The world’s lone feni cellar will officially open to public this month. The cellar sits cosy in the midst of a cashew orchard and old distillery, at the foothills of Cuelim Monte, alongside a kunbi tribal village in Cansaulim in south Goa. Hansel Vaz, 35, the cellar curator, a second-generation distiller, says he hopes to involve both the new-generation Goan and the tourist into a distinctive experience.
“How do you know what a good feni is? That is where the tasting room in our cellar will help, where we will break it down. We do not call the Chinese tea, or sushi or caviar acquired tastes. That is because those people explained their culture to the others. This entire exercise is a collective process of introducing our heritage to the world,” says Vaz. The classic drink got the GI tag in 2009, and the cellar is among a host of new efforts to contemporise the drink.
The cellar is also a visual treat, as it houses 1,200 multicoloured garrafões (large-bellied glass bottles) to rest feni. Up until now, families at the most would traditionally stock feni in one or two garrafões for their own consumption. Visitors are welcome to walk in to appreciate the history of the drink and taste the three types: cashew, coconut and a root called dukshiri.
Everything about the cellar — from the garrafões to its lime-washed walls and the double-layered tiles on the roof, sourced by Vaz from old Goan homes — appeals to Goan aesthetics. The cellar is also much cooler than its surroundings.
Fallen cashews are first picked from the ground, then stomped into juice, and then transferred to the pots, which are then buried under a mango tree — to maintain a stable temperature for the yeast to form. “There are two distilleries in Goa that still use these pots. These are handmade, non-porous pots and the fascinating detail is that it could only be made by a tall potter as you require long hands to design such big bellies that can hold 40-50 litres of liquid,” says Vaz.
After three days of the first fermentation, the juice is heated for distillation, with a neat-cut hollow bamboo used as a conduit between the copper distilling cauldron and the cooling tank before it is collected in earthen pots.“Our ancestors knew their science. They shove a hot metal rod into the bamboo before letting the alcohol pass as it acts like a charcoal filter. Hence, you will never hear any feni-related poisoning. The alcohol is then transported through a copper coil immersed in water before it gets distilled into an earthen pot. Copper and clay remove sulphur, a reason you never get headache from a well-done feni,” he says.
The visitor can walk through the farm, collect the cashews, stomp it, and later enjoy a BBQ and Goan buffet that brings the feni’s flavours and colours and tastes. The experience is designed to take the visitor back to the pre-liberation days; a traditional Portuguese grau hydrometeris used to check the alcohol level and a bamboo dipstick to determine and adjust the colour of the flame for distillation.
“Not many know that once the artisan gets into this vocation of distilling, they take a vow not to drink ever. Else, they will not be able to make the drink in its purest levels. Let’s call it an occupational hazard,” says Vaz.
He also recalls his maternal grandfather’s practice of holding two garrafões in a hole in the wall, from which just a peg was had every evening. “You always had one garrafõe resting the drink for a year, while you finished the other. It’s always when you finished the big bottle that you knew that the year was over. It pained me to see this heritage being sold as antiques and showpieces,” he says.
Vaz says he spent a fortune buying and sourcing the bottles. “For two years, every income or profit I made went into these bottles. There is a collection of these bottles, one in France and one in Germany, but I can safely assume I have the largest in the world. These are made by craftsmen who do not exist anymore,” he says.
Once the excise department gives permission (Vaz hopes it will be as soon as May), the bottles will be filled with feni and rested for decades. With the cashew season (February-May) approaching, feni tasting will take place every Friday starting this month. “Imagine, it’s the last of the world’s exotic spirits that is still made the manner it was 200 years ago. And is still competing with modern spirits. That little detail itself needs to be celebrated,” says Vaz.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘One Feni Day: The only feni cellar in the country opens to public this month in Goa’