The Fiery Comeback Of Feni From Country Liquor To A Cool Drink

Goa’s much-loved cashew drink is now getting a second lease of life, courtesy a new crop of distillers and bartenders who are making the drink cool again.

Published On Sep 22, 2023 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


For 52-year-old Arnold Pereira, feni was an integral part of growing up in Goa. A bottle of the cashew drink would be pulled out of a rusty cupboard to douse fever or to simply calm an itchy throat. “It was the first thing mom would make us drink when we had an upset stomach or a wound from playing too much football in the rain. It was also the drink at festivals and ceremonies, and something the elders indulged in every evening,” he remembers. While for the rest of India feni is a strong and pungent country liquor that gave you ‘feni sweats’, for Goans it’s an intrinsic part of living in the sunshine state.


Feni has deep roots that go back to the days when the Portuguese arrived in Goa in the 15th century. Like potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, pineapple and other things, cashew too is a legacy of the Portuguese. “Cashew was one of the many fruits and vegetables that came to the port of Goa. But unlike the rest of India, our ancestors saw something different. They saw an opportunity. They didn’t just use the fruit in the kitchen, they also harvested it to make alcohol out of it. The fate of the cashew is completely different in Goa compared to anywhere else in the world including its birthplace Brazil,” says Hansel Vaz, owner of the OG Feni distillery Cazulo that uses centuries-old techniques to make a Cazulo Premium Feni.

Interestingly, the name ‘feni’ is derived from the Sanskrit word “phena” which translates to froth–referring to the bubbles that form a light froth when the liquor is shaken in a bottle or poured in a glass. In the olden days the alcohol strength of feni was measured by looking at the size of the bubbles. Today, distillers use alcohol meters or simply take a sip to gauge the quality of the drink. Feni got the Geographical Indication (GI) certificate in 2009. This puts the spirit in the illustrious company of scotch, champagne, and cognac. In 2016, the Goan government declared it as a heritage drink. Today feni is the largest generator of revenue in the country liquor segment.


Feni is still made in a primitive style from ripe cashew apples that have fallen off the tree. Kato (a wooden stick with a needle or thorn attached to it) is used to pick them off the floor. The fruits are then deseeded and transferred to a stomping area called colmbi–a rock cut like a basin. Juice from crushed fruits is collected in an earthen or copper pot buried deep under the ground. The juice is then distilled by boiling on woodfire. While other drinks are diluted with water, feni is the only drink that is distilled directly to drinking strength. “For a lot of Goans, feni is a matter of pride. There is a sense of belonging. Recently when the government created a new feni policy they asked us if we’d like to modernise the process. Not a single distillery voted in its favour. This is a 450-year-old spirit. Who are we to decide to make it better? In a world where every spirit including vodka and whiskey are polished to the point that there is no original flavour profile left, feni shoots out character with every sip. That’s the big difference,” says Vaz. Though most people only know of feni as a drink made from cashew apples, feni is also made from coconut toddy. In fact, much before the Portuguese colonists introduced cashew tree to India the locals made feni with coconut.

Over the years feni has consistently lost ground to IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor), beer, and even wine. Apart from a few local brands, feni in Goa has largely remained an unorganised business which has led to differences in manufacturing, inferior products, and lack of uniform product testing standards. Its classification as a country liquor hasn’t helped either. “People generally associate country liquor with poor quality and something that lands them in hospitals,” says Pereira. But limited marketing has been the main reason for the drink to fade away leading to IMFL brands to capture a major portion of the market.


Things are changing, albeit slowly. Goa’s liquid treasure is now getting a facelift. Popular feni brands in Goa such as Cazulo, Big Boss, Fidalgo, Cajulana, and Tinto Heritage are working hard to give the drink the much-needed upgrade. While Vaz worked with local bartenders to educate them on using the spirit in cocktails along with local ingredients such as kokum, Valentino Vaz of Madame Rosa Distillery (Big Boss feni) and the Henriques of Rhea Distillery (Fidalgo feni) have been tirelessly working with local authorities to get feni its proper due. Feni enthusiasts can also join Vaz at his feni cellar stocked with 1,200 multicoloured garrafões (large-bellied glass bottles) and enjoy a tour that climaxes with a delish Goan meal paired with feni cocktails over a floating stream.

Artisanal feni brand Aani Ek (Konkani for one more) has been infusing the spirit with chilli, lemon, honey and cinnamon flavours. The infusions tone down the strong flavour of feni and make it more palatable while also bringing down the high 42-45 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume). Aani Ek bottles come with a cocktail recipe booklet for people to experiment with the spirit at home. Then there is Sattari—a new kid on the block, aged in oak barrels to mellow out the overpowering cashew flavours; and of course, Rhea’s Harmony Feni that blends honey and cinnamon with the spirit, and Arabella cashew feni that is infused with lemon. The subtle variations and infusions diffuse the strong smell of raw feni making it more palatable for new drinkers. Interestingly, Vaz is ageing around 200 garrafões (glass containers) under water.

Additionally every year the tourism department of Goa organises ‘Spirit of Goa’ a festival to promote feni. The three-day event sees the state’s top feni distillers and bottlers showcasing the drink alongside Goan foods, Goa’s top music bands, and a variety of Goan artists, including the renowned ‘Voice of Goa’ Lorna.


From homes to trendy bars and restaurants, feni is making a smooth transition. While Panaji’s popular António@31 serves a feni Mule cocktail, Howling Wolves—a cocktail bar in Anjuna—does a twist on the original Paloma. The drink called Soloma has feni shaken with homemade kokum cordial, aam panna, jalapenos, and soda and served in a paprika-rimmed Collins glass. The popular cocktail bar also did a jamun-infused feni which sold out within days. Hosa in Goa does a unique Japanese-inspired drink Yuujin, where feni is combined with wasabi and grapefruit for a sharp and bittersweet cocktail. “Feni adds depth and complexity to a cocktail. Sometimes, the addition of feni may require some minor adjustments with other ingredients to achieve a well-balanced and enjoyable drink. But it’s always worth it,” says Varun Sharma, Head of Bars at Hosa. W Goa does a refreshing cocktail called Patraon which combines the nutty notes of cashew feni with the sweetness of peach and the tang of lime. Aperol adds a bitter-sweet balance to the drink.


Can feni go the mezcal way and become Goa’s greatest export? “There are only two primitive spirits left in the world. One is feni and the other is mezcal. The cheapest mezcal costs Rs 7500 in Goa and it’s made in the same way as feni. For the amount of craftmanship, small batch production and a 450-year old-recipe we should be selling feni for Rs 10,000 a bottle in New York. That’s the opportunity for feni,” says Vaz. 

Feni familiarisation tips from Varun Sharma, Head of Bars at Hosa, Goa.

• Begin with research. Delve into the history, age-old tradition and evolution of feni.

• Take gradual sips of feni to acquaint your palate with its distinctive flavours.

• Experiment with different feni variants to appreciate the diversity of flavours it offers.

• Reach out to feni experts or knowledgeable bartenders on crafting feni-based cocktails.

• Try pairing feni with tropical fruits such as lime, chilli, coconut, grapefruit, or pineapple to enhance your tasting experience.
• Lastly, visit distilleries that offer feni tasting in Goa. This hands-on experience allows you to witness the feni-making process first hand and deepen your understanding of the spirit.

Photo: Cazulo