On February 27, 2009, after many years of lobbying by the industry and the Goa government, feni was accorded Geographical Indication status – the first alcoholic spirit to get this tag in India. This meant that the liquor made from the cashew fruit can only be called feni if it is made in Goa following a specific traditional process.
There was much jubilation and self-congratulation at that time. Not only did the Geographical Indication status safeguard a time-honoured traditional process of making this unique spirit, but it also was hoped that feni would now commercially compete on par with Scotch whisky and tequila. This is what we thought.
Smoke and mirrors
Seven years down the line, neither the sale nor the consumption of feni has been able to compete with conventional spirits like whisky or vodka, as some had predicted. Sure, there is a lot more awareness of, and respect for, the drink; but that is more to do with smart marketing and public relations by individual players in the feni segment, rather than because of the Geographical Indication status.
Feni is the leader of fancy packaging in the Indian liquor industry. For long, it was thought that feni could only sell with eye catching, most often gaudy packaging because it was imagined that the drink was not acceptable to the seasoned palette. To the average Indian tourist, fancy packaging at a cheap price made for a perfect souvenir to take home. Feni was still not a mainstream alcohol, it was just a souvenir drink for non-Goans.
Catering to this market segment, a new breed of feni entrepreneur entered – the bottler.
Bottlers had a simple formula. They simply bought any feni, irrespective of quality, from small distillers, and packaged the spirit in fancy receptacles. Bottles shaped like violins, cashews, boats, barrels and even those shaped like rockets fought for shelf space across stores in Goa. Some packed the spirit in even fancier cardboard cylinders with six-colour printing that told you about the feni and its makers. Feni was coloured like whisky, and some bottlers claimed vintages that made even aged single malts seem young.
Bottled feni seemed like all smoke and mirrors aimed to obfuscate tourists in Goa. Meanwhile, the average Goan, who knew a good feni from a bad one, didn't really care. He knew where the good feni was and how to get it, and didn't really care about what tourists bought or thought.
The Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association along with the Department of Science and Technology, Goa, the rightful owners of the Geographical Indication tag for cashew feni, could be grudged for not asserting that despite the brand equity of feni losing its sheen, nothing was done to mitigate it.
Recently a new committee has been elected in the association. It is made up of major players like Gurudatta Bhakta (Cazcar), Reagan Henriques (Fidalgo), Tukaram Haldancar (Cajulana) and Hansel Vaz (Cazulo). This will hopefully bring about an improvement in the liquor rather than just bells and whistles. New direction and fresh energy is a step in the right direction.
Good feni at the heart of it
Good feni is what we should be talking about – a clean fruity bouquet with earthy undertones that define this crisp alcohol as the classic drink from Goa. While most have only heard of caju feni, the discerning few also know that good coconut feni, though hard to find, is also a delight.
For centuries feni has stood the test of time as a mysterious but alluring drink, perfect in the hot tropical climate of Goa. Such a fine drink ought to be classified as the state drink of Goa, if not the national drink, and should certainly not be classified as country liquor. This is what every feni aficionado believes.
Heritage liquor status
The present celebrations about heritage liquor status given to feni by the Goa government earlier this week have to be looked at through that prism.
Currently, distilled liquor in India is of three categories – foreign liquor (bottled abroad), Indian made foreign liquor and country liquor.
The anomaly is that country liquor (under which feni is categorised) can be exported to other countries, but not to another Indian state. This is probably because unlike Indian made foreign liquor and foreign liquor, there are few rules to police the standard of country liquor being distilled. Thus, alcohol poisoning and death are commonly associated with country liquor as a result of which local Indian distills like arrack, tharra, santra, mahua have gained dubious reputations.
But good feni is an excellent product that really doesn't fit into any of the three liquor categories, and this was precisely the quandary. Feni was neither Indian made foreign liquor, nor foreign liquor but neither could it be compared to India’s other country liquors. If feni were to be separated from the other country liquors, it needed a befitting category.
Outstretching ourselves again?
Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has committed himself to the feni cause. Another huge supporter is the excise commissioner, Menino Fernandes, who took a personal interest in furthering feni’s stature. But as an observer mentions, it is not enough to give feni a heritage label. Just nomenclature changes nothing. The Goa government has to officially inform the excise department of every state that feni is now no longer a country liquor and has a different category of its own, and request the necessary changes be adopted in their Excise Acts. Otherwise though Goa may call feni heritage liquor, other states will still know it as a country liquor.
Another roadblock is that manufacturers wanting to export feni to other states have to buy licenses that cost a small fortune. The feni industry doesn't yet have the financial muscle to pay the high license fees of other states. Will the Goa and other state governments be able to negotiate a more reasonable license fee for heritage liquor?
But the most pressing issue would be of supply. Goa being a tiny state doesn’t grow enough cashew fruit to cater to the demand of feni for Goa itself, leave alone the rest of India or the world. Can we import fruit or juice from other states? Would this defeat the Geographic Indication status? Should we encourage more cashew plantations? These are serious issues for a drink that is aiming for the stars.
In Goa, feni is definitely seeing a resurgence of sorts with cocktails, workshops and tasting sessions making it more acceptable and better appreciated by locals and tourists.
Feni is coming back to where it always belonged – at high-class parties, bars, households and weddings. And so as the demand for better quality feni has already begun, distillers and a few bottlers have begun a race in the premium feni category. Finally branded feni is tilting in the right direction and looking at the quality of the liquor over fancy packaging. They want to give the discerning local clientele a worthy product. Today Goa, tomorrow the world. But good feni for Goans first!
Cecil Pinto lives and breathes Goa. He drinks only caju feni enthusiastically, and watches the feni industry from a safe distance.