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It’s a blistering summer afternoon. While most of Goa settles in for a siesta, deep in the midst of cashew orchards, the cazkars—cashew pickers—begin their day’s work. They traverse the orchards deftly, methodically collecting all the cashew apples they can find on the ground. Ripe fruit, which falls of its own accord, bears the right amount of sugars and astringent sap, which makes for the flavourful feni.

Traditionally distilled in earthenware, feni—unlike any other spirit—is made without dilution (alcohol is usually distilled to 80-90% strength and then diluted with mineral water to 42-45%). After three rounds (successively producing urrack, then cazulo and finally, feni), the distillate reaches its 42.8% alcohol state sans dilution, producing that perfectly cloudy, velvety, potent drink.

That’s probably why feni has acquired the reputation of Goa’s firewater. A first-time tasting is bound to be a memorable experience, and not always in a pleasant way. For travellers and those not familiar with it, it often remains a one-off curiosity.

That may be about to change. In recent times, feni has been witnessing a revival in some of the state’s oldest, most committed distilleries: Vaz, Cazcar Heritage, Madame Rosa, Rhea. They are working to create niche markets for their brands of feni, reinstating it to its status as the preferred drink of residents and those passing through, and also giving it a contemporary appeal: Vaz’s Cazulo Premium Feni’s one-year vintage feni is bottled in glass (instead of plastic), Rhea ages its product in oak barrels, while Madame Rosa dresses up its brand, called Big Boss, in fancy packaging, making it the perfect souvenir.

Instinct told him there would be takers for a good-quality feni from a trusted brand, both among locals annoyed with the degradation in quality and taste in mass-produced feni, and travellers eager to experiment with local cuisines and beverages. “I have always been a proud feni drinker," says Vaz, “and I felt it merited going back to the age-old small batch, pot-still distillation methods that nurture the true taste engendered by delicate aromatics and flavours, which are completely lost in the mass-produced stuff."

This is a skill no school or certification can teach. Which is just as well for there are no standards, qualifiers or benchmarks for feni. A true aficionado, like Sirish Nimmagadda, 38, can sniff out a good feni from a substandard one. “In a good feni, the spirit and flavours merge seamlessly. There is no aftertaste on the palate. Substandard feni tends to have an aftertaste," says the Goa-based photographer.

The characteristic aroma and taste is as appealing to loyalists as it may be repulsive to newbies. Vaz spent months researching, tasting, distilling, altering methods and formulating his own norms for “good feni". Getting that perfect balance of the distinct fruity notes was key. A well-rounded bouquet of flavours is as essential for the traditionalist seeking a pleasant, smooth drink as for a newbie seeking a new excitement.

By experimenting with the process of distillation, storage and ageing, distillers are able to achieve a range of tastes and flavours—from fruity and smooth, to sharp and almost pungent, sweet to piquant or tart. Feni is most commonly consumed fresh; its sparkly white quality comes from being stored in large glass carboys—locally referred to by their Portuguese name garrafaos—that do not change its chemical composition. Unlike whisky or brandy, which get their colour from oak casks, feni is traditionally colourless. So storing it in oak, as the brand Rhea does, opens up new possibilities of colour and flavour enhancement.

It is an approach that makes sense: Like chillies, tomatoes and potatoes, cashew apples put down roots in the rich Goan soil in the 16th century, thanks to the Portuguese, who imported them from north-eastern Brazil. For centuries, Goans have put the whole fruit to good use: extracting nuts, and inventing a process to distil alcohol from the fruit juice. And today, it’s an indelible part of Goa’s culinary, cultural and socio-economic heritage.

Like champagne in France, feni has a GI (geographical indication) tag, awarded in 2009, which dictates that the classified “country liquor" can be called feni only if produced in Goa. However, with traditional means of distillation being slow and labour-intensive, industrially produced low-grade feni, freely available in wine shops across the state, came to dominate the popular perception of feni. The taste was not dissimilar to what one would imagine a dodgy disinfectant to taste like, rather than a fruity, refreshing drink born of an organic, seasonal process.

It is this misconception that a handful of Goa’s distillers are now seeking to turn on its head. It’s no cakewalk, given that the bulk of the state’s estimated 2,000 manufacturers prefer doing things the regular way, but the changes are beginning to make an impact. “We were featured in Distilled (2014), a book compiled by Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley on 100-odd artisan spirits, from absinthe to whisky," says Vaz, the most articulate spokesperson of the fledgling “new feni" initiative.

Vaz’s Cazulo, which created the premium feni segment locally, has had to hold back plans to export because Cazulo sells out domestically. Average monthly sales hover around 150-200 cases, with a case comprising six bottles of 750ml each (the other brands were reluctant to share sales figures).

The new wave in feni coincides happily with a growing interest in exotic liquors. It is increasingly common to see young Goans choosing feni over other drinks. In allied culinary fields such as mixology, practitioners are also opening up to experimenting with feni. The Firefly Goan Bistro Bar in Benaulim, south Goa, for instance, has over 30 feni-based cocktails.

Has the time come for feni to find a place alongside other white spirits like gin and vodka? Will it find a place in bars and eateries around Goa (and the country)?

“I do not measure Cazulo’s success in numbers alone. Success, for me, is when first-time drinkers taste Cazulo and say, ‘Wow! I never thought feni tasted like this’," says Vaz.

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