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.


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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The Columbian Exchange Part 2

What influence has it had on international alcohol beverages?

(The earlier posting on the Columbian Exchange generated a great deal of comment and emails and I invited Mr. Desmond Nazareth of Agave India Industries Pvt. Ltd to share some further thoughts on the subject. So, here is a guest blog posting from him. In this article Desmond introduces a wide array of local alcohol products from around the world, some of which were new to me.)

The Columbian Exchange between the so-called ‘Old’ World (mainly Eurasia) and ‘New’ World (the Americas) was more than an ‘event’ – it was a ‘process’ that started in the 16th century and continues in a more generic sense even today.

In this guest blog, I would like to discuss the impact of this Exchange process on international alcoholic beverages and, make some suggestions for ‘opening up’ alcobev categories.

Fermented beverages across the world

business_1100010245-012914-intContemporary scholarship tells us that up to the 12th century AD or so, most cultures around the world consumed various forms of naturally fermented beverage. These were typically what we today call ‘wines’ (fermented grapes, fruit and berry juices), ‘beers’ (assorted cooked and fermented grains), and fermented natural sweet liquids (fermented palm sap, agave sap, nectar from flowers, honey).

The introduction, and role, of distillation

In the Old World, using various fermented beverages as their substrates, distilled (and infused) potable alcohol began around the 12th century AD, giving rise to the plethora of ‘spirits’ and ‘liqueurs’ of today – the technique used initially was ‘pot-still’ distillation and later included ‘column’ distillation.

The New World knew nothing of distillation techniques until the 16th century AD, when it was introduced there by Old World colonizers.

With distillation being part of the technology that featured in the Exchange, it was applied to the variety of fermented beverages in the New World, including those made from ‘dramatis botanae’ that were local, and others that came with the Exchange.

Among the botanical species introduced to the New World, sugarcane (and the by-product, molasses) was by far the most important – the basis for light and heavy rums. Grapes, of course, became the basis of countless ‘local’ New World wines and spirits.

Species introduced to the Old World included cashew, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, agave and corn – cooked and fermented, either alone or in combination with other local substrates (and sometimes a substitute ingredient), these became the basis of so-called ‘local’ distilled spirits.

Cashew fruit
Cashew fruit

The advent of claims for ‘local’ beverages: GIs, AOs…

In today’s world, various regions and countries lay claim to a ‘privileged’ status for a variety of  alcoholic beverages, with the recent introduction of ‘international trademarks’ in the form of Geographical Indications (GIs) and Appellations of Origin(AOs), which are protected by the WTO and affiliates. Examples of these abound: Scotland’s ‘Scotch’, USA’s ‘Bourbon’ , Mexico’s ‘Tequila’, Brazil’s ‘Cachaça’, Goa’s ‘Feni’, etc.



Consider some ‘local’ alcobev that resulted directly from the Columbian Exchange:

Cassava plant, an edible starchy tuberous root.
Cassava plant, an edible starchy tuberous root.
  • grape based ‘pisco’, with Chile contesting Peru for ‘ownership’
  • grape based wines in California, Chile, Argentina etc.
  • grape based spirits like ‘singani’ in Bolivia
  • cashew apple based ‘feni’ in Goa, India
  • agave based spirits in India
  • molasses and sugarcane based rum and cachaça in the Caribbean, and South america
  • cassava based spirit in sub-Saharan Africa
  • single-malt whisky in Brazil, Japan and many other countries
  • potato based ‘horilka’ in Ukraine, vodka in Poland and Germany, ‘akvavit’ in Scandinavia, ‘poitín’ in Ireland, ‘tuzemák’ in the Czech Republic
  • rye based whisky in Canada
  • sweet potato using ‘soju’ in Korea & ‘shōchū’ in Japan
  • the list goes on…

Now, in none of these countries or regions can one say that they produce only the product whose ‘localness’ they are trying to protect – in general, a variety of alcoholic beverages ‘originating’ from all over the globe are made ‘locally’ in most other parts of the globe.

In an increasingly connected, globalized world, does this sort of ‘protectionism’ make sense?

The question raised by Agave India

India -- Deccan Plateau
India — Deccan Plateau

A case in point is the artisanal, small batch agave spirit that Agave India officially makes in India (since 2010), from blue-green agave that has been growing ‘locally’ on the Deccan Plateau for at least one hundred years. We would like our agave spirits to compete internationally with agave spirits made in Mexico – but the international competitions recognize only ‘Tequila’ or ‘Mezcal’ and do not allow us to compete within those ‘protected name’ categories. We’ve tried to make an argument for a larger category, ‘Agave Spirits’, in which ‘Indian agave spirits’ can go up against ‘Mexican agave spirits’, but so far to no avail.

We also make an artisanal, small batch sugarcane spirit in India, that we call ‘Pure Cane’ – but we cannot compete with ‘Cachaças’ in their category for the same reasons – should we not have an international category of ‘Sugarcane (or Cane) spirits’? It would make the many international producers of fine cane spirits happy to be recognized.

Perhaps, one day, globalization will remove meaningless barriers and productive exchanges of all kinds will take hold – some of which have very ancient geological and human histories.

(Acknowledgements: to the amazing, globalized and free resource that we know and love: ‘Wikipedia’)

Thank you, Desmond.

Desmond Nazareth and an Indian Agave plant.
Desmond Nazareth and an Indian Agave plant.
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