Travelling through South India

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

As craft beverages boom in India, I’ve been noticing how many interesting ones hail from the South. Goa has become a hot spot for our alcobev industry. There’s been a resurrection in feni, with new-age brands like Cazulo and Rhea; a ‘gin-naissance’ with brands like Greater Than, Hapusa, and Stranger & Sons; some of India’s finest single malts, like Paul John (and blended malts, like Woodburns); and, of late, craft beer via Sussegad Brewing, Goa Brewing Co and Arbor. There are over 3,000 registered micro distilleries in the state. And, most recently, when I curated the first edition of 30 Best Bars India, it also threw up over 10 bars in the coastal State as contenders, including Mahe, Calamari Bathe and Binge. So, the time seemed right to head down there and experience this first-hand.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

Finding feni

My first stop was Cazulo Fazenda in Cuncolim, the world’s only feni cellar, where you can explore the traditional distillery, try a tasting session, and enjoy an al-fresco meal in a spice plantation. But I joined a bunch of fellow crawlers on a tour of historic tavernas — as part of the recent (and first) World Feni Week. While downing garrafaos (glass jugs) of feni, I learnt that, besides the famous cashew, there are 18 types of coconut feni. The varieties are similar to gin — with individual flavourings added to the spirit — and, interestingly, each is linked to different ailments: jeera feni for an upset stomach, allem (ginger) for a sore throat, kodu (bitter) for diabetes, and even a lausun (garlic) for heart ailment.

As the tavernas traditionally cater to different sections of the working class, from farmers to toddy tappers, their timings and locations are aligned to them. Locals (or the folks at Cazulo) can advise you on where, and when, to go for the best experience.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

Gin, as you like it

Coconut feni and its botanicals got me curious about Goa’s gin culture. So, the next day, I set out on a road trip — with a clear head that was a tribute to the quality of the feni I’d drunk the previous night. I selected as my accomplice Charnelle Martins, head of distillery operations for Stranger & Sons, and a recent migrant from Bengaluru.

It took us half an hour to get to São José de Areal village, the home of two gin brands from Nao Spirits, Greater Than and Hapusa. Co-founded by entrepreneurs Anand Virmani and Vaibhav Singh (who used to run Perch, a popular bar in Delhi), Greater Than owes its name to the mathematical precision of a cocktail recipe. Hapusa takes it a couple of notches up, and is the world’s first Himalayan Dry Gin (hapusa is Sanskrit for juniper). With the foraged Himalayan berries and locally-sourced botanicals like turmeric and mango, it is a savoury gin and is great to sip over ice or in a dry martini.

Distiller Jay Dhawan showed us around the small distillery, with Agotha, their sparkling Hungarian copper still, at its heart. A bartender in Mumbai in his past life, he was co-opted into the Nao scheme of things by Virmani. As Martins and Dhawan swaped notes, I was amazed by the collaborative spirit that pervades the next gen, with perhaps the Goan air playing a role.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

From there it was an hour’s drive to Candepar, and the Stranger & Sons distillery, with a thickly forested hill as its backdrop. The brand is the brainchild of Rahul Mehra (co-founder of Mumbai’s Gateway Brewing Co), wife Sakshi Saigal and brother-in-law, Vidur Gupta. The gin has a vivid mix of Indian botanicals, from the Gondhoraj lemon to liquorice, nutmeg, cassia bark and mace, with much of it sourced from a local spice farm. They also have their own garden behind the distillery, where they’ve planted lemon and coriander, and hope to grow pepper soon.

Their facility is likely to undergo a sea change shortly, with a small visitors’ centre coming up as well as Spirits U, where aspiring drinks enthusiasts can come for a distilling boot camp.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

Hoppy, fruity and chilled

All that driving had got us thirsty, so a craft brewery came next. Suraj Shenai, I learned, had his first taste of an IPA (India Pale Ale) on a flight to the US, and then spent the next few weeks touring breweries up and down the American coasts. Resolved to create his own in India, he got Ashtavinayak Paradh on board, a PhD in brewing sciences from Scotland’s prestigious Heriot-Watt university, as co-founder. A year later, he raised the capital to set up Goa Brewing Co in 2018, in a renovated villa in Sangolda.

Ash, aka Paradh, took us on a tour. It was Saturday, the open house, so visitors were free to walk in. We started with a pint of Eight Finger Eddie, a very sessionable IPA (more fruit forward than hoppy). I also tasted a couple of experimental brews, one a delicious stout and the other an ale. A Pineapple Saison is their second commercial launch, with more to follow.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

Our next stop was a short distance away, in Saligao. Residents of Bengaluru have long been familiar with Arbor Brewing Company and, a while ago, they expanded to Goa to set up a brewery with a canning line. They currently supply beer in kegs across bars in Goa, and also can three of their varieties. I couldn’t resist their Beach Shack IPA, and my resolve to only have a half pint quickly dissolved. And since it was available in cans, I picked up a six-pack to take back to Delhi.

Exploring Goa’s craft breweries, gin stills and whiskey distilleries

Know your malts

My trip ended where it began, in Cuncolim, with a visit to Paul John. A few months ago, they’d opened a visitors’ centre — designed by local architect Dean D’Cruz, incorporating traditional Goan architecture — to help enhance the experience of their single malt. “Spacious and airy, the centre was designed such that visitors could experience not just the whiskies and their making, but the culture of Goa as well,” says John, the founder.

Pankaj Poovanna, the visitors centre-in-charge, guided us through the whiskey-making process and the warehouses where thousands of barrels of their award-winning single malt were maturing. At the tasting, we tried the newly-launched Nirvana and then moved on to the flagships, the Brilliance, Edited and Bold, and two other whiskies that are only available in Goa — due to their high ABV (alcohol by volume) — the Select Cask - Classic and the Peated (both at above 55% ABV).

Goa has given me so many reasons to re-visit. My suitcases were bulging with bottles when I left, but I was never happier paying for excess baggage.

The writer is co-founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:01:43 AM |

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