“Feni is to the Goan life what a sky is to a bird, a medium of limitless wonder and potential,” wrote Indian author Frank Simoes in 1994. The stronger version of urak, a mild distillate of cashew apples, feni is produced in several varieties, from coconut to sarsaparilla. In India’s coastal state of Goa, known for sun, sand and beaches, feni is an integral expression of regional identity.
Though the cashew tree is not native to India, having been introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, only in Goa is the cashew fruit distilled. Production of the hyperlocal spirit, which boasts a Geographical Indication, is a seasonal activity. Stomping the cashew apples for their juice in the scorching Goan summer months is followed by fermentation in clay pots buried underground, then distillation in pot stills.
“The product is made in the same way as it was a couple of centuries ago,” explains Hansel Vaz, owner of Cazulo Premium Feni. “Feni is probably the last drink, after mezcal, which is pre-industrial.”
Feni and urak, which translate to "froth" and "light" respectively, are served at just about any occasion: celebrations, births and wakes, before, during and after meals. It can be served straight or topped with lemon-lime soda, and it’s used in a growing number of cocktails that are spurring the spirit’s success outside of its native region.
Urak (or urrack), the first distillate, is a mellow spirit that is delicate and fruity. A seasonal product, it has a shorter shelf life due to its lower proof and is typically enjoyed neat or with a sliced chile, but is sometimes lengthened with sparkling water or flavored soda. “I like to have urak with Limca (a lemon and lime carbonated soft drink), a dash of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a slit green chile or crushed pepper over ice,” says Shraddha Gadge, a Goan home chef of Goenche - The Goan kitchen. “It’s a Goan tradition to have urak in the afternoon to kill the heat and the humidity of the state’s hotter months.”
While boozier and more astringent than urak, feni is often enjoyed in a similar manner. Purists prefer feni neat, while others add soda water and a slice of lemon. But really, every person’s serve is, well, personal. “People like to have rituals associated with their drink, which they find extremely satisfying,” explains Buland Shukla, owner and bartender at India’s first dedicated vinyl bar, For the Record.
In recent years, feni has been embraced by bartenders as a base for more elaborate cocktails. Shukla, for example, serves a tart feni cocktail made with raw mangoes, jalapeños, mint and fermented pepper juice, as well as a drink called Goencho Dukor (meaning Goan Pig), inspired by the Moscow Mule in its combination of feni, muddled cucumber and ginger ale.
“Local tropical fruits like mango, Indian blackberry, pineapple and Garcinia indica pair well with feni,” elaborates Vaz, who likes to use it in lieu of gin in a Negroni. “Feni to me is like gin—a botanical spirit, a fruit spirit. Because of its fruit flavor, you can drink it with tonic.”
Case in point: At O Pedro, a Goan restaurant in Mumbai, beverage manager Rahul Raghav whips up a version of a Negroni with cashew feni and rosemary vermouth to complement the orange notes of Campari. He, like Shukla, hopes that familiar cocktail formats might help feni find an audience not just outside of Goa, but outside of India, offering a small taste not only of Goan terroir, but the Goan way of life. “Feni is an emotion that is difficult to explain as it is deep enough,” says Vaz. “If it has to grow, it has to grow as an ambassador to the people and the land it comes from.”