On March 23, 2009, a cheer erupted over Goa, a territory rarely short of excuses for jubilation. The next day’s Navhind Times explained the cause for the exuberance: “It is a proud moment for the state as feni becomes the ﬁrst alcoholic spirit in the country to get the GI status and the ﬁrst-ever product from Goan soil for the same.”
This Geographical Indication status—a sign used on goods such as Darjeeling tea that come from a speciﬁc region, whose characteristics or reputation are a result of that place of origin—protects Goa’s most famous product from being manufactured by impostors from other places. Obtaining GI status for feni was the culmination of seven years of work by members of the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association. But after all their effort, some cynics couldn’t understand why the association had gone through all that trouble.
Their reaction wasn’t difficult to understand. As anyone who has ever sipped a snifter of feni well knows, the drink has an aroma that is powerful enough to immobilise an elephant. My personal campaign to popularise feni has often been greeted with horror. Offered a shot of this liquor, with a twist of lime and a pinch of salt, friends have sometimes made exaggerated retching sounds; others have played dead, rolling on the ﬂoor as they clutch their throats theatrically.
Little do they know what pleasure they have denied themselves. When a good feni glides over the tongue, the fragrance of a hundred cashew trees ﬂoods the mouth, the waves of the Arabian Sea lap up against your feet, and a fadista bursts into song on the edges of your brain.
It’s a sensation I ﬁrst encountered in the winter of 1992, on my ﬁrst real trip to Goa. Though my family has roots in the state, I had made only one previous visit, as an nine-year-old schoolboy. Now, accompanied by some of my closest friends, I was determined to drink in all of Goa’s treasures: the churches that borrowed elements from Hindu architecture, the temples that incorporated Baroque inﬂuences, musical forms like the mando, which blends the sounds of Europe and India.
That December, I acquired an insatiable appreciation for dishes I’d previously turned my nose up at: spicy sausage chilli-fry, sorpotel with bits of congealed blood, and the multi-layered dessert bebinca. A passion for feni followed in short order. A shot of caju feni at sundown, I discovered, made the twilight more mellow, company more convivial, the world a better place.
We weren’t alone as we made our pre-dinner toasts. Evenings in Betalbatim, like in villages across Goa, would be ﬁlled with groups of men gathering in the taverna to discuss the events of the day and, for the more determined, to obliterate all memory of them.
Feni’s potency has always been accorded healthy respect. In a paper about Goa’s efforts to win GI status for feni, Dwijen Rangnekar, who teaches law at Warwick University in the UK, quotes the journals of the 16th-century Italian traveller Ludovico de Varthema, who acknowledged that feni “will affect a man’s head merely by smelling it, to say nothing of drinking it”.
Feni is among the advantages India gained from the Columbian Exchange, the term used to describe the transfer of agricultural products (and diseases) between Latin America and the rest of the world that followed Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Bahamas in 1492. The cashew fruit, from which feni is distilled, is native to north-eastern Brazil, but was brought to Goa by the Portuguese, who colonised both territories. Rangnekar notes that Portuguese dignitaries in Goa were drinking urrack—the ﬁrst distillation of feni—as early as 1514.
Given my fondness for caju feni, I’ve always been curious about how the fruit has been treated (and distilled) in the region of its origin. On a trip to Brazil in 2005, I scoured liquor stores until I found a clear bottle that described itself as aguardente de caju. “Aguardente” means “ﬁre water” and the name was a pretty good description of the substance I had acquired. It set my belly aﬂame but had none of the subtle-notes of pepper and citrus that make feni so delicate. Seven years later, that bottle of aguardente sits in my cabinet almost untouched.
Much more satisfying is the bottle of vino de marañón that a colleague bought for me in Costa Rica, maronon being the word for cashew used in several parts of Latin America. This drink was smoother than feni, and had a distinct cashew aftertaste, but it lacked the punch of its Goan counterpart: it was only 13 proof compared to feni’s 90 proof.
Since then, I’ve also been told about a cashew drink from southern Tanzania called gongo, but I’m not letting my imagination run away with me again. For my money, there’s no cashew liquor as sophisticated as feni, as redolent with ﬂavour and history. Despite the sneers of the world, I remain an unrepentant feni drinker.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Ninety Proof And Counting”.