Last October I made a journey to Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh to meet the maverick of the Indian alcobev industry and to see, hear and taste, about what he was literally cooking up next. Desmond (Des) Nazareth’s foray into alcobev began eight years ago, when he first began making—for want of a better description—an Indian tequila, which unfortunately cannot be called so, but is made from the agave, albeit a different species from what is used in Mexico. It is therefore called an agave spirit in India. His product portfolio has grown and his latest product is a fascinating addition to the world library of spirits.
Mahua is the sweet flower of Madhuca Longifolia, a deciduous tree that grows mainly in the forests of Central India, an area that is home to a hundred million or so adivasis. Mahua is also the name of a spirit made by these indigenous tribals and is perhaps the only distilled spirit in the world made from sweet flowers. Long classified in India as a country liquor, it is one of the most widely produced (and consumed) spirits in India, albeit at a hyper-local level.
Six months ago, I bore witness to what were the early fruits of this flower, which had found their way to the distillery from distant Chhattisgarh. Des swore me to secrecy and not only let me taste it, but even packed some in a hip flask for me to take away. I was mesmerised by it. Bartenders the world over look for new and interesting flavours for their cocktails, and here was Des on a good wicket.
Des has been persuading the powers that be to change the classification of mahua from a country liquor to an IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor), and although this classification may prove controversial to those who feel that a part of tribal heritage is being given an incorrect nomenclature, it’s also the most pragmatic way to navigate the minefield of restrictions on alcobev in India. Feni, for one, has paid the price for being categorised as a country liquor and its recent reclassification as a heritage spirit hasn’t affected its fortunes much. Apart from the stigma of being perceived as a country liquor, this classification excludes it from being made available in other states of India (although it can be exported!). Mahua, however, still has to overcome the barrier of other states recognising it as an IMFL before it can be sold there.
Mahua spirit, in its DJ (DesmondJi) expression, has a smooth, sweetish, floral sensory character. Desmond realised that this lends itself to making liqueurs and sparkling expressions quite naturally, among other possibilities and decided to demonstrate by making a mahua spirit-based product, the DJ Mahua liqueur, which has clear notes of honey and spices.
Made in the tribal areas, at a low alcoholic strength after a single distillation, mahua is therefore sold at a low price. With DJ Mahua, Des hopes to change this perception through its high quality, high strength, multiple-distilled expressions.
Both products can be sipped neat, on the rocks or with combinations of club / flavoured sodas and fruit juices, a few drops of fresh lime and ice. Des’s favourite is DJ Mahua + tonic water + slice of lime + ice, which he calls the Dr V cocktail, in honour of a close (nonagenarian) friend, who co-invented it with him some years ago.
Perhaps, Des’s legacy to Indian alcobev, apart from releasing one pathbreaking product after another, is that he has paved the way for scores of young entrepreneurs, who, fascinated by our rich array of native spirits and liqueurs, turn their hands to creating fresh new products.