If you prefer to unwind with a pint or a peg on travels, India offers distinct flavors in liquors, just like in its cuisine. Every region has its locally brewed alcoholic beverage to lighten you up.
Chhaang: the nectar of Gods
Darjeeling, Sikkim and Lauaul & Spiti
In some parts of Indian Himalaya, it’s sold like tea but not in a restaurant or roadside food stall. Rather, in a house. You can buy this warm white beverage by glass for less than Rs 10 (20 cents). It has a very subtle taste of rice and goes down the throat smoothly. To feel the buzz you need to have it in large quantity as it is not really intoxicating. The alcohol content is low.
The locals encourage you to drink it in the cold weather, as the beer keeps you warm and cures common ailments caused due to cold. After two glasses, you can feel the warmth in the body. And the legend has it, the snowman, Yeti, raids empty houses looking for chhaang. Locals say it is the snowman’s favorite beverage.
In North-eastern areas of Sikkim and Darjeeling, it is also referred as tongba.
Kinnauri Ghanti – It does ring a bell
Transparent like vodka, smells of apple, and the locals just need a reason to gulp it. They drink it because of good weather and bad; in good moods and bad; on busy and boring days – practically every day.
Made from apple and apricot, there is no standard price for the beverage. Just ask the hotel staff to fetch it for you. He may quote you anywhere from Rs 100 ($2) to Rs 150 ($3) for a bottle. When he comes back, you will have this liquor refilled in a drinking water bottle.
The locals prefer to mix it with water. Depending on your taste, you can try it with a fizzy drink (Sprite or 7 Up).
Royal Salute: Spiced Liquors of Rajasthan
Only recently, commoners are able to taste the heritage liqueurs of Rajasthan that were a staple of Maharajas and royal families. The recipes of these spiced liquors are close-guarded secrets of the families and the beverages get their names from the families.
The state government has started selling these in miniature bottles of 90 ml each, costing up to Rs 140 ($3) recently. To give you few examples, the brand Kesar Kasturi contains 21 spices and Royal Chandrahas is made after mixing 76 different spices.
Most families made these beverages depending on their climatic conditions of their area. While Kesar Kasturi and Royal Chandrahas are winter drinks, Royal Saunf is a refreshing summer beverage. Preesently, there are four brands for summer, four for winter and four premium ones.
And if you are wondering about the spices used, some of them can get you excited, literally. These drinks contain spices ranging from dry fruits, clarified butter, sandalwood, to natural aphrodisiacs like safed musli.
Fenny: The Spirit of Laid-backs
Those who know existence of Goa probably knows the existence of the region’s popular drink fenny (or feni). There are two versions of the liquor – one made from cashew apple and the other from coconut. In Goa’s restaurants, you will find this to be the cheapest liquor on the menu. It is colorless and has a sharp taste, and the locals drink it in soda or lemonade. You can enjoy fenny just like you would have vodka.
Frank Simoes, in his book Frank Simoes’ Goa says: “For feni is to the Goan life what the sky is to a bird, a medium of limitless wonder and potential.” The liquor has high nutritional value, too, with presence of sugars, sodium, potassium, iron and several vitamins et al”.
Bhang Ki Thandai: The Ancient Drink Dedicated to God
Government authorized shops in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Unofficially available in Mathura, Agra and Varanasi
The most potent of all the drinks mentioned on this page, this beverage is prepared from mixing cannabis with milk and spices. This drink is also called as Bang ki lassi and can be bought for less than Rs 20 (40 cents). In Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, there are government authorized sellers. It has the same effect as any preparation of cannabis.
In northern Indian cities such as Mathura, Agra and Varanasi, you will find people openly consuming it as a religious offering. In these cities, locals also drink it to work their appetite or to induce a good night sleep.
Hadia: The Tribal Art
Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh
This rice beer is available in states that have bigger tribal population, who used it as refreshing drink in the summer. To ferment the beer, tribals use ranu tablets, which is a mixture of herbs. The recipe and process of making hadia differs from village-to-village, as the procedure is inherited from earlier generation. If you are lucky to buy the drink, which is usually prepared at home and consumed, the cost will be Rs 5 – 10 (10-20 cents). The alcohol content is low just like chhaang.
Kallu: From the Wish-Fulfilling Divine Tree
Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala
Think about tasting it only if you are really adventurous and don’t mind people looking down on you. Made from palm tree (also known as palm wine and toddy), economically weaker population of the country drinks this as they cannot afford branded liquors. And so, it is labeled as a drink for alcoholics. Some states, like Tamil Nadu, have banned this and can be bought through moonshine distilleries.
Toddy has alcohol content of 8% but after distillation, the alcohol content rises over 70 per cent. The distilled today is also known as arrack in many countries. Arrack is banned in India.
Slightly more clouded than coconut water, it tastes extremely sour, like vinegar. On the first sip, you will feel a burning sensation in the throat as it passes the neck. And beware; if you are sitting in a room after drinking Kallu, everyone will be aware of the drinking adventure.
Zutho: Nagas’ sake
Another rice beer, it is made of an elaborate fermentation process and typical to the state of Nagaland. It has a fruity aroma but a sweet-sour taste. This is the only frothy beer compared to chhaang and hadia. The locals serve it with roasted millet, soya bean and red chili.
Old Monk: A 58-year-old sensation
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many youngsters in the country prefer old monk to the finest scotches in the world. It is a cult among tipplers and third largest selling rum globally. In many fine five star parties in India, it is the only Indian drink that resides next to top brands from around the world.
The loyalist are all part of Facebook group called The Council of Old Monk Rum Addicted Drinkers and Eccentrics or COMRADE
Classified as dark rum, it has a distinct vanilla flavor. It is also one of the cheapest branded liquor available. Want to try it like a typical Indian tippler? Have it in water or with Thumbs Up, a fizzy cola brand now marketed by Coca Cola.
When in India, an indigenous drink is always at an arm’s distance.