has been associated with Goan late-night gatherings, friends gossiping at the village square, or a family brought together by music and food,” says Vaz, who lives in Margao. But, for all its ubiquity, feni never had any myths woven around it, no stories that made it a product of cultural aspiration. “You never spoke about feni. You just drank it. We want to change that. Retain the habits, but give it a status. Every drink has evolved to encourage new ways of drinking,” says Vaz.
His family is the maker of Brand Cazulo, a premium double distilled feni — the first premium feni to be sold at Rs 500 a bottle. Till Cazulo hit the market, no one had priced feni so high. You could get a bottle for less than Rs 100.
Vaz will soon open an artisanal distillery in Margao to educate people in the rituals around feni — stomping the cashew fruit, studying the temperature of the distilled liquid, heating it in earthen pots. Locals and tourists will be shown the Portuguese-era wide bellied bottles in which the liquor is traditionally stocked for at least a year. The aim is to do to feni, what the Europeans did to their wine, he says.
The pricing and the packaging are helping sell the drink, says Dilip Shetye, owner of Case Xetio Wines in Panjim. “Earlier, feni was cheaper than whiskey. These refined fenis are now around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000. So this year, tourists have started paying attention to the drink,” he says.
The state government is also firmly behind this new push to feni, a contrast from earlier. “India is uncomfortable about promoting alcohol. Goa, at least, has now considered feni as one of its verticals. In several meetings with the state government, we were told, ‘Daaru ko state drink mat banao! Doodh pilao (Don’t make a liquor the state drink. Serve milk),” says Mac Vaz, another second generation feni-maker.
Far from the Goan courtyards and its balcaos, the history and the romance of the drink goes back to the voyages the Portuguese took between their colonies, Goa and Brazil. In these long 16th century expeditions, the first cashew apple crossed choppy oceans to reach Goa from Brazil. The false fruit, which holds the cashew nut, is pulped to wine in South American and African countries, but it’s the village folk of north Goa who are credited with going a step further, triple distilling the ferment.
The fermented fruit is put through three stages of distilling in earthen or copper pots, yielding three different drinks at each stage. According to a study by the late professor Dwijen Rangnekar at Warwick University, UK, the first distillation produces a clear liquor called urrack, with an alcohol content of less than 17 Grau (a traditional index to measure liquor strength). Unlike feni, urrack is light and even considered a “poor man’s beer”. The second distillation is done by mixing urrack with fresh fermented cashew apple juice, which gives cazulo, which has an alcohol level of 19 Grau. It’s the third distillation — in which cazulo is again mixed with fermented juice — that yields feni, with a minimum Grau of 42. This is a potent drink; if drank in excess, locals admit , it can “put a horse down”.
Feni derives its name from the Konkani word for “froth”. It was once had as a shot by the Goan working class. You juggled the froth between two coconut shells, mixing it well enough to get the desired kick. In its new avatar, feni has made a comeback at Goan weddings as a refined drink. Gunpowder, a popular restaurant in Assagaon, was the first to stock feni cocktails. Other bars have quickly followed suit. Park Hyatt has a festival called Cashew Trail styled around the drink.
The unbreakable rule in making feni is that the cashew apple is always picked from the ground by cazkars, traditional cashew pickers, and never plucked. A ripe cashew apple falls when “teased by the afternoon Arabian breeze”, collecting yeast from the ground near its wound, as it begins to ferment.
Feni, however, remains an acquired taste. And many shrink from its joys because of the most basic of reasons: it smells.
“Can’t you distinguish between aroma and smell?” asks D Souza. Old faithfuls will tell you that the smell is a part of the feni experience. “It’s pungent. It hits your nose, it’s supposed to. But a good feni has a sweet, fruity and pungent smell. If it is off, it will stink,” adds D Souza. Locals agree. Cecil Pinto, a florist by day and a feni enthusiast through the year, says “the whole drama of feni is in its aroma”.
Nevertheless, Gurudatta D Bhakta, a second-generation feni-maker, would rather tweak tradition, if he can take feni to more people. Assisted by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Bhakta uses “live natural strain” to ferment his feni. “Traditional fermenting allows bad bacteria and there is no scientific way of controlling it. Here, we retain the taste and strength, but not the smell. I do not want the drink to remain restricted to our taverns. If the smell is stopping it from gaining acceptance, I want it gone,” says Bhakta, who is also the president of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association.
The potency of the drink also makes it difficult for non-Goans to appreciate feni. Regan Henriques, 41, of Rhea Distilleries, speaks of the time when he took his double-distilled feni to distillers in Scotland, while he was in the UK to learn the science of distilling. “They didn’t touch it. They said the liquor was too harsh,” he says, having now returned to making feni with “controlled distilling barometers”. His feni travelled to San Francisco last year and won a silver in a blind tasting of white spirits. Henriques is pushing his feni this year at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. While purists might scoff, Henriques has also gone ahead and matured his feni in barrels made of oak imported from Canada. “The oak will give it both colour and aroma. It’s a complex taste,” he says.
If one traces the roots of this feni makeover, one is led to Mac Vaz’s Madame Rosa Company. His father, Valentino Vaz, was the first to push for a Geographical Indication (GI) index for feni, which it got in 2009. Madame Rosa Company was the first to package feni in beautiful glass bottles, instead of selling it in plastic Bisleri discards. One of its premium brands, Lambranza, was styled by the late Mario Miranda two decades ago, with the bottle draped in signature Mario sketches. “I had asked him to describe Goa. He replied, ‘It’s the land of feni and harmony’,” says Mac.