Desmondji Mahua is billed as the world’s only spirit distilled from naturally sweet flowers and is as Indian as it can get, but its sale is restricted to Goa and Karnataka, thanks to India’s rigid liquour laws. Creator Desmond Nazareth will now target foreign markets.
Desmond Nazareth is extremely fortunate that his passion for liquor matches his stubbornness about it. Nearly two decades ago, the former software entrepreneur and margarita lover returned from the United States and scoured the Deccan plateau for agave, which is native to Mexico and used in the production of, most famously, tequila.
His search for, and the discovery, in significant quantities, of the plant, gave rise, in 2011, to Agave India. The company’s craft distillery, in Chittoor, in Andhra Pradesh, produces a 100 percent Agave Spirit and 51 percent Agave Spirit under the brand name DesmondJi. Its portfolio also includes orange and blue curacao liqueurs and a pure cane spirit that is made from locally grown sugar cane.
The rigours of setting up a distillery in India are well known and convincing the authorities about his ability to produce global spirits with Indian raw materials must have taken some doing. But even for a man used to traversing the labyrinthine corridors of various excise departments, the irony must have rankled when it came to producing mahua. Nazareth launched Desmondji Mahua in 2018, but two years down the line, sale of the beverage is still restricted to Goa and Karnataka.
“Everything I have done in the last 20 years has led up to this breakthrough. Mahua is the world’s only spirit distilled from naturally sweet flowers; it is as Indian as it can get, and yet, the fight has been — and is — to see authorities to not perceive as ‘country liquor’,” says Nazareth. By law, country liquor cannot be sold outside the state it is distilled in, and the Andhra Pradesh government took four long years to grant him permission to make mahua at his distillery.
The mahua tree (Madhuca Indica), which flowers between March and May, grows across a wide swathe of India, from Maharashtra to Odisha. The tree is integral to the life of many indigenous communities, including the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh and the Santhals in Jharkand. They both worship it and use its wood, seeds, and flowers in various ways, and the tree features in weddings and folk tales.
The spirit is made from dried mahua flowers, and for over five years from 2013, Nazareth has established a supply chain that delivers the flowers to his micro-distillery from Orissa and Jharkhand. “I spent months travelling through the different states, spending time among the indigenous communities, earning their trust and appraising them of the levels of quality I was looking for. When a person invites you to his home and shares his mahua with you, it is a sign of their trust in you,” says Nazareth.
In the pre-COVID world, the process of sourcing the dried flowers, fermenting them, and distilling and bottling the spirit took about three to four months. Today, he is preparing for much longer lead times.
This writer has had mahua only once near Mandu, in Madhya Pra-desh, back in the early 2000s, and remembers, most of all, its smoothness. “The tribal people dilute mahua with water, but it can be drunk neat, too.” Nazareth also recommends mixing it with tonic water, and adds that mahua shots are a great idea as well. “Mahua has the lowest concentration of methanol among pot-distilled spirits, so it gives you a clean high. It is extremely versatile as well, and I see bartenders across the world taking to it.”
According to Nazareth, Agave India, which is funded by a clutch of angel investors, sold 12,500 cases in the last financial year, with the agave spirits contributing to nearly 75 percent of that sales volume. 2020 was supposed to have been the year when DesmondJi Mahua would have taken wing. But faced with the obduracy of state governments, Nazareth is thinking of recalibrating his strategy and aiming entirely at the international market later this year.
“I keep trying to get the authorities to understand that every international spirit began as a country spirit,” says Nazareth. “Who knows, its acceptance abroad might pave the way for mahua in its own country.”Murali K Menon works on content strategy at HaymarketSAC. Views expressed here are personal.