You can spell it as ‘Feni’, ‘Fenny’ or ‘fenim’, but never ever as ‘fire-water’! Often (falsely) portrayed as rocket fuel, paint thinner or even worm medicine, Cashew Feni in fact is one of the most exotic of spirits in the world.
A Cashew Feni is both simple and complex, literally speaking. We haven’t really taken the effort to explain what this two-word named drink to the rest of the world, because everyone who drank it, just ‘knew’ it. So how have we described a Cashew Feni to a person who has never tasted or seen a Cashew?
For starters, most people are not familiar with a Cashew, immediately conjuring images of the tasty nut when the word cashew is mentioned. According to botanists, the Cashew is not a true fruit, scientifically it is termed a ‘swollen pedicel’-stem to you and me. Not a fruit then what is it? This green when raw ‘swollen pedicel’ turns into in a variety of colours; rouge, orange and yellow, when ripe and is shaped like a pear, so for lack of a better adjective the poor false fruit was differentiated from the Cashew nut, by being termed a ‘Cashew apple’. You could just as well, drop the ‘apple’ from name and it would still mean the same thing, and all too often it is just known by its shortened name ‘Cashew’. Beats me why no one thought of calling it a Cashew fruit! If this was not complicated enough, you can also spell it as Cashew and Caju. They both mean the same thing, yet can be pronounced as ‘Cash-ew’, ‘Ca-jew’ or ‘ca-zoo’!
This tree is native to South Eastern Brazil, and was carried to India by probably the French, Portuguese, English, Dutch or Arabs- we don’t know, as by the 17th century, when we see mentions of cashew, Goa was trading with all of them. All we know is that this plant hopped its way across oceans and continents from South America via Africa to the coast of Goa. What made people only in Goa (and not anywhere else) distill this alien fruit into an alcohol- Feni, is a mystery, but whoever thought of it is a genius!
Very little is known about Cashew Feni outside its birthplace; Goa. My concern is about the knowledge base Feni drinkers, who have lived and grown up on the home turf of this spirit. Usual descriptions of a Feni are shockingly vague; ‘Goan tequila’, ‘Indian vodka’ or ‘moonshine’ are comparisons coined when words fail to explain. In reality comparing a Feni to Tequila, is what Chalk is to Cheese! Describing the taste is even more difficult proposition if you have never seen or tasted a cashew; often peppered with a caution of ‘acquired taste’. It’s no surprise, puzzled expressions are the first reaction to a Cashew Feni, and it is this confusion that does more damage even before the drink is tasted, as preconceived notions of a drink can swing the fortunes either way for a first time taster.
Most often than not, regular feni drinkers can give informed opinions about the provenance of an Argentinian grape variety or the tasting notes of a Scotch from Islay, but going further than the ascribed dominant fact that a good feni ‘tastes and smells like a good Cashew Feni’, is where most aficionados stutter. Most wine and spirit products are meticulously defined and have volumes of literature documenting such, that’s not the case with Feni. The little that has been written are usually malicious, ill-informed and subscribe to stereotypes. If that was not all, Feni has long suffered from the myopic view of its association with small time taverns, but it is being dealt a killer blow by under the strains of cheap mass-produced plastic bottles, the ones with the garish labels.
The making of a Cashew Feni is again unique among distilled spirits. First, handpicked tree-ripened and fallen cashews are stomped; to gently express the juices from the fleshy fruit, much the same way in winemaking. Like a Brandy, feni is distilled from cashew wine. In the first stripping run of the distillation a cashew wine is distilled into a light alcohol- Urrack. It is the next distillation, the artisanal distiller carefully controls the heat to allow the careful melange of water and alcohol to coax out the stronger second distillate (42-43%) spirit with less flavor and more character in it. The flavors come entirely from the Cashew and the terroir where it took root, while the character stands testament to the time-hounoured knowledge that has been refined down generations. Nothing is added that was not originally present- no flavourers, yeasts, colours, aromas. While most alcohols like whisky and Brandy etc distilled in excess of 90% pure alcohol, the base ingredient hardly matters as neutral alcohol lacks taste. On the other hand, a Cashew Feni, even right off the pot still, tastes and smells distinctly of the Cashew and earthy- peppery notes from which it is made.
While purists still drink it ‘neat’, a Cashew Feni is something you usually drink with something else. Of course that something can be ice, a splash of bitters, a twist of lime or an effervescent lemonade, tonic or soda. These however hardly diminish the taste of the Cashew Feni, but like the pepper sauce does to a beefy steak, in fact it just makes it better! A spirit like Gin has so overwhelmingly accepted ‘mixers’ as an essential companion and not a sidekick, why can’t we do the same with a cashew Feni? It’s time we remove the blinkers and let a Cashew Feni truly reveal for itself.