My knowledge of alcohol from India has so far been limited to Kingfisher beer, which quells the spice from Vindaloo at my local Indian restaurant, and Amrut Fusion, a tasty whiskey made with Indian and Scottish barley. But my lack of knowledge isn't because I don't venture out from sips I'm already familiar with. As I learned from the seminar on Indian spirits at last week's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, it's because only half of local Indian spirits find their way out of the states they're produced, let alone to the United States.
Rohan Jelkie, a wine and spirits consultant in India, conducted the seminar and brought along samples of spirits from India, including some you can't currently find here. Here are three worth knowing about.
Goa is the smallest Indian state and has the lowest liquor taxes in India, so it's home to quite a few distilleries and breweries. The liquor to know is feni (also spelled fenny), which is unique to Goa.
Feni is made with either cashew apples (the nut is actually the fruit's seed) or coconut palm sap, and its Sanskrit name means "froth." You can find Kazkar Feni in the United States—it's marketed as an apple brandy.
Jelkie said that many people make feni at home in Goa, and he shared a test for determining whether you've made a good feni:
"Goa makes a chorizo that's extremely spicy and tangy," he said. "You take the meat out of the casing, then pour feni over it and set it on fire. If it catches fire, then it's a true feni."
You can drink feni straight, though Jelkie recommends using it as a flavoring agent in cocktails, or with soda. It's fruity and nutty, and pale yellow in color. At the seminar, we tried it straight, then in a cocktail called the Goan Antidote, made with feni, Cointreau, fennel seeds, and fresh Indian gooseberry juice.
Royal Heritage Liqueur makes liqueurs that are based on recipes created by royal families from Rajasthan. There were many small kingdoms in Rajasthan until Indian independence in 1947, and each had their own recipes for liqueurs based on herbs and spices such as saffron.
The liqueur that knocked me out was Royal Mawalin, a bitter concoction made with dates, herbs, and spices that one participant in the seminar likened to Cynar. You can drink it straight or with soda—it has a great bitter flavor that evaporates cleanly from your tongue. The royal liqueurs aren't available outside India just yet, but Jelkie said he's trying to work with the company to bring these unique liqueurs to other places.
The Himalayan belt makes several millet brews, and a variation is Apong, which is made with rice in the northeastern states. "The rice is roasted until it burns black, then it's allowed to ferment," Jelkie said. "It's preserved with Bhoot Jolokia pepper, one of the hottest chiles in the world."
Jelkie wasn't able to bring along a bottle because the spirit doesn't travel well. But he told us that Apong is served at room temperature, and it's sweet, malty, spicy, and "pretty potent." It may take a trip to India to sample Apong, but if these spirits are any indication, we should all be heading there to drink our way through the country now.