Goan origin Desmond Nazareth is making waves with country liquor, Mahua. He is got the tribal drink into the mainstream and accepted by the hip drinking crowd, discovers Shoma Patnaik
A few years back if somebody offered a tall glass of Mahua at a party it would have raised few eyebrows.
The indigenous spirit is drunk across several states in India but never in drawing rooms of urban dwellers. Like other native brews such as toddy it is part of our country’s vast, underdeveloped hinterland.
But today Mahua is trending in pubs, restaurants and even exported out of the country. As a hard drink it is being sipped, toasted and served as cocktail at parties and elite gatherings.
Goan origin Desmond Nazareth is hoping to change the rules of the Indian liquor industry.
His company Agave India, currently sells under the brand name DesmondJi and DJ. The products DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur have an alcohol content of 40 per cent by volume. It is classified as IMFL and presently sold in Goa and Karnataka. The market reception to the brand is enthusiastic.
“The Indian liquor industry is huge. It has several large manufacturers who make a range of whisky, gin, rum, vodka, beer, etc. But the quality conscious consumer in urban centers are looking for something different,” says Nazareth who is elated by the success of his products.
He explains that, craft-liquor companies like his are keeping away from mass production. They are not looking at volumes but at the value-driven segment. In future there will be new range of Mahua based products.
“Nothing new has happened in the Indian liquor industry for the last 100 years. What craft-liquor producers like me are doing is new stuff. But what is holding us back are the liquor laws of the states that were written for the past and not suitable for startups who are making products for the future,” he says.
Nazareth is actually one of the leaders of the craft-liquor group who are fighting to change liquor laws at the central and state level. He is upbeat on Mahua becoming a part of the formal liquor economy in future. “The flowery aroma of it is comparable to the best
drink s in the world,’ says Nazareth.
He explains that, thirteen states including Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal make liquor out of the Mahua flower. “The production of it could be anything between 100 million litres and 1000 million litres. The whole of tribal central India is making the drink and most of the distillers are women. The ecosystem is totally dominated by women who are involved in the collection of flowers, storing, drying, etc.”
Nazareth is hoping for tribal co-operatives to come up in future and other entrepreneurs jump into the fray of production of the liquor. He says that, the Mahua tree grows exclusively in India. “The tree is unique and takes 25 years to flower. So even if some country who wants to compete they can’t. The drink is the only distilled spirit in the world to be made from a naturally sweet flower. It has the potential to be unique to India and as big as tequila,” he says.
Nazareth got interested in craft-alcohol in 2000 after coming back from the US and missing his Margarita, the classic cocktail of tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. Since tequila is GI patented by Mexico, he started looking for affordable options.
He discovered that the Agave plant is also grown in the Deccan plateau and began the R&D for his version of tequila. Presently Agave India manufactures 10 products based on agave, Mahua and cane.
The company has its production facility (micro-distillery) in Andhra Pradesh and the bottling and packaging unit in Goa. It has 20 employees and 20 casual labourers. The company’s capacity is of 30,000 cases. Sales in 2018-19 was 13,000 cases and this year the target sale is 16,000 cases.The company also sells overseas and exports about seven per cent of its sales.
Nazareth believes that regional beverages need a boost and must not be overlooked by the policy makers by terming them as country liquor. ‘Other countries are making their local drinks universally popular and India also needs to do so,” he feels. .
He has a spot of advice to Goan Feni producers who are trying to take Feni national. ‘Feni is deemed heritage liquor in Goa but it has not managed to shed the country liquor label,’ is his observation.
He says that, Goan Feni producers can only take the drink to all states if they obtain a separate category for it under IMFL. “To become IMFL producers have to pay the necessary tax. As long as Feni continues to be taxed as country liquor it will never grow pan-India,” he says.
As a liquor startup, Nazareth has no wish to become a part of the multi-crore IMFL industry. “Normal IMFL is boring. It is very easy to make and offers no challenges. One has to just buy alcohol (ENA) and add flavor of whisky, rum, etc. The manufacturing process does not need specialized knowledge,’ he points out.
The startup Agave India, has several firsts to its credit. The company was the first to have an officially recognized micro-distillery. It is also the first to make high quality Margarita blends by using locally grown Agave and its own methods.
The company’s products have a Goa link. The distinctive bottles used for the drinks are designed by Goa-based designer Reboni Saha while the micro-distillery is designed by Goan Hyacinth Pinto.
“I started researching tequila in the year 2000 and in 2004 I discovered blue Agave plant in India. I started my company in 2007. It took me some time to set up the distillery and by the time I launched the first product it was 2011. I launched in Goa first as consumption of alcohol in the state is driven by tourists and it is a well developed market for liquor,” he says.
Nazareth currently is trying to start a new tax category for traditional, native drinks. “They have to be under a separate tax category that is in between country liquor and IMFL,” he says.
A serial entrepreneur
Agave India is not Desmond Nazareth’s first venture. An IIT engineer he is an entrepreneur in spirit who studied film making and created a Y2K software company in the US. In future Nazareth is looking to invest in a social cause. “It has to be something to do with children. I believe we are not doing enough for the next generation,” he says idealistically. Nazareth says that, getting his startup up and running was difficult task. He raised funds from angel investors who volunteered crucial advice for a startup company in the alco-bev space.