Looking to drive down to Goa for a quick seaside getaway? Make it high on local insight with a feni tour and learn all about Goans’ favourite drink. We get down to brass tacks. By Neetole Mitra
“In Goa, if you ask a woman where her husband is, she will often tell you that he’s ‘gone to the parliament’,” says Raul da Costa, a native of Curtorim town in South Goa district. The ‘parliament’ he refers to is an unlikely one. It refers to a tavern, mostly a nondescript little shelter by the side of the road or on the way to a paddy ﬁeld. It is the locals’ destination of choice at the end of a hectic day. It holds the promise of delicious ﬁsh cutlets and a few rounds of the ever-popular feni, shared alongside their troubles with friends and familiar faces.
This tavern culture took a hit near the end of the 1980s when the state encouraged these Portuguese-era establishments to be converted into modern bars to lure travellers. By 2016, only a handful was left. Raul, along with his partner Mackinley Barreto, has been trying to revive this iconic Goan tradition with a trail called Chol Kopp-ak (literally, let’s go grab a shot). Before you head to a Goan tavern, though, you should know the legendary drink you will encounter there.
Goans were most likely drinking feni before the Portuguese introduced the cashew tree in the area in the 1560s. The locals fused its fruit with a native technique of brewing strong liquor—a tradition monopolised by coconut until then. Today, despite its late entry, cashew feni is consumed more widely than its coconut counterpart, which is a staple in the villages of South Goa.
The sap collected from coconut trees is fermented and then distilled to get the first distillate called mollop (15 per cent alcohol). This is then redistilled with fermented palm toddy to create the real deal, called maad (‘coconut feni’ in Konkani)—an intense hit of 42.5 per cent alcohol. The same process is applied to the cashew fruit for the more popular version of feni.
Each year, kazkars (the community involved in cashew feni industry) bid for land in government auctions so they can gather the red, yellow, and orange-hued cashew fruits that ripen during February-March. They carry a basket and pick the fruits using a double thorn stick of the babul tree—two fruits at a time. The nut is twisted off the fruit, and the decapitated fruits are flung onto a stone basin called the colmbi and stomped. The juice, called neero, trickles down the colmbi and is collected in a kodem or a mathi’yeche bhaan, a fine clay pot that is then buried underground and left to ferment for three days. This fermented cashew juice is distilled to produce the summer drink urrak, a limited stock lasting barely a month and offering the most pleasant buzz to first-timers.
“The first time I had urrak was at my wife’s cousin’s birthday in Anjuna. It was light, aromatic, and just mildly intoxicating, fooling me into believing it was more like a sharbat, till it hit me smack in the middle of my head. I languished till the effects wore off,” photographer David D’Souza recalls. But feni is even more extreme. If the urrak hits you so hard at 15 per cent alcohol, imagine the potential of a shot with 45 per cent alcohol. The urrak is redistilled with neero to create a second batch called the cazulo (40 per cent), which is again distilled with the urrak to create a local drinking tradition with a devoted following.
Cecil Pinto, a true-blue connoisseur of feni, says a real enthusiast drinks it neat, or with soda or water, or on ice; a dash of lime at most. “Cocktails are good for those trying the drink for the first time but not the sign of a veteran,” Pinto declares. The man lives up to the tag of a feni lover by refusing to touch almost all other kinds of liquor (with the exception of the occasional urrak). “I carry my feni for weddings, parties, and any social events. Besides, I only frequent restaurants that stock good caju feni.”
Pinto has no patience for amateurs who don’t respect the drink. He observes, “Each person finds his favourite feni and tavern by experimentation. There are no shortcuts. One person’s poison is another person’s broth. If you see a lot of non-locals hanging around a place, you can bet they don’t know what they are drinking.”
If you push past the old favourites, like Cashyo, Reals, and Big Boss, you get to Hansel Vaz of Cazulo Feni. His family spent the 1980s fighting against feni’s ‘country liquor’ label, pushing for it to be recognised as a spirit. Two decades later, that dream was realised. Today, feni wears the GI (Geographic Indication) Tag and is Goa’s heritage spirit. In layman’s terms, this means that a bottle of feni isn’t far, no matter where you are in the world and that it is feni only if a native has brewed it on the red soil of the state.
Hansel Vaz personifies the laid-back vibe of the drink (and the state) and is as much a people’s person as the spirit he champions. “We always source feni from the locals. Cazulo has its guidelines but is dependent on the kazkars to brew us our batch of quality feni. And that’s the best part. Feni can never be monopolised.”
That is indeed true, because, in Goa, feni is everywhere. The state houses roughly 30,000 small distillers, and a large portion of what they produce is sold in unlabelled bottles, serving those cosy taverns or resting in glass garrafãoes in kitchen cabinets waiting to add flavour to a curry or cure indigestion.
Dabolim International Airport is accessible for both domestic and international travellers. If you’re travelling from Mumbai, you could take a train to Madgaon. The most picturesque option, however, is a road trip along the west coast.