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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The Columbian Exchange – Ever Heard of it?

One of the most important events in history

The Columbian Exchange (sometimes called the Grand Exchange) was the exchange of goods and ideas from Europe, Africa, and Asia with goods and ideas from the Americas. An historian named Alfred Crosby was said to have coined the phrase in 1972, describing the exchange of crops and livestock between the New World and the Old World.

From the Savory Spice Shop blog.
From the Savory Spice Shop blog.

For example, the New World received such staples of our diet as citrus, apples, bananas, onions, coffee, wheat and rice. In exchange, the Old World received such plants as maize, tomato, vanilla, cacao and potato.

In terms of influence consider this:

Before Columbus discovered the Americas, there were no potatoes in Ireland. By the 1840s, the Irish Potato Famine caused deaths and massive emigration. Tomatoes came to Spain from the New World and from there to Italy and forever changed the culinary style of the country.

More than just food

So far as livestock is concerned, most of the exchange went from the Old World to the New World, including horses, pigs, cattle, chickens, large dogs and cats. Not many animals went the other way, with the notable exception of the turkey. Oh, and let’s not forget that when it comes to diseases, the Old World sent far more than it received – from measles to malaria.

What does this have to do with booze?

Ah, glad you asked.

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog named Desmond Nazareth, who lives in India, contacted me to tell me about his company – Agave India Industries Ltd. Turns out that Mr. Nazareth is an entrepreneur, a graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and is producing authentic artisanal spirit made from Agave Americana. If you look at the list of New World to Old World exchanges, the agave plant is right up there.

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

He can’t call it tequila or even mescal due to appellation requirements but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck – you get the idea – it must be a duck.

Mr. Nazareth is arranging for me to see and taste his product and I’ll get back to you. I’ll also tell you how the agave plant got to India and about his extraordinary spirits enterprise.

So stay tuned.

 

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Spirits Ads on TV

I write a monthly column for Spiritz magazine in India, which is the most widely read alcohol-related magazine in the country. My column is called Booze Abroad and the March issue contained a story on how the broadcast advertising (voluntary) ban for spirits was ended in the US.

While TV advertising for spirits has become widespread, it came about through the leadership of Seagram, but not without some ups and downs along the way.

The article is available on this blog with the permission of Bishan Kumar the publisher of Spiritz. To read it, simply click on the words, “Spirits Ads on TV” at the top of the column on the right.

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