Thirsty travellers take note: a chilled pint of Kingfisher beer alone does not an Indian evening make. Traipse through this incredible nation, and you’ll come across an awesome range of indigenous nectars. For those looking for a taste of local brew, here’s a quick rundown on some of India’s sweetest poisons:
The wines of Nasik
Sauvignon, chenin, merlot or even a crisp chardonnay – if you like your grapes fermented, Nasik is where you should be headed. Located deep in the fertile valleys of the Deccan Plateau and blessed with balmy conditions similar to Bordeaux, this town in Northern Maharashtra has been churning out premium wines by the truckloads to compete with labels from around the world. Dindori, an estate reserve bottled by Sula Wines, remains a sommeliers’ favourite, as does the chardonnay from the cellars of Tiger Hill Vineyards.
Feni – the cashew tree’s bounty
The Portuguese introduced cashew to Goa some time in the 16th century. Before long, India’s sunshine state was tapping a heady infusion from the foreign crop and having the world drink out of its hands. Extracted from the pulpy fruit of the cashew tree, feni boasts a pale ginger hue and a pungent fruity smell, and is a wonderful complement to spicy Goan curries such as the xacuti or the vindaloo. Pour generously on the rocks, with a dash of lime for maximum effect. To add to Goa’s alcoholic repertoire, there’s also coconut feni and some dripping sweet port – a throwback to Goa’s colonial past.
Liqueurs of Rajasthan
Clearly the stuff of kings, the exquisite liqueurs of Rajasthan embody the intricate regal heritage of countless dynasties that once lorded over the desert state. Made from age-old royal recipes and flavoured with local ingredients such as cardamom, saffron, dried fruits and herbs, these liqueurs once fuelled noble conversations among kings and statesmen, and can now be sampled at any classy watering hole. Kesar Kasturi, owing provenance to the royal house of Jodhpur, is a raging favourite among connoisseurs.
This colourless rice spirit has long been the chief nourisher of life’s feasts throughout the Gangetic floodplains of Bengal. Full bodied and boasting an alcohol content of nearly 50 per cent, Bangla – sold under brand names such as Toofan and Farinni’s No. 1 – makes a fabulous base for several party cocktails. Try mixing equal parts with cola, or work up an Indianised caipirinha with lime, salt, sugar and chilli.
A jaunt in the Eastern Himalayas can only come full circle with a swig of chhang, the starchy millet beer that drives the imagination of every local in Darjeeling and Sikkim. Also known as tongba in certain pockets, chhang is a popular dinnertime aperitif, and can be intensely invigorating when drunk hot – especially through those cruel winter months. No wonder the snow-faring yeti has taken a liking to it over the years; old wives say it’s his favourite drink!
If Kerala is god’s own country, then toddy must surely be some kind of ambrosia. Walk into any town in India’s deep south, and you’ll find the party on in full swing at a neighbourhood shap (shop), where copious amounts of the breezy milk-white palm wine locally called kallu – is put away by a happy crowd, often in tandem with some lip smacking Kerala goodies such as crab curry, fried prawns and steamed karimeen (pearl spot fish). Pull up two chairs, for you and your appetite, and let the good times roll.
This article was written by Anirban Mahapatra and first appeared in www.lonelypanet.com in August 2011.