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ONE OF the best ways to experience a culture is through its traditional food and drink. India’s cultural diversity is often identified strongly by its signature cuisine but many local brews have found favour, too, with the masses, and now increasingly with the discerning few.
Drinks like Goa’s renowned cashew Feni, Kerala’s coconut Toddy and rice beer are easily available and enjoyed. However, there are few, like the Mahua – a traditional drink made from the flowers of the Mahua tree and popular amongst the local tribes of central India – that are harder to find and indulge in. Tradition and folklore have given it an exotic, almost mythical status.
But this is all about to change. Desmond Nazareth, a Goa-based alcohol wiz, has set up a craft distillery to produce, bottle and market Mahua. Through his brand, DesmondJi (DJ), he hopes to popularise uniquely Indian spirits.
We spoke to him about his journey and his enterprise to give Mahua a Tequila-like status in the world.
Asha: You’ve been in the alcohol business for over a decade now. How did you get started?
Desmond: I had a reputation for making amateur cocktails-with-a-twist while based in the US. When I moved back to my birthplace, Bombay, in 2000, several friends asked me to revive my interest in cocktails. I found myself searching liquor stores for the ingredients of popular cocktails, including the Margarita. At that time, even ordinary Tequila and Cointreau were extremely hard to find and when available, were exorbitantly priced. A random question was triggered off in my mind, for no apparent reason: why is Tequila, a globally known alcoholic beverage, made in only one country (Mexico), whereas almost any other equally well-known alcoholic beverage (whisky, vodka, rum, gin, champagne, wine, beer) has multiple producers in multiple countries?
Researching this, I saw photos of the blue Agave used in Mexico and had an ‘aha’ moment – I was sure I had seen similar Agave plants growing in India during my childhood. Having some general knowledge about these matters, I immediately looked up a map of the world and traced the latitude lines for the Agave growing regions in Mexico (Jalisco & Oaxaca) across to India. They crossed right through the Deccan Plateau! Looking at the other key parameters for the possible migration of plant species, I found startlingly close matches in terms of soil, rainfall, temperature, altitude i.e. key geo-climatic factors. I concluded that I must have seen these plants while travelling through the Deccan on trains in my youth!
I continued my research into Agave and Agave spirits for the next few years and collected enough information to develop a process for making Agave spirits from Agave, if only I could find it in India! Shortly after moving to Goa, and after meeting the right people in Goa who could help me find the plants and experiment, we set off on a road trip into the Deccan, armed with all my data files, in search of the blue-green Agave – lo and behold, we found some within a day!
From that point on (2004), it has been an incredibly exhilarating, but often hugely frustrating, endeavour. What you see today is a result of persistence, patience and determination, fueled by passion and helped by numerous well-wishers. The years have rolled by involving hundreds of experiments, taste-testing, process refining, raising funds, getting permissions for and building a green-field craft distillery, equipment and bottle/label design, hiring, training and building a team, scaling up to production, launching, marketing, making new products, getting permissions for expanding to domestic markets, and now exporting to the US and Europe.
It’s exhausting even to think of everything that was involved in this mind-blowing 18-year journey!
A: Your company produces ready-to-drink margaritas and liqueurs, how did you Mahua become your next project?
D: When we started our craft distillery in 2007, I thought of a whole bunch of uniquely Indian spirits we could make at world-class levels, including Agave, Cane, Mahua, Feni etc.
Strategically, we decided to make Agave and Cane spirit first to establish the DesmondJi (DJ) brand reputation nationally and internationally, because we could establish our mastery by competing with international products on a quality basis. Then we would start making Indian Mahua and other Indian spirits (and derivative liqueurs) which were relatively unknown nationally and internationally and let them ride on the quality shoulders of the DesmondJi brand reputation.
A: Where and how do you produce Mahua?
D: We produce our Mahua spirit in our eco-friendly craft distillery in rural Andhra Pradesh. The sun-dried Mahua flowers are shipped in from Central Indian states, where they have been collected and processed as per our specifications. We make spirit from both Mahua flowers only, and Mahua flowers blended with high-quality cane sugar, in our craft distillery. The process involves fermentation, followed by multiple distillations. We may look at ageing Mahua in wooden casks at some point, going forward.
A: Like most local brews, Mahua is a perishable drink. What have you added or changed in the distilling process to make it non-perishable?
D: Drinks that are just fermented and clarified, like beer and wine, or (often poorly) single-distilled, like cashew urrak, tend to be perishable if not refrigerated and stored properly.
Our DJ Mahua spirit is multiple distilled in small batch pot stills, using distillation processes that we have learned from experience, and has the same shelf-life as any other globally made pot still multiple distilled product, like Scotch, or Tequila.
If bottled and capped tight, consistently, our multiple distilled spirits are ‘immortal’.
A: So far, the drink is consumed in small pockets of the country. Did you find it difficult to mass produce it? How did you go about it?
D: Craft distilleries generally do not mass produce products. Boutique pot still-based spirit makers like ourselves make small quantities compared to any large ENA (extra neutral alcohol) producers. In our case, we were just scaling up a couple three orders of magnitude.
A: Does large-scale production take away from its original taste?
D: Producing Mahua spirit on a larger scale and using more hygienic raw material and better processes have really produced spirit at a level that you will rarely, if ever, obtain in tribal regions.
The taste of DJ Mahua spirit is reminiscent of, but notably different from, what one might score in local tribal drinking spots. For one, our spirit is smooth, high strength, clear, and multiple distilled. Tribal offerings, in general, tend low strength, single distilled and slightly cloudy.
Our DJ Mahua liqueur product is made using our own mahua spirit, with honey and select spices blended in.
A: Indians aren’t particularly adventurous with their drinking; sticking to mostly whiskey and beer. How then do you plan to make Mahua – a drink most people wouldn’t have heard of- popular?
D: Mahua is a lot more familiar to North Indians and urbanites who’ve travelled in Central India. As usual, the popularity of DesmondJi products spreads through word-of-mouth, social media and traditional media. Hopefully, this will have a ‘fan-out’ effect
We are giving special attention to bartenders-mixologists, sometimes via presentations at their schools, who can creatively use our new and unique tasting products to mix new signature cocktails. Our Mahua products also lend themselves to simple tasty cocktails that can be made at home, with recipes we suggest on the product labels.
A: What market are you looking to target?
D: We have started with Goa and intend to spread to as many states in India as we are allowed to by state governments. Our urban consumers will likely be in the age range of 20 – 60, of both sexes.
We are also actively looking into exporting this unique flower-based distilled spirit to foreign urban markets, via partners and importers.
A: Are the locals involved in any way in the process?
D: Locals and tribals from certain states in Central India are involved at the moment in collecting, sun-drying, storing and shipping Mahua flowers to our craft distillery. We pay them a premium price, as their activities are geared to our hygiene-driven quality specifications. In time, hopefully, the state governments concerned will allow licences for tribals to produce better quality Mahua in larger amounts, so that they can widen their market beyond the village to cities and towns within the state, for starters. By obtaining a better price for their spirits when made at higher quality levels, and maybe even bottled and branded, tribal producers can up their Mahua game and benefit financially.
A: Where will the drink be available and for how much?
D: Our starting two products, DJ Mahua (spirit) and DJ Mahua liqueur, both at 40% alc/vol, are available only in Goa, for now. MRP for 750 ml bottles is Rs 975 and Rs 1275 respectively, and for 90ml bottles, Rs 110 and Rs 150, respectively. In time we hope we get permission to sell in other states.
We have started to explore exports to foreign markets, as our products are made at international quality levels and will intrigue tipplers around the world, because of their new and unique sensory profile. We hope that, in time, mahua becomes India’s national spirit, with a Geographical Indication (GI).
A: Do you think state governments should be more involved in propagating local food and drinks?
D: Absolutely! There is such a tremendous range of food and drinks in every region of this vast and diverse country. Occasionally one hears, in Goa, of a food and drink fest from a particular state but given state government rules and regulations covering the movement of alcohol across state borders, and based on my experience, these do not involve any alcoholic beverages, even of the fermented, and not necessarily, distilled kind. This is a pity.
Each state is, of course, free to showcase its local alcoholic beverages within its own borders, so they can start there. There is great tourism-draw potential, which should not be wasted!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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