Mahua's make-over: The spirit indigenous to central India is now bringing a 'happy high' to Goa
Desmond Nazareth's goal is to make mahua India’s national spirit. 'After all, mahua is the only distilled spirit in the world to be made from naturally sweet flowers,' he says
On your next holiday to Goa, forget your usual feni and instead experiment with a glass of the floral and fragrant mahua, or perhaps a mahua-based cocktail, all thanks to Desmond Nazareth, former IITian, founder and managing director, Agave India, who has made this possible.
Mahua, which in Sanskrit translates to ‘sweetness’, is now one of India’s indigenous spirits. Pot-distilled and made from a naturally sweet flower, mahua, it is available in Goa as a spirit and a liqueur, attractively packaged and distributed by DesmondJi (DJ).
Having pioneered bringing mahua, the sacred drink of the tribals or adivasis for centuries, out from the forests of Central India, Orissa and Jharkhand and eradicating the ‘country liquor’ label, makes Desmond immensely satisfied. He is happy that mahua is, at last, getting its due acknowledgment, in the form of a distilled drink at par with international standards.
He is in no mood to take credit though. “I am proud to be in the vanguard of this movement and to have given mahua the national and international recognition it so richly deserves. It is my small way of giving back to the country of my birth,” he says modestly.
A connoisseur of cocktails and drinks, this software developer’s tryst with mahua began several years ago in Eastern Gujarat when he discovered this magnificent drink and realised its potential. He developed a keen interest in it and delved deeper to know more. Several kitchen experiments later, he knew he wanted to develop it further. “It took me five years to get the necessary permissions and convince authorities and finally, I was able to manufacture this in my craft distillery in Chittoor district in rural Andhra Pradesh and package and distribute it in Goa recently,” he declares.
DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur are the two products that have hit the markets in Goa this June. With floral, honey and spice notes to enhance its flavour, Desmond transformed this spirit into a liqueur, apart from the smooth and potent, ‘spirit only’ version, as his tribute to centuries of tribal tradition.
Quality is of utmost importance to Desmond and although he had mahua on his mind for ages, he decided to wait for the right time. Agave India was thus started as a craft distillery in 2007 and the brand DesmondJi (DJ) in 2011, with a view to taking Indian spirits like agave, cane, feni to world-class levels. Agave and cane spirit distilling were strategically chosen by Desmond in order to establish his company’s mastery and prove that he too could compete with international products, as far as quality was concerned. After building his company’s reputation he focused on mahua.
Even when embarking upon the mahua-producing process, hygiene and safety were crucial to him. “Quality starts with the raw materials after all,” he avers. Fastidious about quality, he ensures five levels of hygiene checks, double-distillations using pot stills and is then left with 40 percent alcohol. He has even gone the extra mile and ensured that safety standards are properly created and chronicled, which in the long run will help others.
Giving his country, and subsequently the world, a spirit may be Desmond’s ultimate dream, but giving the tribals their due and working closely with them to help them elevate the status of mahua, providing them with a source of livelihood and enabling them to command better prices for their raw materials, is what steers him.
“Producing mahua without the help of the locals who have been doing it for years, would have been difficult. So I approached them through NGOs, ensured they trusted me and then worked in collaboration with them to source the quality of mahua flowers I needed,” Desmond quips with candour.
Mahua, which is typically sun-dried and stored for use through the non-flowering eleven months of the year by tribals, is endowed with floral notes, an astringency, and a natural sweetness. The creativity and flavour-diversity of mahua make it a hugely versatile drink with tremendous potential. Bartenders are loving its flavour profile and are already experimenting, using it to create unusual cocktails.
Desmond too vouches for mahua. “Relish it neat, or on the rocks, or in a fizzy drink with tonic water or ginger ale or club soda, or as part of fruit juice cocktails… mahua is a versatile delight. The after-taste it offers is unique.”
“My goal is to make mahua India’s national spirit. After all, mahua is the only distilled spirit in the world to be made from naturally sweet flowers,” Desmond states.
He is, however, not the only one who has taken to mahua. Mumbai based Susan Dias, founder-director, Natïve Brews too has been enchanted by the uniqueness of mahua, and apart from her interest in beers and whiskey, has been working on it and hopes to launch a triple-distilled spirit in Goa by the end of 2018.
Desmond is only too happy to have sketched the roadmap for mahua and is glad if others take it upon themselves to popularise it too. He is keen that other states give permissions to roll out the manufacture of mahua. After all, India’s very own mahua gives a “happy high, not a heavy high,” he signs off.