A National Drink is Born

Mahua, The Traditional Tribal Drink from India, Enters the Mainstream

The US has Bourbon, Mexico has Tequila and Mezcal, Scotland has Scotch, Brazil has Cachaça, and the list goes on and on. But what about India? It’s among the top five alcohol consuming countries in the world and there is a robust spirits/whisky manufacturing industry. Colonial India invented the gin and tonic, but has had no serious candidate for national liquor, until now.

This is the story of the emergence of a national drink, led by one man’s innovativeness and tenacity. An alcohol product with a long history and exclusively Indian heritage, surrounded by legends, and spanning centuries. A historic product from the many tribes in the Central Indian Forest belt.

The products (there are two) are called DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur. The man is Desmond Nazareth and we have met him before in this blog. (You will find them here, here, and here.)

Desmond Nazareth, Founder and Managing Director, Agave India.

The Product

Mahua (pr. Ma-hu-a) is a flower that Indian tribes have been fermenting, distilling, and drinking. The Mahua tree has been considered sacred for centuries. Desmond and his Agave India Company have begun marketing the product under the DJ (DesmondJi) brand in liquor and liqueur formats and selling these products as Indian Made Liquor (IML) since June of this year. But his real challenge is to get the widespread liquor authorities to recognize Mahua as an official, potentially national drink.

Here’s how he describes Mahua:

“Mahua is a nectar rich flower of the Madhuca longifolia tree, which grows in the Central Indian Forest belt, historically inhabited by indigenous people of India, so called ‘Adivasis’, or ‘Tribals’. The nectar rich flowers mature and drop for a month or so in the Mar-April-May timeframe. These edible sundried flowers retain a significant part of their sugars, with a pleasant, complex taste akin to a hybrid of sun-dried raisin, fig and date… For centuries, Central Indian tribes have been collecting and storing Mahua flowers, and consuming single distilled Mahua spirit made from the flowers in traditional clay, wood-fired potstills.”

He depicts the products as “forest-to-bottle” and both are 40% Alcohol by Volume (AbV). The DJ Mahua liqueur is blended with honey and spices and there are plans for a DJ sparkling product. I’ve tried both the liquor and liqueur and found them to be very enjoyable products, with unique and pleasant tastes. The DJ Mahua Liqueur product in particular, was most enjoyable both straight and in cocktails.

Desmond describes Mahua as “the only spirit in the world that is fermented and distilled from naturally sweet flowers.” ‘What about St Germain?” I asked. According to Desmond, St Germain is made by macerating and steeping Elder Flower in alcohol; DJ Mahua is naturally fermented and distilled directly.

The Mahua Mystique

Mahua Tree

What fascinates me about Mahua is its colorful history. Spend a few minutes here and you’ll see what I mean.

As legend has it, Mahua is “An indigenous drink rumored to be the elixir of the Gods and the weakness of deities, the tribals tell tales of how it is coveted by deer, birds, and humans alike.”

According to Desmond, Mahua is more than a drink, it’s a reflection of India’s colorful tribal history. The legends and stories abound with tales of hard-working villagers saved from the messengers of death by Mahua; of animals cavorting while tipsy on the flowers. Desmond writes:

“From bark to fruit, leaf to root, every part of the Madhuca Longifolia (botanical name) earmarks our heritage in a way few other elements of our long cultural history do.”

A well-respected English anthropologist working with tribes in Central India named Felix Padel, a descendent of Charles Darwin, tasted Mahua and was surprised that the government did not develop it as an industry. He is quoted as saying, “I wonder why people in India would prefer French wine and English scotch when something fresh and rejuvenating like Mahua is available.”

And that leads us to Desmond Nazareth’s journey to make Mahua the Indian national drink.

The Challenges and Obstacles

Mahua is currently made in over a third of India’s 29 states and getting Mahua recognized all over India is a daunting task, particularly when you’re a niche, craft distiller with limited resources.

The Indian alcohol market is very complex and, to me at least, somewhat confusing. As I mentioned, its alcohol volume consumption is among the highest in the world but its per capita consumption is low. There is a love-hate relationship with alcohol, dating back to Gandhi’s aversion to it and at least four states and one territory practice prohibition. Yet, Indians love to drink and the worldwide cocktail enthusiasm is alive and well in the major cities.

Indian Made Liquor (IML) consists of two types. One is Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and is the official term used by governments, businesses and media in India to refer to all types of liquor manufactured in the country other than indigenous alcoholic beverages. The other type is Country products such as Feni and Mahua.

Desmond is trying to get a new Excise category established countrywide. It would be known as Heritage alcohol products and strictly governed by international standards. It would be taxed lower than ‘IMFL/IML’ and higher than ‘Country’. He feels that this would encourage entrepreneurs to explore and exploit the huge treasure trove of Indian alcoholic beverages.

To get Mahua recognized as a national drink means a state by state campaign since there is no central national regulatory body equivalent to the USA’s TTB. “It is a crying shame that there currently is no simple Excise/ Revenue/ Customs mechanism for proudly made in India alcoholic beverages to be placed in Travel Retail (Duty Free) outlets in India,” says Desmond.

Nevertheless, an important step forward has emerged, thanks to Desmond’s efforts so far. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is roughly equivalent to the USA’s FDA and is working to standardized the manufacture of Mahua and the use of its ingredients.

What’s Next?

As you read this, know that Desmond is hard at work on a number of levels. The manufacture and sale of DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur in his home state of Goa and elsewhere in India; working on a sparkling Mahua product; and pushing for recognition as a national drink.

My own view of this situation is that it represents a unique and powerful opportunity for a global player to enter the fray. The “size of prize” of the Indian market and overcoming the obstacles for global brands, suggests that the Diageos, Pernods, and others might want to take a close look at Mahua. I think it represents a real opportunity to participate in the development of a new national brand with Indian and global potential. (If I were still at Seagram, I’d be doing just that.)

For a brand to succeed on the global stage, it needs to be good tasting, backed by an entrepreneurial effort, and a have compelling story. DJ Mahua and its variants has all that and more.

It’s time for the product to come out of the woods and reflect its heritage the same way as bourbon, scotch, tequila, and all the other national drinks. I hope that the Indian authorities would grant a type of AOC (protected designation of origin) or Geographic Indication (GI) for Mahua along the same lines as those for cognac, tequila, champagne, and others.

DJ Mahua Liqueur
DJ Mahua
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Move over, Tequila and Mezcal

100% Agave Spirits Made in India

Back in 2014, I wrote a number of articles about Desmond Nazareth and his Agave India products, as well as how agave made its way to India. (See articles here and here.) Recently, I learned that Desmond has joined forces with Martin Grassl, the founder of Porfidio tequila.

Here is how their joint venture is described on Old Town Liquor’s website.

The joint venture was created out of the mutual respect of two entrepreneurs of disparate backgrounds but with similar creative minds. They shared a profound admiration for a botanical wonder, the “tree of marvels” as the Spanish Conquistadors called the agave when they encountered it in Mexico.

The product is called SINGLE AGAVE® 100% AGAVE AMERICANA EDITION (Code Name: S3xA). It’s not made in Mexico but in southern India— the Deccan Plateau, a geographical area where the agaves grow. As the story goes… the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains. The Agave Americana is the producer’s way of celebrating that 100-year-old event by distilling the wild plants.

I spoke with Desmond Nazareth or DesmondJi, as his brand is called, and here are excerpts from the interview.

BB: How did your relationship with Martin Grassl and Porfidio come about? How did you and he meet?

DN: The relationship was born out of respect for each other’s achievements and each other’s product quality. Martin noticed articles about Indian agave spirits appearing around 2012 in the Mexican press and contacted me.

It was both Martin’s and my opinion that agave spirits— be it tequila, mezcal or other— are unique precisely because of the botanical uniqueness of the agave plant (“the inulin factor”), the true and only star of the equation, not because they are Mexican-made.

The idea, of course, is not new, as it simply mimics what Baron Rothschild did for the world of wines 50 years ago by creating the first non-French wines in Chile and Napa.  It was revolutionary idea at the time.

Both Martin and I strongly feel that Indian agave spirits, made in our craft distillery (India’s first), should be viewed in the same league as Mexican agave spirits like mezcal, by nature of being made from naturally grown and foraged agave plants, as opposed to plantation-grown agave plants. The fact that my products are made from 100% Agave Americana, rather than 100% Blue Agave, takes our premium products intentionally beyond tequila, along the lines of Mexico’s finest mezcals.

BB: This is a special edition product, how is it different from your other Agave brands?

DN: It differs in terms of product formulation from our other agave spirits products. Certain adjustments were made to the hydrolysis, fermentation and distillation process to create a product which is more attuned towards international taste profile preferences, rather than India’s domestic preferences. For this first special edition, a traditional process of heat hydrolysis has been used, the oven cooking method.

BB: Can you discuss the nature of the business relationship between the two companies?

DN: Single-Agave 100% Agave Americana is a joint venture product between DesmondJi and Porfidio. It forms part of Martin Grassl’s brainchild “world series” of non-Mexican made agave spirits, such as agave spirits made from Agave Cocuy (Venezuela), Agave Australis (Australia) and Agave Karoo (Africa). Agave spirits can be made wherever agave is grown, same as high quality wine can be made wherever appropriate grapes are grown. France certainly never liked the idea of the coming into existence of wines from Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Mendoza, I guess it could not be helped, as it is the natural progression of things.

Agave India is essentially the ‘field-to-bottle’ producer of Indian craft spirits and Porfidio is a premium global co-branding and marketing partner We jointly decide what is an appropriate craft offering for the global market.

BB: Where do you see this joint venture going in the future?

The idea is to expand quickly into super-premium barrel aged expressions Indian Agave spirits, similar to Mexican Reposados and Añejos.  Ours is a step-by-step approach, with the Blanco-style expression simply a starting point.

BB: Tell us more about the story behind the idea— “the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains.”

DN: There are two happenstances which brought about the existence of Indian agave spirits. For one, the general nature of the so-called Colombian Exchange, by which the agave, among many other plants and animals, “went international.” In addition, the Agave Americana arrived in India as a cost-effective means of fencing off the British rails to protect its trains from killing or maiming animals.

While the British probably single-mindedly aimed at protecting their financial assets— their trains—the concept of this fencing idea was equally a culturally-sensitive decision by the British Crown in protecting India’s free-roaming Holy Cows, one of our spiritual and cultural assets.

So, the “agave solution” was embraced by the colonizers and the colonized, as benefiting both. Neither “them” nor “us” grasped the true dimension of this pivotal fencing decision as the Mesoamerica-sourced Agave Americana proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on Southern India’s fertile soils, the Deccan Plateau Highlands. Why the Empire chose the Agave Americana towards such purpose—used in Mexico to produce some of the finest Mezcal—rather than any other variety, is a mystery still to be fully uncovered by botanical historians. Whatever the reason for the choice, it unquestionably benefited us.

BB: Other than in the US are there other countries where you’re working together?

DN: The US is the world’s biggest market for agave spirits. So, we thought it a good idea to do the initial special edition product launch in the US. Our next target market is Japan and China, based on Porfidio’s existing distribution platforms in these countries.

Thank you, Desmond.

Indian Agave Americana
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Agave India: What’s in a name?

A Tequila product from India?

Yes, that’s right. But, even though Agave India produces an outstanding 100% Agave product, the term ‘Tequila’ or even ‘Mezcal’ is protected by designation of origin registration and reserved for use by Mexico.

(You’ll find previous blog posts on how the agave plant found its way to India from Mexico here and issues related to Appellations of Origin (AO) here.)

DesmondJi Products
DesmondJi Products

As a result, Agave India Industries Pvt Ltd, the craft distiller behind Agave India, can only use the generic Agave designation and be content with the following on their promotional material:

100% Agave product, a gift of the blue-green Agave plant. 

A plant grown in the red and black volcanic soils of India’s Deccan plateau and nourished in a semi-arid micro-climate similar to that of Central America.

In other words, it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, tastes like a duck but… it is not a duck. Or, better, you can’t call it a duck.

Undeterred by this and secure in the knowledge that he makes world-class spirits products, Desmond Nazareth (under the brand name DesmondJi®) has been producing his products since 2011.

Meet DesmondJi®

The term Ji is a suffix used in India as a sign of respect, also known as an honorific and comparable to the Japanese –san or the Mexican Don, as in Don Julio. Kind of ironic actually, since I couldn’t tell the difference between DesmondJi 100% Agave and Don Julio Blanco in a blind taste test. Yes, it is that good.

Desmond is a graduate of the Indian MIT known as Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) and moved to the US as a software entrepreneur. In 2000, he moved back to India. But, while in the States, his home bar became known among his friends as the place to go for the best margaritas. Alas, back in India, tequila products were not widely available (still aren’t due to tariffs) much less orange liqueurs or margarita blends. Too bad, he thought.

But, if you’re an entrepreneur, a problem can easily become an opportunity.

Desmond spent several years researching agave plants and the making of agave spirits including visits to Mexico to understand cultivation and

Cocktail glass water tower at the distillery.
Cocktail glass water tower at the distillery.

distillation. Back in India, he recalled seeing the distinctive agave plant in the Deccan plateau. The next thing you know, he builds a micro-distillery and produces a range of products. Agave India is the country’s first fully integrated “field to bottle” alcohol beverage company focusing on global spirits made to international standards with Indian raw materials and know-how.

When he and I spoke I asked him what the enormous agave plants were used for before he came along. His answer, “They were used as fences.”

Desmond Nazareth and Indian Agave Plants.
Desmond Nazareth and Indian Agave Plants.

A portfolio of 8 products

Under the DesmondJi® label, the company produces a 100%, a 51% Agave spirit and a 51% Agave Gold spirit with an oak finish. In addition, they have an Orange and Blue Curacao liqueur made with the Nagpur orange. After all, you can’t make a decent margarita without an orange liqueur and if you’re using Indian agave, you also should use a liqueur made from Indian oranges. In addition, they produce alcoholic margarita blends or, as we call it, a premixed margarita.

Finally, the portfolio also contains a Pure Cane spirit (think cachaça) made from locally grown sugar cane.

Challenges

While India is primarily a (scotch) whisky drinking country, white spirits like vodka and tequila have shown growth and future promise. But, for now at least, non-whisky alcohol products are a drop in the barrel, ur, bucket.

Desmond would like to set his sights on the US, the largest tequila consuming market in the world. But, I don’t need to tell you that while not yet saturated, the US tequila market is very cluttered. Can a craft agave spirit from India gain a foothold? Even if its terroir and geographic location is comparable to that of Mexico?

Still, the Indian population in the US (according to The Times of India) is the third largest from Asia, after those from China and the Philippines. They are mainly centered in the Boston to DC megalopolis and in Northern California. Further, I’ve been told that more than 60% of retailers in New Jersey are from the Indian sub-continent and in New York City, roughly 45%.

So the challenge is – will consumers from India or of Indian ancestry, have an interest in agave spirits from India? Will retailers?

Maybe the answer is that it’s not about national pride or appellation alone. Maybe it’s about a high quality product that uses these two elements to kick start a venture in the US.

To me it’s like brandy vs. cognac or champagne vs. prosecco – it’s not about nomenclature, it’s about quality.

What do you think?

The Agave India distillery
The Agave India distillery
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