First trip to Goa? It’s a rite of passage you have to take. All flip- flopped, you saunter into a shack and have a shot of feni, only to gag in disbelief from the taste of the fermented fresh ripe cashew apple, and the thought that this is like mother’s milk to Goans. Your esteem for the Goan rises!
It doesn’t always have to be like this, is the thinking among some of the new wave of feni brands, the producers of which haven’t exactly sprung from the woodwork all of a sudden, and have been bottling feni the traditional way for many a moon. Regan Henriques of Rhea distilleries has gone against the grain, producing two remarkable new brands, both of which I tasted on a visit to Goa, and even brought back to Delhi for further sampling.
“Normally, cashew feni is distilled twice, but Fidalgo premium cashew feni is distilled a third time, enabling us to achieve an ultra-fine feni,” Regan explains. This takes the edge off the normal pungency, while retaining its traditional taste and ensuring it doesn’t run the risk of being confused with any other spirit or alienate the traditional Goan feni drinker.
Most of the feni you drink is not actually made by the brands that you see on the label. Traditionally, cashew apple collection and distillation rights are auctioned to small distillers across hundreds of zones. Some of these distillers might go on to bottle and sell it, but a large number of them choose to sell it to brand owners, who then bottle and sell under mass market labels. It’s this feni that Regan purchases and distills for the third time in his own distillery to produce Fidalgo Premium (0500). This additional distillation helps give it a smooth finish and a light to medium body, helping it move from an acquired taste to something you might like straight off the bat.
Not satisfied with Fidalgo, which went on to win a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits competition 2016, Regan turned his hand to the maturation of this Goan drink. Traditionally, feni is rested or matured in large glass jars called garrafão’s (a word meaning glass container in Portugese). He experimented with maturing it in oak casks for several years. The wood from used bourbon casks is imported from America and fresh casks made in Goa. This takes up the price as these are scarce and expensive, but as he found, there is a remarkable transformation in the flavour, with the feni gaining complexity and depth with appealing aromas and a warm amber colour. This resulted in Rhea Reserve.
Fidalgo has a smoother profile, and can be used for a variety of cocktails. It mixes well with almost any fruit and couples nicely with a variety of ingredients, including herbs, spices, and liqueurs. As regards Rhea, Regan recommends you try it on the rocks or with soda.
It’s heady days for the feni industry in Goa, with the government recently taking steps to classify it as heritage liquor, as opposed to its previous tag of country liquor, thus opening the doors to its potential sale in other states in India. For this to happen, however, other states also have to reciprocate by reclassifying it.
Due to the limited number of casks available, Rhea Reserve (0750) is a limited edition, and production will increase as more capacity is added. That’s a good enough reason to pick it up if you spot it. And raise a toast to the innovators like Regan who are making Goa one of the most exciting places in India when it comes to innovation in the Indian alcobev industry.