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  • Say cheers to Feni

    Mar 21st, 2016

    Feni’s elevation to heritage spirit is left Goans in high-spirits, but sobering thought is stakeholders getting benefitted from the new up-market status, says Shoma Patnaik

    Goa Budget 2016-17 had cheering news for Feni lovers. The alcoholic beverage drunk from time immemorial in homes, bars and also sold across the counter was declared as ‘heritage spirit of Goa’ by the Chief Minister. Legislators across party lines collectively approved of it. For a change there was no crib against the announcement with MLAs calling it a good idea. Feni must get the respect it deserves, they said.

    Feni for sure can do with a boost. A popular drink it is considered much more than an alcoholic beverage among locals who drink it for the punch and also for medicinal reasons. But according to observers Feni is losing its strength vis-à-vis other hard drinks. Competition from IMFL and beer is nearly flattening it out in the market.

    Ground level check reveals that Feni intake is a small segment of hard drinks consumed by tourists who comprise a major chunk of buyers. They are imbibing little quantities of it and prefer other drinks. Future outlook is worrisome as competition from IMFL, wines, is expected to hot up. It is an unfortunate trend when Feni is a traditional drink and strongly identified with Goan culture, says a Panjim shopkeeper.

    Feni is an integral part of the local landscape. It is drunk often by residents and stakeholders are in villages and interiors. Stakeholders constitute tiny, cottage industry 2,500 distillers spread out in cashew plantation areas. Other stakeholders are farmers, render’s, bottlers, retailers, etc. For participants in the industry the announcement of Feni as ‘heritage spirit’ is an important milestone. It is the second important development after the drink got Geographical Indication (GI) in February 27 2009.

    The GI was initiated by couple of distillers and the department of science and technology. Getting it was an arduous process and stakeholders are sure that getting Feni established as an Indian heritage drink will be another difficult progression. The heritage drink status will remove the country liquor tag from Feni and permit free sale within the country, says Mac Vaz, president, All Goa Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association. Country liquor is not a nice description of a drink in India as drinkers flinch from it, adds Vaz.

    According to Gurudut Bhakta, secretary of the association, “having Feni notified as heritage is good thing because it gives recognition, respect and credibility to the drink.” Producers will be enthused to make good quality Feni and popularize the drink, says Bhakta. Distiller Narahari Halarnkar, Valpoi is hopeful that post heritage drink things will improve for the medium sized distillers like him who are traditionally involved in Feni distilling.

    In Goa there are two types of Feni. The one prepared from toddy or coconut sap is palm feni while the other is cashew Feni prepared from the juice of the cashew apple. While distillation of cashew Feni is seasonal (it is two months) production of palm feni is throughout the year. Among the two it is cashew Feni that is considered the original and the unique USP of Goa- a cashew growing state. The government is trying to get GI for palm feni too and get it called a heritage drink too. The GI status, according to a distiller, has not been leveraged by the government. Feni is the first alcoholic drink in India to be GI registered but yet not many know of it, he says. The benefits of GI are important as it prevents unauthorized use of Feni name by other states and it also encourages exports.

    At present exports of Feni is in miniscule quantities and to countries like US and Europe. But it is a significant achievement by two-three distillers, considering the lack luster government support for it.

    It is possible to increase Feni’s popularity among outsider tourists, according to stakeholders who point out that all that is needed is strong marketing and image building. The smell and unique taste of Feni needs to be its USP like how it is become in export market, says Vaz whose company exports Lembranca brand Feni overseas.

    Hygiene, modernization of the distilling process are areas that the industry needs to work on, says Bhakta. While across the board opinion from stakeholders is crack-down on the spurious quality Feni being sold in the market. It is the most important reason for tourists shying away from Feni as they are the ones most likely to be cheated with fake products, say stakeholders.

    To address the issues affecting the Feni industry, the government is set up a committee and will soon come up with Feni Policy. The policy will include standardization of production, packaging, fair price control, mechanism, promotion, marketing and research. The whole idea is to promote Feni as Tequila and Scotch Whisky that are geographical products. It is going to be a long shot effort and fingers are crossed on the success as Goan Feni’s tradition links needs to be protected for posterity.

    The Tequila takeaway

    Feni makers must take heart from Tequila the oldest distilled spirit of Mexico that has withstood history and is highly popular. Tequila did not start out as a hit party drink. Its origins are really ancient. It is an indigenous fermented drink made out of the sap of the agave plant. The beginning of Tequila was simple and drunk by common folks. But today Tequila is as respected by bartenders as bourbon and Scotch. The drink has solid branding and brings fame to Mexico. It also fetches substantial revenues to the Mexican government.

    Tequila is recognized as a Mexican origin product in more than 40 countries. It is protected through NAFTA in Canada and the United States, through bilateral agreements with individual countries such as Japan and Israel. It is an intellectual property term and a regional specific name for a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila. Mexican laws state that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states. Distillers have to abide by strict set of rules. They have to ensure that the bottles are made in the correct location, with correct ingredients and aged for the right period. It is also illegal for other countries to produce or bottle their own tequila. It was country liquor in the past but today tequila is considered a classy drink. It is mixed in cocktails and drunk in posh surroundings.

    The process of Feni’s acceptance as heritage drink

    There are hardly any heritage drinks in India and Rajasthan is perhaps the only state with old alcoholic liqueurs founded by Maharajas. These liqueurs are recognized by the government as heritage drinks. However production of the liqueurs is by the Rajasthan government and not many tourists know of them. Hopes are high in Goa that Feni’s recent classification as a heritage drink will garner publicity and increase its sale.

    However after being notified as heritage drink there are still many stages for Feni to get accepted by other states as a heritage drink and allowed entry through borders. At present Feni’s movement across the country is not allowed because it is considered country liquor. The state excise department not only has to get Feni accessed to other markets but it also has to ensure that states honour the GI status of the drink. There are distillers in Karnataka who are fermenting cashew juice and calling it Feni.

    According to Menino D’Souza, excise commissioner, the task of getting Feni accepted as a heritage drink will commence soon. If states can honor foreign drinks such as tequila and scotch, there is no reason why they would not do it for Goa, he says.