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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Black Fig Vodka: A Star is Born

The World’s Only Fig-Infused Premium Spirit

Black Fig is a vodka infused with figs, but far from a flavored vodka. Actually, it’s a Distilled Spirit Specialty whereby actual California figs (roughly a pound per bottle) are naturally infused in a neutral grain spirit (NGS) without added sugar or additives.

From what I can tell, this is a home run and has everything going for it right out of the gate—a great tasting product, a unique concept, an incredible cocktail addition, and a passionate owner who knows what he’s doing.

Consider this:

Michael Davidson, the owner and CEO of Black Infusions, walks into a top restaurant and approaches the F&B manager, who promptly tells him he has no time to speak to him. Michael’s combined chutzpah and Boston charm convinces the manager to give him 10 seconds and “just taste this.” He does and the next thing you know they’re talking for half an hour about cocktails, using Black Fig in food recipes, and a large order for the product is placed.

He gets into one of the Total Wine & More stores and conducts a tasting and quickly sells out the three cases he brought—18 bottles in 45 minutes.

At ABC Kitchen in NYC, a distributor sales rep (MS Walker) pitches the brand, does a tasting, and the Food & Beverage Manager falls in love with it. The next thing Michael knows, Black Fig Martini is on the cocktail menu. They sell 25 to 30 (6-pack) cases a month.

I can go on but I think you get the picture. One sip of this product and you’re hooked. So, let’s take a closer look. (By the way, the brand won Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco Spirits Competition.)

About the owner

Michael Davidson is a born and bred Bostonian who left his successful family business to follow his dream to launch a spirit brand he came across. He was at a Mediterranean restaurant owned by a friend who served a homemade drink consisting of dried figs soaked in vodka. “That’s vodka? This tastes like liquid fig,” said Michael.

A light bulb went on and, after more than two years in development, the product was ready for market. Over the course of that time, a formula/recipe was developed, a contract bottler was engaged, legal issues were addressed, distributors were found, drink recipes created—and, a brand was born.

Michael is a unique kind of guy. I’ve met scores of startup entrepreneurs but he has most of them beat with his thirst for knowledge and information about the booze business; his willingness to make a difficult decision and still change gears when necessary; and, his understanding that without marketing and sales, a product cannot succeed. Above all, I’m very impressed with his passion for the brand and the business.

I’ve met with Michael a number of times in restaurants and he’s fun to watch as he gently but effectively pitches Black Fig. He listens, a trait many wannabe spirit entrepreneurs need to learn.

He’s gotten the brand into 12 markets with a number of distributors, most notably M.S. Walker, and some top on-premise accounts (ABC Kitchen, Bobby Van’s, Mistral, and more) and off-premise accounts, (Wegman’s, Total Wine & More, Whole Foods to name a few). The brand is currently available in the northeast, mainly New England and parts of the mid-Atlantic.

The product

In a word—amazing. As soon as you open the bottle, the aroma of the figs comes pleasantly through. It’s great straight and on the rocks, and you won’t believe what it does to a cocktail. But let’s start with the basics.

Black Fig is an artisanal product distilled with neutral grain spirit and naturally infused with California figs (about a pound per bottle) in small batches. It is 60 proof (30 AbV) and made without artificial sugars, flavors or colors. And, since the NGS (vodka) is made from corn, it is gluten-free and Kosher if that interests you. The product sells for around $30 per 750ml, depending on where you live.

Ah, but the real joy of this product is it’s mixability and versatility—it plays nicely with other ingredients and enhances your favorite cocktail like a Black Fig Martini, a Fig Mojito, Mediterranean Mule, or a Black Fig Old Fashioned. Michael also has quite a number of drinks that he invented like the Fig Flower, the Black Dragon and many more that you’ll find on his recipe page.

Black Fig martini

The Future and Challenges

Michael “gets it,” and knows that as a small startup he has to work night and day to increase traction and break through the clutter. One of his favorite expressions is, “Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming from the bottom of the Grand Canyon and trying to get heard.”

But by far, his greatest challenge is being a one-man show. To succeed and grow, he will need to get some sales help, focus his time and energy on things that have the greatest return on the investment of his time, and probably both.

He literally does everything but has some marketing help (conventional and digital) from a very sharp woman named Kalen Junda. Kalen is an entrepreneur in her own right and runs a small marketing company called the Tobe Agency. In my view she is also a rising star.

Among the things I admire about Michael is that he’s not falling into the “startup trap” of expanding markets before he’s ready and thereby spreading his financial and other resources very thin. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about the future.

Down the road, he would like to move into southern and western markets. Hey, come on, a Black Fig product made with California figs? He’s got to be in the Golden State.

He is also thinking about what comes next and has decided on a line extension that he’s not yet ready to reveal publicly. He’s told me about it, sworn me to secrecy, and I know it will also be a home run. I guess I’ll just have to keep following and writing about him and see where this journey takes him.

I’ll just sum it up by quoting another favorite expression from Michael, which he got from VinoTapa restaurant’s drink menu— “Go fig or go home.”

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Robert Lehrman, Attorney

Need Label and Formula Approval? Better Call Robert.

Robert C. Lehrman is a lawyer at Lehrman Beverage Law, PLLC in metro Washington, DC. Since 1988 he has specialized in the federal law surrounding beer, wine and spirits, such as TTB permits, labels, and formulas.

He has helped hundreds of companies formulate beverages to ensure that they are taxed and labeled in an advantageous manner while in compliance with relevant laws and regulations. These companies produce beverages in dozens of countries around the world and range from the largest to the smallest in the beverage industry.

Robert has efficiently reviewed thousands of food and beverage labels over the years. He has also helped to design the labels and get them promptly approved.

When a client calls about a new product they would like to launch, among the first things I tell them is to contact Robert. Neither of us can recall under what circumstances we met, but have some interesting “war stories” about collaborative efforts.

So, I thought it might be fun and informative to interview Robert and for you to learn more about him and his practice.

BB: You are considered among the leading experts in federal regulatory law for alcohol beverages (wine, spirits, and beer). How did you get into this area of specialization?

RL: I stumbled in, like a graduate student into a college bar. I am glad I did. To be honest, it was not a good fit for me in the early years, and I was not wild about the job. It involved a lot of digging through old, tissue-paper pages of dusty old rules, in the CCH Liquor Control Law Reporter. But as I spent more time at it, and got more autonomy, I could change the shape of the job a bit. I think the job changed more than I did. The dusty old pages morphed into up-to-date computer screens. I feel lucky to have been there as law turned from its old, paper ways, toward email and the web.

Anyway, I graduated from law school in Buffalo in the late 1980s. I looked around in DC and the first job offer was from the leading alcohol beverage law firm of the time, Buchman & O’Brien. On that we have something in common because the second of those named partners made his name as general counsel, at a young age, for the leading spirits company of the 20th century — Seagram.

I stayed at Buchman and toiled away in the DC office for a total of about 13 years. At the dawn of the Blackberry age, I decided to embrace the new possibilities and work from anywhere. I started my own little firm in the suburbs, with only a couple of clients. But it really does seem like we have added at least a few clients every week, since that point almost 16 years ago now.

So, getting back to your question, it’s largely happenstance that put me in this position. The internet helped a lot. The rise of small producers helped. Heck, even Arthur Shapiro helped. I am not sure I would enjoy being, for example, a contracts lawyer in a big firm. But, in my current role, what I enjoy most is being at the intersections of law, business, food, branding, and technology. If there is another job that so beautifully blends all these things I like, I can’t think of it.

BB: What are some of the more noteworthy accomplishments you’ve had over the years?

RL: I think the work we did on behalf of absinthe is interesting. It’s a long story so you can find all the details here. The short version is that I worked on absinthe legalization, from 2004-2007, when everyone thought it was impossible. We got the law changed after a 100-year ban. It taught me that there is lots of junk science and junk law out there, and our predecessors didn’t always know better.

Another interesting recollection is about an older man who wanted to put the American flag on his beer cans. Not only that, he wanted Iwo Jima, and In God We Trust on the can to complete the patriotic theming. I patiently explained that TTB would not normally allow American flags on beer cans, turns it down regularly, and has at least a few rules directly banning it.

He was unimpressed and showed me another can and asked why our government will allow Russian flags but not the good old American flag. As we encountered various roadblocks, he would intermittently ask if he should go on the Rush Limbaugh program, or send some cash, to get this thing moving. I assured him there was no need to send extra cash, and assumed he was exaggerating, when he threatened to air it out on talk radio. No. A few months later, I picked up the phone and it was Fox News. “Your client is on the way into the studio and we want to verify a few things about his beer label.” A few hours later, TTB called to say the label is approved, flags and all. I would have liked to believe it was dazzling legal skills but in truth, it was good teamwork with a good client. I was sort of hoping he would go on to make a lot of money with this beer, but in short order Budweiser took the idea and ran with it, and I did not see too much action on my client’s product.

BB: Thinking about the label and formula approval process—both at the TTB and the predecessor ATF— in what ways has the process changed over the years? What’s gotten better and what still could use some improvement?

The main changes are that everything has moved from a paper-based to an internet-based system. When I started, in the late 1980s, I would actually walk over to TTB/ATF’s offices, at least five times a week, and talk directly with the decision-makers/reviewers, at their desk. It was a great way to learn. If they said no, they explained why, on the spot.

The old system was a bonanza for Beltway types. It didn’t make sense to mail the labels to Washington. It took a long time, and the government was quite picky in those days. So, you would be just as likely to get a sheaf of rejections, a month after sending your papers to DC, as approvals. And, the rejections might be as trivial and maddening as, there is a comma missing, or one letter is too small. On the other hand, if you sent the labels to a DC law firm, it could be expensive.

The internet gradually changed all that. The processing times were pretty quick, during that old-fashioned setup. You would show up, wait your turn, meet with the reviewer, and walk out with some label approvals, on the same day. Then, as COLAs Online (Certificate of Label Approval) rolled out, things got very slow for many years. Things are good right now. TTB has eased up on the trivialities and is processing most labels quite rapidly.

Another big change is that the system is quite a bit less personal than it used to be. In the olden days, you might sit with a Pamela Jamieson and go over some labels. These days, the rejections are fairly anonymous, you rarely meet with the reviewer, and even if you go in to TTB’s offices, there are many who work from remote locations.

BB: You’ve been front and center in the craft distillers movement. How is this burgeoning business changing? Is it here to stay? Are the entrepreneurs entering the business better equipped to succeed than in the past?

I am a little embarrassed to say, the craft boom was happening all around me, but I did not really notice it. Maybe I was too busy working.

When I started, I suppose there were several dozen busy distilleries in the US and now there are thousands. I remember when Sam Adams was a scrappy little upstart. It may be a lame comparison, but let me try comparing it to the iPhone phenomenon. First you saw it and wondered if it was overhyped, and whether the phenomenon would persist. Cut to ten years later and you can’t really imagine life without it, and it seems firmly entrenched almost to the point where it should have been obvious from day one.

Just like I think the free-for-all among Android, Apple and others is leading to an embarrassment of riches, for consumers, I do think the craft movement is having a similar effect in the libations space. All the fervor and ferment will lead to lots of great new ideas, and even the big stodgy companies to get on their toes, all to the benefit of consumers. It is certainly good for glass companies and liquor lawyers.

Are the barriers to entry too high? Well, they are certainly there, and alcohol beverages remain encrusted in old and new, important and dubious rules. Recent history shows that thousands of scrappy young companies have been able to form and thrive amidst all the barriers and competition.

BB: Finally, it seems to me that your practice has grown over the years in terms of people and expertise. What areas of legal advice/needs do you handle today that you didn’t in the past?

This is true. We are moving up the food chain so to speak. In my early years, I handled mostly labels and formulas, because that’s what I was handling at Buchman. Other lawyers handled things like trademark, for example. We did not really set out to diversify. My first 10 years on my own, confirmed that I could stay busy even within a fairly narrow niche (just federal, just TTB, just alcohol beverages).

But as time passed, I met talented lawyers and their skills drove the diversification. I met Dan (Daniel J. Christopherson), about five years ago and he adds IP law and beer law to our skill set. Lindsey (Lindsey A. Zahn) had a strong interest in appellation law, and wine law nuances, and later developed her skills as an FDA lawyer. Mike (Michael E. Volz) came along and wanted to see what he could do with retail law in the mid-Atlantic states.

At this point, I am pleased to say that we can handle most federal issues that arise for alcohol beverage companies. While we can handle all this in-house, we still reach out to other experts, to supplement our capabilities. In the past, we have reached out to EPA experts (pesticides) and former TTB experts. Just last week I collaborated with one of the top lawyers in the cannabis space, related to CBD-infused spirits. We have federal well covered, for beer, wine and spirits. We also have good coverage in NY, DC, Colorado, Virginia and Maryland. For the other states, we like working with in-state experts.

My goal is to provide excellent service to alcohol beverage companies; I am much less interested in getting bigger, especially if we can keep getting better without adding more people.

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There are a number of outstanding law firms that specialize in alcohol in general and government approvals in particular. Abelman Frayne & Schwab, for example, is a leading full-service firm who I’ve used in a number of areas including intellectual property matters. They do outstanding work. But, Robert Lehrman’s expertise in the approval process leads me to often say, “Better Call Robert.”

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