The Baghdadi Jews of Cochin have traditional liquor they call Yayin – a wine distilled from fermented red grape. More than a month of work goes into picking the best red grapes and getting them fermented. The fermented liquid is distilled in a special teak vessel. The utensil is opened every three days or so to let out trapped gases and to extract the wine. By the third or fourth batch of the distillate, the strong Yayin is ready.

Yayin, like many other traditional recipes of home-made liquor, has almost disappeared from the State following the ban on arrack and home distillation. The recipe for Yayin is now mostly a memory among Jews here. “My mother used to make fierce Yayin. The teak vessel she made it in is now part of a heritage exhibition,” says a member of the dwindling Jewish community in Kochi.

The ban on arrack and other home-made distillates was imposed in Kerala in 1996 after several incidents of drinkers losing their eyesight and even their lives after consuming spurious liquor. The ban, however, has spelt death for several traditional recipes for home-made distilled drinks. For many passionate distillers, producing the perfect pot of arrack was a skill they honed over time. “My grandfather’s brother was an artist in arrack-making” says Suresh, a city resident. Soon after the harvest, his grandfather would set about making liquor from fresh rice paddy. Goa has kept its traditional liquor alive by giving it the ‘country liquor’ tag. Feni, a drink from cashew apple that is now associated with the State, is sought after by tourists. “Feni is not unique to Goa. Farmers in Kerala’s northern cashew belt make the same drink here. Settler farmers still distil fermented cashew apple after the harvest,” says Suresh.

The ban on home distillation has put several local brewers out of business, while promoting an active black market. "We used to make clean arrack from dates, bananas (poovan pazham) and jaggery. It's much better than many drinks sold commercially,” says a city resident who used to make a living out of distilling arrack, something his father and grandfather did before him. He now works as a painter.

Another sector hit by the ban is traditional medicine. The Malayalam term for arrack patta charayam comes from incha patta, the leaf of incha plant from which arrack is made to produce Siddha medicines. “Siddha has a whole range of medicines called vaattu (distilled) medicines,” says a practitioner. “A mix called varappu vaattu is an excellent medicine for bruises and other injuries. Arrack is a key component of the medicine. But now we just make it with brandy, "he says. 

(Names have been changed or withheld on request)

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