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Historical tag adds punch to feni

Branding feni as a ‘heritage drink’ has been welcomed by producers, but believe the road ahead is long. AJIT JOHN spoke to various players in the business to understand the ground realities and challenges ahead

A lot of things may not be going well for the State. The economy is depressed and the local football teams pulled out of the I-league. The sentiment has generally been down and out. But, like in everything in life there seems to be a few things that it seems to be getting right.

Last year, the government introduced in the State Legislative Assembly an Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeking to elevate the status of feni as heritage spirit, bringing it on par with Scotch whisky and tequila. Thus beginning the process of the transformation in the perception of the product from country liquor to something that can occupy the top draw.

Mac Vaz, Founder President of Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association in addition to also being a director at Madame Rosa Distillery said “this is a great move and this will help the industry. Feni is an asset. It is part of brand Goa. We cannot take one away from the other. We are part of the history of this State and this move recognises it.” It is part of the spirit of Goa he added, a spirit similar to Punjabiyat and other similar ideas. He went on to say that the tide was turning. Feni, would be a vertical to help Goa better. There however had to be a plan in place to help improve perceptions as well as increase the popularity of the product.

Gurudutt Bhakta, president of the GCFDB hailed the move and said this was the best thing that could have happened. he said “People look down on it terming it country liquor but have no qualms in drinking Indian made foreign liquor which if not for the classification would have been the same thing. I however believe that this is a good step in a very long road ahead. We cannot expect a qualitative change in the branding perception of our product. This product has been present from Portuguese times and now that heritage has to be exploited. It is not a Johnny come lately.”

Packaging, he felt of the entire experience was vital. It would make or break the magic. He said presently in Goa, the fish is great, the football is struggling and now the feni producers were waking up. The State has 7 producers and 20 distillers.

The general sentiment amongst the others, the Herald spoke to was similar ie that it was a great move. But then this will remain just that, a piece of paper without any effect on the ground what is the step forward. How does one emerge out of this morass?

Everyone had great ideas and more importantly some of it is already in action. Mac Vaz has introduced the concept of a fenilier, something similar to a sommelier. He said “At the cashew trail we had Geofferey Manuel, the first fenalier and he created feni and urak cocktails which made people forget all the beer, rum and whisky available. We intend to have many programs in Goa and then later around the country. We are also lucky we are in a time when people are returning to their roots. People have travelled all over and now coming back to eating Indian food and trying out purely Indian spirits.”

Hansel vaz who retails the brand Cazulo said he was retailing around 700 cockails a night at his restaurant to a young crowd between 25 and 38 which was largely Goan. Hanzel said “You have the overseas customers and you have the hipsters who are a very large market. We have to position Goa as feni country, organise trips and create a perception that is similar to what France did with wine and now what Scotland did with whisky. Feni is the last exotic spirit which has not been exploited commercially.”

With over 200 years of history there was, he said huge potential but it had to be handled with people who were qualified and possessed foresight.

There are however some very pressing problems. Gurudutt Bhakta said “There is more bad than good. We need standardisation, we need hygiene, cleanliness and consistency of product. If you have a quality product, it will help in branding. I am not saying we have to change the way of making it, I am saying bring in some modern concepts like hygiene which is important.”

Sentiments echoed by Mac Vaz who said “We have to maintain very high standards and the authorities have the crack down hard on people who sometimes put anything in the bottle and try to pass it off as Feni. They should crack down on people who claim the feni is x years without it being so. The authorities are doing a great job I should add.”

Tukaram Harlankar, the man behind Cajulana said “Standards have to be maintained otherwise we are slashing our palms. They drink bad feni and they will never return”.

Hansel Vaz said “Bartenders in Mexico and Canada were surprised by the drink and its adaptability we have to take advantage of this quality of Feni.”

No one in the industry could provide with figures and when asked individually claimed they were growing but if the future had to be secured it would require a branding exercise which is perhaps now falling into place. (H)

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