India’s indigenous nectars
Cashew feni is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the Goa region. (Greg Elms/LPI)
Thirsty travellers take note: a chilled pint of Kingfisher beer does not an Indian evening make. Traipse through this incredible nation, and you will come across an awesome range of indigenous nectars. For those looking for a taste of local brew, here is a quick rundown of some of India's sweetest poisons:
The wines of Nasik
Sauvignon, chenin, merlot or even a crisp chardonnay – if you like your grapes fermented, Nasik is where you should be headed. Located deep in the fertile valleys of the Deccan Plateau and blessed with balmy conditions similar to Bordeaux, this town in northern Maharashtra has been churning out premium wines by the truckload to compete with labels from around the world. Dindori, an estate reserve bottled by Sula Wines, remains a sommelier’s favourite, as does the chardonnay from the cellars of Tiger Hill Vineyards.
Feni from Goa
The Portuguese introduced the cashew to Goa in the 16th Century and before long, India's sunshine state was tapping a heady infusion from the foreign crop. Extracted from the pulpy fruit of the cashew tree, feni boasts a pale ginger hue and a pungent fruity smell, and is a wonderful complement to spicy Goan curries such as the xacuti or the vindaloo. Pour generously on the rocks with a dash of lime for maximum effect. To add to Goa's alcoholic repertoire, there is also coconut feni and sweet port – a throwback to Goa's colonial past.
Liqueurs of Rajasthan
Clearly the stuff of kings, the exquisite liqueurs of Rajasthan embody the intricate regal heritage of countless dynasties that once lorded over the desert state. Made from age-old royal recipes and flavoured with local ingredients such as cardamom, saffron, dried fruits and herbs, these liqueurs once fuelled noble conversations among kings and statesmen. Kesar Kasturi, a liqueur that owes its provenance to the royal house of Jodhpur, is a raging favourite among connoisseurs.
This colourless rice spirit has long been the chief nourisher of life's feasts throughout the Gangetic floodplains of Bengal. Full bodied and boasting an alcohol content of nearly 50%, Bangla – sold under brand names such as Toofan and Farinni's No 1 – makes a fabulous base for several party cocktails. Try mixing up an Indianised caipirinha with lime, salt, sugar and chilli.
A jaunt in the Eastern Himalayas can only come full circle with a swig of chhang, the starchy millet beer that drives the imagination of every local in Darjeeling and Sikkim. Also known as tongba in certain areas, chhang is a popular dinnertime aperitif and can be intensely invigorating when drunk hot – especially through those cruel winter months.
Toddy in Kerala
If Kerala is God's own country, then toddy must surely be some kind of ambrosia. Walk into any town in India's deep south, and you will find the party in full swing at a neighbourhood shap (shop), where copious amounts of the milk-white palm wine – locally called kallu – is put away by a happy crowd, often in tandem with some lip-smacking Kerala goodies such as crab curry, fried prawns and steamed karimeen (pearl spot fish). Pull up two chairs, for you and your appetite, and let the good times roll.