What is Feni?
The mysteries regarding the country of India are one in a million, a culture all of their own, one region, one land, one unified way of life that celebrates all things colorful. It’s no surprise that their national spirit is just as bold and strong as the people who drink it- Feni. Think of it as india’s Tequila/Mezcal, only stronger in alcohol content. You may have heard of it, but chances are you’ve never had it the right way.
Feni is a tropical liquor in every sense of the word. This Indian brandy, for lack of better term, is made from the toddy of a coconut palm. Particularly from the region of Goa (yep there’s an A.O.C) though the north and south make it differently.
Cashew feni hits you with tasty, juicy notes of tropical fruits like guava and pineapple. You can also taste hints of nuts and spices like cinnamon and clove, giving it a warm and fruity taste that is too good to not enjoy. The nuttiness mixed with the fruity flavors makes this liquor the perfect pair with other similar flavors, which is why many people today opt to mix it with cherry-vanilla bitters and sherry.
Traditionally, this liquor is made from cashew apples that have fallen on the ground and have never been picked from trees. Feni is triple distilled and made in small batches. The process starts with the fallen cashew fruits, once they touch the ground they are deseeded and placed in the stomping area known as a "colmbi" which consists of a rock cut into a basin shape.
The apples are then crushed by foot, though a few distillers have made the switch to using a presser, but whatever- they get the pulp out. Then, the pulp is hand-patted to shape small mounds with the use of a vine called a “nudi” which is snaked around the mounds and held together by a boulder that is placed on top.
In comes the second extraction, a process known as “neero” which yields a refreshing enough drink to sip on right away, but it is not used in the fermentation process generally for making feni. The juice that came from the stomping used to be placed in a earthen pot called a “kodem” then it was buried halfway in the ground to ferment the juice for several days at a time. Due to the delicacy of the pots, the kodems have been switched out for plastic drums for the sake of practicality. Still underground, the juice sits for three days total and zero artificial components are added.
The use of an earthen pot as the boiling pot has now been replaced with copper pots, both known by the same name, “bhann”, and a “launni" where the distillate is condencesed by a continued pour of cold water. The process isn’t hurried along with any cheating, and that in turn is what makes it so special, and oh so very strong.
Both Cashew and Coconut Feni are distilled to 42.8 percent proof, which means it has absolutely no water added to it. This means the potency is not cut at all, which gives it that bold and strong flavor we were talking about that many people love about it, and also gives it a pungent smell that you either love or hate.
Coconut, or toddy palm, Feni is a whole different story… A toddy is collected from a coconut palm by a toddy tapper, AKA a person called a "rendier". So what exactly does the job entitle? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but not really a lucrative position which has led to a dramatic decline of coconut feni production.
By definition toddy tapping is, “the collection of juice from the bud or spadix of palm tree flowers” a century old tradition in India and SouthEast Asia. When the sap of the coconut palm is collected by the “rendier” it is placed in yet another earthen pot, this time called a “zamono” or a “damonem,” which is fitted over the spadix growing out of the base of the coconut leaf.
To be able to produce the toddy the spadix has to be tightly wrapped with a rope called “gofe” then it is cut from the base of the leaf using a small knife called a “piskathi” while remaining attached to the pedicle. The spadix then must be tapped all around delicately with the handle of a flat semi0circular sickle called a”kathi'l” every other day until it is round and flexible. That’s how you know the sap is ready, and the spadix is cut off to let it all pour out into the “damonem.”
A tedious process no doubt, the Toddy must be collected from the damonem in the morning and evening, and then carried down the tree specifically in a gourd-shaped container called a “dudhinem” to be then poured into another clay pot called a “kollso.”
Right at noon the spadix must be sharpened by slicing a thin layer off the top, called a “cheu” this way the flow of sap is reactivated. As for the toddy, it has to be left to ferment three days in either clay or porcelain pots known as “monn” or “jhallo.”
While Cashew Feni is more typical of North Goa, Coconut Feni belongs to the south. The distilleries are known as a "soreachi bhatti". They use a method very similar to the distilling of Cashew Feni, earthern pots and all. The only major difference is Coconut feni only distilled twice, the first distillate is called a "mollop". Four pots of mollop are then mixed with one kollso of toddy to distill the final product.
As for the name, the word “Feni” is derived from the Sanskrit word phena, which means froth. When the liquor is shaken and poured into a glass, you will notice a light froth that collects on the rim of the glass, this served as the inspiration for Feni.
Feni is traditionally consumed with a carbonated beverage like local Limca or Sprite. Many people enjoy it with a slice of lime and a touch of salt. Some like to add a little green chili to give it an extra zing! You can really enjoy the drink in any way you like, whether that is neat, on the rocks, or mixed in a fruity cocktail. Brazil (not giving up on their claim of the Cashew Fruit) uses Cashew Feni in their infamous caipirinhas.
Want to pair it with food? Try it with some South Indian cuisine or a dish that is based around stews and lentils. Want to enjoy it as the locals do? Drink it straight and enjoy it with a plate of delicious fried fish. As for where to get it, do not fret- it has launched in the U.S.
However, it is important to know that Cashew feni is seasonal, it is only distilled from February to mid-May and that’s if the fruit had a good season which also affects the price, FYI!
A Brief History-
With such an ancient culture/country such as India, you already know this feisty drink has been brewing for more than 400 years in Goa. It is definitely a cherished and staple drink for their culture even today, but it’s story begins in early 16th century CE, when the Portuguese settled in India, they had with them plenty of rare new fruits and vegetables.
Cashews are native to Brazil, which was of course back then, a Portuguese colony. When they brought them to Goa, they were planted in efforts to stop the topsoil from eroding thanks to the monsoons that plagued Goa. In the end, this proved to be better soil for cashews than Brazil itself, the Portuguese were stoked. Back then coconuts were available in abundance in Goa, which is why they were the preferable fruit in the beginning. That all changed once the cashew tree was introduced to India.
No names were given as for who to give credit to for thinking, “hey we should get drunk from this!” but our research showed that by 1740 CE a certain cashew liquor was causing issues with Portuguese authorities.
In those early days, Feni was created from farmers of Konkan villages who crushed the cashew apples with their feet and then distilled it in earthenware pots. Feni was a powerhouse brew for locals because of its medicinal qualities. It was known to be an antiseptic, it could heal colds, and it also helped preserve food.
It has also been used spiritually in Goan culture, particularly for calling upon guardian spirits with their offerings called, “soro” and you bet they included Feni. It has been admired in Goa from the villages to full blown elite Feni festivals where people go crazy and stomp their hearts out while chatting over cocktails.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that Goa won the right to a Global Geographical Indication and thus you can pair Feni up with Scotch, Champagne, and Tequila - a collection of unique spirits that can only be made in a certain part of the world.
In the past, Feni was seen as a working class drink, being served as shots to day workers. It has since become a very popular liquor that is served in restaurants, sold in local fairs, and even found at family dinner tables. While you can purchase the commercial version of Feni in the United States today, it is not quite the same as trying the real thing. Want the full experience? It may be time to plan a tropical trip to this little state in India.
India is the largest single producer of cashew nuts.
The largest regional producers are in West Africa around the Ivory Coast, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau.
Though we do have it in the U.S. Feni isn’t really seen at bars or on the cocktail scene, could it be time? Who’s to say… One particular issue with Feni being a legally protected product that can only technically be made in Goa, is that it is not flying off the shelves because it is NOT made in large quantities.
The silver lining? This means most Fenis you do find are handmade and completely natural, making it a unique and delicious liquor that leaves you with little to no hangover!
Thanks for reading, and as always…