Feni? What is it anyway?

Ever wonder where a cashew comes from? That little Planters guy conjures them up with his cane?  Nope. They fall from a rainbow like Skittles? Wrong again! They actually grow on a tree inside a cashew apple.  Um, really?  The cashew nut is a bit sexier than its accessory fruit (but admittedly, not by much), which looks a little like a pumpkin and a bell pepper had a hot night together. So when you take out the nut (enter Planters dude stage left), you’re left with the cashew apple.  But now what? You press the livin’ daylights out of it to get cashew apple juice.  The juice has more vitamin C than most any other fruit or veggie.  I can hear you thinking, “That’s nifty and all, but isn’t this supposed to be about alcohol?”.  Right you are!  If you distill it once, you get something called urrak, that’s about 30 proof and mixes well with lemonade for a light summer drink. If you distill it a second time, it becomes cazulo (urrak mixed with some of the fermented cashew apple juice). A third round, where you mix the cazulo and urrak together and distill it again, gives you the higher proof spirit, Feni, which is the moral of the cashew nut story.DSC_1309

In India, in the state of Goa, the cashew apple tree grows.  They’ve been distilling the juice for many years, with thousands of micro-distillers selling feni to their local customers. It’s only distilled from February to mid-May, and is dependent on the size of the seasonal crop.  In 2009, Feni was given a fancy certification by the government (Geographical Indication, if you’d like to Google it – I’ll wait). It basically means that if it’s called Feni, it can only be made in Goa. Like Bourbon can only be made in the US, cashew Feni can only be made in Goa.

I can hear you thinking again.  This time, it’s “Isn’t this site about American craft liquor?”.  And yes, by and large it is.  I don’t cover big labels (except in the occasional comparison), because they have gazillion dollar marketing budgets and certainly don’t need my help.  But the stories I write here are also about being an entrepreneur, grabbing your piece of the American Dream.  And that’s just what Drew Whited and his partners did.

Drew Whited

Drew Whited

While doing some market research in LA for another venture, they were in communities with large Indian American populations.  They kept hearing about feni.  Intrigued, they fired up their laptops and went to work researching it.  After deciding it was something worth at least some initial investigation, they scheduled meetings with Goa’s top feni producers and took off for India.

Spending time with the families that produce feni convinced Drew and his partners that  they needed to find a way to get Feni into the US. After negotiating an exclusive agreement to import Feni into the US, the real work began. <insert months of boring government compliance work here>  Finally, it was July 2014 and Feni was legal in the US.

Feni_1Drew and his partners launched Feni in Chicago in July 2014. Chicago has the country’s third largest population of Indian Americans, who hopefully will be eager for a taste of feni, without having to travel half way across the globe. In Goa, feni is treated as a destination beverage, with elaborate bottles that are part of the state’s standing as a vacation spot, with sandy beaches and tasty feni. And when I say “vacation spot”, this isn’t the Jersey Shore. Goa is the smallest but richest state in India and is often the site of weddings, celebrations and other destination events. The design of the bottle, complete with a gold cap and an image of Buddha, are meant to echo the exotic beverage as it’s consumed in its native country.

Make sure to check out the recipes on FeniDrink.com and also the custom cocktail that BeautifulBooze created!  Cheers!

About Jeanne Runkle

Jeanne Runkle currently lives in San Diego, and is a certified bartender and craft liquor expert. Her specialty is the brown stuff, whether it's bourbon, rye or good old American whiskey. She can sometimes be found stalking the aisles of a liquor store near you, answering your random whiskey questions.

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