February 10, 2021
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Over the plethora of years that the alcobev industry has been in the spectrum officially, there have been lots of inventions by producers across the globe. Yes, there have been new spirits, wines, and liqueurs that have found their way onto shelves – but there’s also a wide range of products that were invented centuries ago, but never saw the light.
Desmond Nazareth, Founder and Managing Director of Agave India and DesmondJi distilled spirits, liqueurs and cocktail blends, has been successful in shining light on the Tribal Indian Spirit, known as Mahua.
A unique distillate of the sun-dried, nectar-rich flowers of the tree that shares its name, Mahua has a centuries-long, vibrant cultural history. It is the preferred tipple of the indigenous tribal people of Central India, and is also rumored to be the elixir of gods and the weakness of deities! It forms a part of all celebrations - births, deaths, weddings, etc. - of India’s original people, the Adivasis.
Mahua trees grow in Central and Northern India’s plains and forests - from Eastern Rajasthan and Gujarat to West Bengal; and Southern Bihar to Northern Telangana and Andhra Pradesh; and especially Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and parts of northern and eastern Maharashtra; and almost nowhere else in the world.
The Adivasis consider the tree the embodiment of Mother Nature herself (the “Tree of Life”) and it provides them with food, drinks, medicine, fuel, and fodder. Forests may be cleared, but the Mahua trees remain standing, their ownership safely in the hands of Adivasi families.
“The sun-dried flowers are a ready source of cash, like an ATM, a tribal person told me,” said Desmond when sharing his experience of visiting Mahua producing areas such as Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh during the month-long Mahua flowering season.
For tens of millions of tribals across Central India, who are mostly cash-poor and under-educated, Mahua flowers and seeds are a major cash crop.
“Another Adivasi told me that 10 good Mahua trees could keep his family of four going for a year” Desmond added.
The flowers can be consumed, bartered for grain and other essentials or sold for cash that comes in handy for big spends like marriages, festivals and medical emergencies. Over 95% of the estimated 500,000 tons of harvested flowers are used by tens of millions of tribals to distill alcohol that is unique to India. Mahua is truly a national treasure that has been hidden for decades in plain sight.
Ever since the colonial era, and still today, tribal Mahua spirit making has been tightly controlled by authorities, often made illegal and a matter of shame. During the British Raj, western spirits and Indian flavored ENA products simulating them, made their entry, flooding the Indian market. Their consumption soon became a statement of class within urban circles. Mahua, like other traditional local alcohols, got relegated to a lowly country spirit status, that city people became wary of. Non-standardized processes and illegalized Mahua trade spread roots in the villages and back alleys of towns, with perhaps high-quality tribal Mahua now lost to time.
Mahua plays a key economic and cultural role in tribal Central India. But the unorganized nature of the market has most often left the predominantly women collectors and distillers shortchanged and oppressed.
All that Mahua needs is a vision. And that’s where DesmondJi (DJ) has firmly stepped in (see http://www.desmondji.com). Their small-batch, rural-based craft distillery (India’s first) is designed to deliver a variety of world-class spirits that are true to taste, because of their ambition to recreate India-pride spirits made with Indian know-how. After creating international quality agave spirits, sugarcane spirit and orange liqueurs, alcobevs originally from across the globe, and even exporting some to the US and Europe, they did not want to sit by and watch the sun set on India’s heritage alcohol.
DJ Mahua spirit and DJ Mahua Liqueur are made in Agave India’s own craft distillery (India’s first) from Mahua flowers sourced from the forests of Central India, in collaboration with the tribal partners. An ode to India’s heartland, DJ Mahua is a multiple distilled “forest-to-bottle” spirit that is a unique “black swan” offering to bar-shelves of the world. Belonging to a category of one, “spirits pot-distilled from a naturally sweet flower”, Mahua has the potential of becoming India’s National Spirit!
DJ Mahua is extremely versatile and can be the base of any number of brown spirits, fizzy drinks, fruit-based cocktails, as well as liqueurs, of which the house of DesmondJi makes one. DJ Mahua Liqueur has honey and spice notes that work with the floral flavor of Mahua.
Agave India is the brainchild of Desmond Nazareth, an entrepreneur and carefree soul from IIT, Madras, who studied mechanical engineering, film-making, computer software, and was a pioneer in the Y2K problem while in the US.
A move back to India in 2000 saw him trying to reignite his old US passion – making Margaritas.
While trying to make up for what he saw as a lack of affordable options for Margarita aficionados like himself in India, Desmond came up with the concept behind Agave India. Like a man possessed, Desmond worked closely on developing every aspect of the project. He did the R&D for spirits and liqueurs, unearthed the blue-green Agave in the Deccan Plateau, raised the funds for his project, combated India’s bureaucracy and red-tape, and even served as the master distiller & master blender (his favorite parts).
Today Desmond is proud of DesmondJi distilled spirits, liqueurs and cocktail blends, Agave India’s signature line, as it symbolizes the achievement of goals he set himself at the start of the project among which were providing affordable and delicious Margaritas sourced purely from Indian raw materials and made in India in every aspect.
Over time, Desmond spread the contagion and recruited his encouraging and able co-promoters, the financially astute Sunil Alva and his co-conspirator in experimentation, the ebullient Johnny da Silva. Agave India is also supported by a stellar list of well-connected and highly experienced individuals from various parts of India, Asia, Europe, and the US, many of whom have volunteered excellent and crucial advice necessary for a start-up company in the alcobev space.
DesmondJi (DJ) is working at giving Mahua national and international respectability and to make Mahua spirit, and products based on it, available in the world’s top bars, as well as in stores. Also, there is great Travel Retail potential for non-resident Indians and tourists to take back a unique international quality product as a gift.
DesmondJi (DJ), currently at the intersection of craft and heritage, has started a movement to free Mahua from its chains and is leading the slow but steady process of the anointing of Mahua as India’s National Heritage Spirit (see http://www.boozebusiness.com/a-national-drink-is-born).
Available for purchase in Goa and Karnataka. Soon to be available in Maharashtra, Puducherry, Daman, Mahe, and Delhi.