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Out of India

India is home to one of the world's largest liquor markets and many unfamiliar spirits


Rohan Jelkie introduces Indian Spirits
  • Rohan Jelkie introduces Indian Spirits

Not so long ago, the sugar cane liquor cachaca was little known outside of its native Brazil, and it's still exported in small quantities relative to how much is consumed at home. Tequila similarly was once only common in Mexico. Could Indian fenny (or feni) be the next indigenous spirit to go global?

  Rohan Jelkie, a wine and spirits consultant and former bartender based in Delhi, is bringing it and some rare Indian liqueurs to Tales of the Cocktail.

  "Fenny is a Goan spirit," Jelkie says. "Anyone who has traveled to Goa has probably tried it. In 2009, it was recognized with a GI."

  Geographical Indications (GI) recognize an indigenous spirit, like Champagne or Scotch. The concept is similar to the wine regulations of European nations that define appellations and other label markings. The World Trade Organization has generally recognized GI regulations. The status may help fenny gain greater recognition outside of both Goa and India.

  Jelkie compares fenny to both cachaca and tequila. It's a roughly 85 proof, double-distilled, clear spirit made from cashew apples or the sap of coconut palm. It's pungent and often mixed with lemonade or tropical juices, such as pineapple or mango. One cocktail combines fenny, pineapple and orange juices, peach schnapps and grenadine.

  Typically, the first challenge for any Indian spirit is to gain recognition at home, Jelkie says. India has a population of one and a quarter billion people, tremendous regional and cultural diversity, and it's one of the world's largest liquor markets. Whiskey and rum are the most popular liquors, and the majority of indigenous spirits are not known outside their state or region. The abundance of local spirits hasn't allowed any particular one to gain a national identity. Jelkie hopes to shed light on some of the spirits, preferences and customs of drinking in India at Tales.

  Perhaps the best-known exported Indian alcoholic beverage is Kingfisher beer. But India also exports a lot of whiskey and rum. Amrut Malt Whisky is an Indian export that's earned recognition from spirits reviewers, and Old Monk Rum is a successful export from one of the world's largest rum makers.

  As a consultant, Jelkie has been involved in promoting Indian spirits in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and in some non-dry Middle Eastern nations, including Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. Fenny is still not known across all of India, but some fenny distillers export their brands to the United States and Canada, where they generally reach Indian communities there. But expanding notoriety and exports, particularly to hotels and restaurants, could help the spirit in India, he says.

  "If an Indian product gets popular abroad, it will become popular at home," he says.

  At Tales, Jelkie will present fenny and some fenny cocktails as well as a collection of liqueurs from Rajasthan and arrack, a Sri Lankan coconut spirit (not to be confused with arak, a common name for other spirits made in southeast Asia, the Middle East and north Africa).

  Rajasthan is a state in northeastern India and it shares a border with Pakistan. Its royal families share a tradition of making their own aromatic liqueurs. Some of them use more than 30 indigenous herbs and spices, and some of the spirits can be so pungent that Jelkie says they almost could be compared to bitters. He hopes Tales participants will be intrigued by tastes of just a handful of India's many native spirits.

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