Features India's Unique Spirit Blossoms in the Bottle

India's Unique Spirit Blossoms in the Bottle

An Indian woman gathers the mahua flowers in the traditional way.
© India.com | An Indian woman gathers the mahua flowers in the traditional way.
Although whiskey is by far the most popular drink in India, a unique native spirit hopes to change things.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 02-Oct-2020

The boot of British colonialism is finally being removed from India's bar cabinet, more than 70 years after India gained independence. Soon, hopefully, we'll all be able to taste one of the world's most unique spirits.

In the 1800s, the British tried to stamp out mahua, the world's only liquor made solely from flowers. When they ran colonial India, the Brits wanted all alcohol revenue to go their distilleries. Mahua, usually made and sold by women, was a threat to their rum sales.

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Mahua is an incredible plant. The trees grow all over central and western India. The fragrant flowers have high enough sugar content to ferment by themselves. Other flower-flavored liquors add an essence of the plant to a spirit base, but mahua flowers are like grapes: left on their own, they will become alcohol. Mahua is a gift from the gods and is prevalent in Indian mythology, and no wonder, because wild animals love to eat the flowers and get intoxicated.

"Easily over 100 million kilograms of mahua flowers are harvested and sold yearly," spirits entrepreneur Desmond Nazareth said in a TED talk. "Over 95 percent is distilled into spirit by tribal people and consumed locally. Mahua seeds, which are a source of edible oils, are harvested and sold annually as well. The mahua tree is one of the most important sources of livelihood of [tribes] like the Gond, Santhals and Bhils. It provides them with food, tribal medicine and drink. Forests may be cleared for agriculture and habitation, but mahua trees are generally left alone, with the ownership of a given tree staying within a family. And the sun-dried flowers are a ready source of cash, like an ATM, a tribal person told me."

A history of suppression

Bartenders around the world would have been happy to fork over some cash to create cocktails with this remarkable flower liquor. But in 1892, Great Britain forced the Mhowra Act on India, making it illegal not only to distill liquor from the mahua flowers, but even to collect the flowers themselves.

On gaining independence, India's government maintained most of the strict laws against alcohol that the British foisted on them. Tribal people continued to collect the flowers and make the spirit, but they weren't allowed to sell it, so there was no incentive to make an artisanal version.

Fast forward to 2002. Nazareth had returned home the previous year after a very successful 20 years in the United States.

Here's a blast from the past: remember the Y2K bug? The worry that computer systems all over the world were going to stop suddenly on January 1, 2000 because they were programmed with two-digit year codes, not four digits? Nazareth was one of the first software engineers to identify the problem and he formed a company to create software tools to fix it. At the same time, Nazareth helped set up high-speed wireless links from Indian software companies to US companies, allowing the outsourcing of computer engineering.

When Nazareth went home to India, he wanted to do something different: he wanted to make Tequila from Indian-grown agave. He had seen agave plants as a child on the Deccan Plateau; he sometimes traveled with his father, an engineer who built rural radio stations. Nazareth had acquired a taste for Tequila as a graduate student at Temple University, but because of his country's rigid laws about importing liquor, it was just about impossible to buy a good bottle of it in India. He studied the climate where agave plants grow in Mexico and was certain he could find similar plants in a similar climate in India.

Bringing it all back home

Because he was interested in spirits, people told him he had to try mahua.

"I tasted a very, very poor version of it in a small town north of Bombay in eastern Gujarat," Nazareth told Wine-Searcher by Zoom from his home in Goa. "I thought, this tastes kind of interesting, but it's not been made well. There's mahua made aplenty by indigenous peoples. They're not doing it at a high-quality level."

And no wonder, because it was still illegal moonshine. Nazareth followed his curiosity to check out the mahua tree.

The mahua flowers act like grapes and can ferment spontaneously.
© India.com | The mahua flowers act like grapes and can ferment spontaneously.

"The very first flowering mahua tree I stood under found me competing with a goat and a cow for the flowers that were actively falling to the forest floor," Nazareth said at his TED talk. "It is sad to note that the cash-poor and under-educated tribals most often sell the flowers at a low price during flowering season, and buy them back at nearly twice the price off-season."

Nazareth found his local agave and started the company DesmondJi, where he first began learning the many government hurdles for making spirits in India.

"They wanted to know what it was and I could barely explain it to them," Nazareth told Wine-Searcher. "I said 'You import something called Tequila and this is like that but they're Indian plants, grown in India.' I had to explain everything. Pot still distilling was not commonplace. We were the first craft distillery to be built in India. I started this project with the funding and getting all the licensing in 2007, when there were not many craft distilleries. But now heritage alcohol is at the intersection of craft distilling and heritage."

You'd think Indian pride would have made it easier to get a license to make legal mahua. But government officials tend to come from higher castes than the tribes that collect the flowers, so legalizing it in just one state, Goa, took five years.

"The heritage (government officials) saw was a lowly heritage," Nazareth said. "But I was looking at it as a world-class spirit. I said it could be made in a low-quality way or a high-quality way. I'm going to do it in a high-quality way. It took a long time to convince them."

Street legal

In 2018, he finally did, and now he makes DJ Mahua spirit and DJ Mahua liqueur totally legally.

Tribal mahua is often made with added cane sugar, with rice cakes added to provide yeast for fermentation. Nazareth wanted a more consistent product so he wanted to use commercial yeast. Just one problem: there was no commercial yeast for mahua.

"We don't have a very elaborate system for commercial yeast in India," Nazareth said. "I went to five different companies for yeast and chose one."

Most tribal mahua is single-distilled. Nazareth double-distills his in a pot still.

The results are impressive. I managed to get a sample of both mahua products, and I know bartenders will want to try them.

DJ Mahua, the straight spirit, is clear in color and if I'm to compare it to anything, ironically it's a good blanco Tequila. It has some of the interesting vegetal notes of Tequila with a lighter floral note on the finish. Nazareth recommends it for shots, but to me it seems like an outstanding cocktail base.

I really liked DJ Mahua Liqueur straight up or on the rocks, as a digestif; it's easy to imagine enjoying this after a spicy Indian meal. It's something like a sweetish amaro, with honey and a variety of spices added, including cinnamon, which is prominent, and cloves.

"They're all Indian spices. I can't tell you all of them; it's a secret formula," Nazareth said. "But there's no connection to tribal culture."

Nazareth isn't content to make just his own mahua. He is trying to lead a push to get more states to legalize tribal mahua.

"We'll see what proposals go through, like small scale distilleries funded by the government," Nazareth said. "Many state governments – 13 states – have mahua. This is a national treasure that's been hidden in plain sight for at least 120 years since the British suppressed it. Nobody thought anything would come out of India that is of international quality. This is the only spirit in the world made from a naturally sweet flower. It's a category of one. Other flowers yield their essence but not their sugars. It's a new category. It's needed in every bar in the planet."

For the moment, though, because each of India's states has different liquor laws, his mahua can only be sold in Goa.

This is where spirit lovers outside of India come in. Nazareth plans to focus on exporting to other countries before he worries about Delhi and Bombay; he is crowdfunding to create an export company that will be unusual because few Indian spirits ever leave the country.

"Now my latest catch phrase has become, Bombay after New York and London," Nazareth said. "It's so much easier to sell it in London."

It's a delicious irony: selling the flower liquor to the country that banned it. The British sent a boot; India will send flowers.

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