Country Liquor: The Surprisingly Good Local Brews Of India
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India has a rich history of producing alcoholic beverages, and the country's liquor scene is full of surprises. From the fiery moonshine-like toddy to the sweet and aromatic arrack, India’s country liquors are some of the most unique and flavorful brews around. From the north to the south, each region has its own distinct style and flavor profile, and many of these brews are still made using traditional methods. Whether you’re an experienced drinker or just looking to try something new, country liquor is the perfect way to explore the unique flavors of India. So grab a glass and get ready to discover the surprisingly good local brews of India!

The first liquor in the country was made in the Indus Valley, as early as 3000 BCE. Many historians credit the Indus Valley Civilization with inventing the process of distillation, which used clay stills for the task that, while ineffective, were functional in the sense that they could produce a low-proof beverage. The only drink we know of from that time period is "sura," a weak drink brewed using rice, wheat, and fruit. At the time, the beverage was said to be popular among the Kshatriya class. Sadly, the spirit has not survived to see the light of modern times, meeting its end as a base for ayurvedic tonics before the practice moved on to more efficient methods to produce methanol.

Luckily, the Indian subcontinent has no shortage of native liquor. We begin our journey in south India, the birthplace of the country's oldest surviving brew, toddy, the infamous coconut palm wine. The tangy palm wine has been brewed across south Indian states for centuries, with the tradition still going strong today. There are four types of palm that may be used to make the drink: coconut palm, doub palm, khajur palm, and fishtail palm. Each state uses a different palm to make the beverage. Toddy artisans in the state of Kerala use three varieties: the doub palm, the fishtail palm, and the coconut palm. Artisans in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana make use of coconut and khajur palms. Toddy is made by artisans along the Canara coast of Karnataka, and the emerald state of Goa uses the coconut palm to concoct the beverage.

The method of producing the toddy remains the same across all states. The process starts when the palms begin to bud; artisans scale the trees and massage the shoots in order to stimulate the onset of flowering, which takes anywhere from three to five days. Once the palm has flowered, an incision is made on the spathe, and a plastic or clay pot is attached right beneath it using a rope, after which it is tapped for a period of fifteen to twenty days. The knot used for the task is a simple one that is easy to undo since the sap has to be collected on a daily basis. A wooden paddle is often the weapon of choice for the task, although artisans in the state of Kerala may use beef or deer bones that are filled with ghee in an effort to add weight. It is believed that tapping the palms is an art in itself; producers often employ artisans dedicated to the craft for this part of the process. After the cutting starts to bear sap, it is collected daily and further fermented to produce toddy. A well-maintained palm tree can produce up to two liters of sap every day for up to five months. The sap, called neera, may be sold as-is to manufacturers that process it using heat or chemicals to prevent the beverage from fermenting. To make toddy, the sap is left outside in a vat in an effort to expose it to natural yeasts. The yeasts take about five hours to act on the liquid, after which the toddy is ready. To reduce the proof, the toddy can be diluted with water or sold as is. Kerala is the only state that is known to feature additions in the beverage, with two distinct varieties: "munthiri kallu," a pink toddy made by adding grape juice to the sap before fermentation, and "kanthari kallu," a spiced toddy made with the addition of ginger and kanthari chillies. 

Several north-eastern states also make wines similar in strength, albeit with the use of rice. The number of rice wines in these states is too large to list; however, some varieties, like Judima, a rice wine made by women of Assam’s Dimasa tribe, are more popular than others. The beverage is made by fermenting cooked sticky rice that is infused with herbs, a process that takes up to one week. The resulting beverage is sweet and floral and is relished by locals and tourists alike. The beverage is also the only one from the Northeast with a GI tag, earning the distinction in 2021. Other rice-based wines and "beers" are also popular across the eight states. The state of Manipur also distills the wine to make a clear rice spirit called "yu." The wines and distilled spirits are often flavored with local produce, namely fruit and foraged botanicals. Pineapples and oranges are two of the most popular additions to such beverages.

The state of Goa is known to make a distilled beverage using fruits of the cashew tree, called "Feni," in traditional stills. The second run (the first run of any distilled beverage is called "heads" and is inedible due to its high methanol content) of the distillate made using the fermented cashew must is called "arrack." It is similar in taste to feni albeit lower proof. The arrack is often added back into the still unless there is a demand for the beverage. Feni is popular across the state, owing to its unique fruity and astringent taste. Coconut feni, made by distilling toddy, has a relatively smooth palate with notes of fruit and nuts, minus the astringency.

North India isn't one to miss out on the fun either; the royal houses of Rajasthan have made liqueurs for centuries using several locally sourced botanicals. Although these beverages were banned during the prohibition following India’s independence, some brands resumed production after the ban was lifted in 1998. Eight brands of such liqueurs are sold today, namely Royal Jagmohan, Royal Chandr Haas, Mawalin, Royal Kesar Kasturi, Royal Ellaichi, Royal Rose, Royal Saunf, and Royal Apple Orange, with Royal Chandr Haas and Royal Kesar Kasturi being the most popular of the lot. The Rajasthan State Ganganagar Sugar Mills Ltd., which is run by the government, makes all of these liqueurs.