Mahua liquor: The resurgence of India’s original national drink
Mahua liquor is a traditional sweetened liquor with strong floral notes that has been made for ages by the tribal people of India. It is made from the flowers of the Mahua tree, which is found largely in the central, northern and southern Indian forests – making it distinctively Indian, just like other popular GIs like Darjeeling Tea.
In recent years, Mahua liquor has gained recognition beyond the forest communities, attracting attention from wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs around the world. Efforts have been made to revive and promote Mahua, including seeking Geographical Indication (GI) status, which would protect its origin and quality. In fact, experts believe that Mahua has the potential to become India’s answer to the Mexican tequila. India Business & Trade presents an exclusive report on the fascinating journey of Mahua liquor and why it has the potential to become the ‘National Drink of India’.
The Mahua tree, a botanical treasure of India, offers a rich tapestry of properties. Its edible flowers, with sugar content ranging from 68% to 72%, are the foundation for the alcoholic drink Mahua. The tree’s fruits provide both oil and starch, while its bark yields fibres for ropes and mats. Valuable oil for cooking and biodiesel is extracted from its seeds, and its leaves are skillfully fashioned into bowls, plates, and cones. Beyond its practical uses, the Mahua tree is endowed with medicinal properties, offering remedies for ailments like malaria and diarrhoea, making it a versatile and cherished component of Indian flora.
Mahua liquor became popular in the early 20th century when it was used as a substitute for imported alcohol during the British Raj, and hence, was banned. This led to a decline in its popularity and cultural significance as the tribal people were denied the right to produce and sell it beyond traditional village markets. However, in recent years, there has been a gradual change in attitude among local governments, and efforts have been made to lift the ban and revive and promote Mahua as a unique Indian spirit.
India’s answer to Tequila?
There is a palpable excitement among industry watchers that Mahua could be to India what Tequila is to Mexico, provided the product is given the kind of attention it deserves from industry with government support. There are quite a few parallels that can be drawn between the two. Tequila, a globally popular beverage, is a protected GI product of Mexico. It is a distilled alcoholic beverage prepared from the blue agave plant, grown and harvested in specific regions of Mexico – Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Tamaulipas & Guanajuata. Global sales of Tequila were estimated at around US$ 3.96 billion in 2022, and the US accounts for around 60% of those sales (Global Data).
Mahua liquor has a long history in India, with its production and consumption dating back to ancient times. The Mahua tree is found predominantly in the central, northern, and southern Indian forests, especially in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bihar. Its flowers are used for various purposes, including making liquor. Mahua liquor is known for its sweet and floral aroma and its smooth and mellow taste. It is also said to have medicinal properties.
Being the only pot-distilled and fermented spirit in the world made from naturally sweet flowers, Mahua has a very unique flavour profile that is garnering attention. Moreover, it is a feedstock unique to India, and has the potential to create an entirely new product category in the domestic and global liquor market.
Mahua has been a part of the local culture of the tribes, who consume it at local gatherings and ceremonies. Mahua is a pungent, potent drink that is usually brewed in unorganised, small-scale backyard stills. It is not only an excellent spirit, but also a part of the cultural and culinary heritage of the tribal communities that have been producing it for generations.
According to the Centre for People’s Forestry, the estimated national production of Mahua flowers is 0.85 million tonnes, and the total production potential is 4.9 million tonnes. The average trade volume in Madhya Pradesh is 57,300 quintals, followed by Odisha (21,000 quintals) and Andhra Pradesh (13,706 quintals). An estimated 90-95% of Mahua flower’s annual production goes into the brewing of beverages.
Why should it be given a GI tag?
Geographical Indication (GI) is a certificate given for products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation due to that origin. Mahua liquor is an excellent product for GI status due to its unique characteristics, abundance, and deep-rooted cultural significance.
Mahua liquor is the only pot-distilled and fermented spirit in the world made from naturally sweet flowers. This makes it a unique product not just within India but globally. It’s deeply rooted in Indian culture and tradition. The indigenous tribes have been brewing it for centuries and it forms an integral part of their cultural heritage. Mahua flowers are one of the top five minor forest products (MFP) in terms of volume produced in the nation each year.
The Mahua flower stands as a superior choice for liquor production due to its unique and distinctive flavour profile, abundant production, and sustainable raw material source. It is not only affordable to produce but also offers a healthy alternative to other spirits. Its universally appealing flavours make Mahua liquor a global standout, poised to captivate the taste buds of drinkers worldwide.
Moreover, granting GI status can help protect and promote this traditional knowledge while also ensuring that benefits accrue back to these indigenous communities. It can also aid in preserving biodiversity as it provides an incentive for protecting the environments where these products are produced.
Seeking GI status for Mahua, which would not only protect its origin and quality but also help in its promotion and marketing as a unique Indian spirit such as Darjeeling tea, Basmati rice, Bengali Rasgulla and Kashmiri Saffron. GI helped in their recognition and protection as unique Indian products. It helps consumers identify and distinguish the product from others in the market and provides legal protection against imitation and misuse of the GI.
Efforts to promote Mahua liquor
There have been a number of efforts to promote Mahua liquor recently. Most importantly, the colonial era restrictions on the tribal communities are being lifted. In 2021, the government of Madhya Pradesh declared Mahua as a heritage liquor, and in August 2023, Mahua heritage liquor was introduced to retail shelves in Madhya Pradesh with the support of the state government. The government of Maharashtra state also changed its archaic laws to legalise the collection and storage of flowers by local tribal groups.
Mond, India’s first Mahua spirit distilled by indigenous tribes has been made available at Madhya Pradesh retail shelves in 2023. Mond is made by the Bhil and Bhilala tribes, who dwell in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Maharashtra. It is produced by a self-help group centred in Katthiwada, in the Alirajpur district of Gujarat. Mahua wine, branded ‘Mond,’ has been issued in bottles of 180 ml and 750 ml, with the government pricing it at Rs 200 and Rs 800, respectively.
In March 2020, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs under the Central Government of India and IIT-Delhi developed Mahua Nutri-beverage, a Mahua-based alcoholic beverage with six fruit-based flavours and low alcohol content. However, the actual benefits of the government funding Mahua production for the Adivasis remain to be seen.
APEDA shipped a consignment of dehydrated Mahua flowers from the Korba district, Chhattisgarh, to Paris in 2021. Recently, a contract was signed to export 200 tonnes of Mahua flowers from Madhya Pradesh to London at Rs 110 per kg. Around US$ 200,000 worth of Mahua flowers were exported in 2022-23 to the UK. The government is working to formalise the production of Mahua liquor in line with international standards of processing, packaging, and bottling.
MAH Spirit, a promising Indo-French collaboration is dedicated to developing and selling Mahua-based beverages. Their flagship product combines local techniques with French ones, creating a unique alcoholic beverage made with flowers imported from India. It is already being sold in some bars and wine stores all over France in 2022/
Despite its cultural and historical significance, Mahua faces several challenges in its journey to regain its popularity and recognition. The origin and quality of Mahua are not officially recognised and protected, making it vulnerable to imitation and dilution in the market.
- Perception of Mahua as a low-quality and “dangerous” drink: Shaped by British colonial rule and the post-independence Indian elites’ disdain for the lifestyles of the indigenous population. Recently, Maharashtra government categorised liquor made from mahua flowers and cashew as Indian made foreign liquor, as the ‘country liquor’ tag was hampering sales.
- Production: Another challenge is related to production. An official mentioned that when the liquor was tested during production in Alirajpur, the alcohol content was more than 30%, while traditionally brewed Mahua for personal consumption has a much lower alcohol percentage.
- Lack of awareness: In India, due to the suppression of Mahua liquor over 100 years, there is a lack of awareness and recognition of its uniqueness, which can nullify any potential benefits that this liquor has to offer the Indian economy in terms of industry development and employment creation.
- No established process: The challenges this liquor is facing are that there is no established process to create an appealing drink, viz. distillation processing, ageing, flavouring, maturing, handling, etc.
- Quality control: There is no central authority responsible for the quality control of Mahua liquor. Liquor is not legal in a few states of India, which results in the low quality of the liquor products of Mahua.
- Lack of standardization: There is no standardisation and traceability in the production of Mahua liquor. This makes the production and consumption of Mahua liquor difficult.
- Bottling: Bottling and other issues to make heritage liquor competitive and appealing in the market also need to be looked into.
Promotion of Mahua liquor
Desmond Nazareth, Founder of Agave India, Goa, has made dedicated efforts over the past decade to develop and market Mahua-based liquor products. With over two decades in the alcohol space, he has developed home-grown agave spirits as well as artisanal cachaça-style sugarcane spirits. In 2018, he launched mahua, pot-distilled to international standards. in Goa. They have made several adaptations and experiments with Mahua. In conversation with IBT, he said that they have complemented the flavor of the flower with honey and spices. It is possible to make ready-to-drink beverages at lower alcohol strength with the Mahua spirit base. It can be paired with with beer, wines and make various things like dry Sangria with a Mahua flower. It is a very versatile flower, with the spirit coming in as a pleasant aftertaste. He says its only the beginning.
While discussing the immense potential of Mahua liquor, he has drawn parallels with Tequila’s journey in Mexico. He highlighted that Mahua, with its unique cultural and livelihood significance, has the potential to become India’s iconic spirit. Drawing inspiration from the rapid growth of Mezcal (agave spirits) in Mexico, he emphasised:
“Mahua, being even more unique, has the capacity for significant growth in production, consumption, and recognition. With its rich history, cultural significance, and unique status as a spirit protected by indigenous communities, Mahua possesses a wealth of storytelling, folklore, and cultural importance.”
Mr. Nazareth further stressed that obtaining a Geographical Indication (GI) for Mahua would not only be a crowning achievement but also a powerful marketing tool internationally and a source of national pride, covering a significant portion of India. In his words, ‘Mahua has all the qualities to be that thing, and nothing else in India competes with it at the level of scale, cultural significance, and importance.”
Mahua liquor with its unique characteristics and cultural significance is a heritage spirit that deserves recognition and protection. Granting it GI status can help promote this traditional spirit while also ensuring that benefits accrue back to the indigenous communities involved in its production. With the right promotion strategies and the development of value-added products, Mahua liquor has the potential to carve a niche for itself in the spirits market.
To promote Mahua as a unique Indian spirit, various initiatives need to be taken to help in its outreach and cultural and culinary interest. Increasing awareness about its unique characteristics and cultural significance can be increased through marketing campaigns. Highlighting its status as a heritage liquor and addressing safety issues through organised production can help change its image from being considered “country liquor” to a proud Indian craft spirit.
Collaborations with restaurants and bars can help introduce more people to this unique spirit. Organising tasting events or creating signature cocktails using Mahua liquor can help showcase its unique flavour profile. Export opportunities can be explored. With its GI status serving as an assurance of quality and authenticity, there could be potential interest from international markets.
Another way to promote Mahua is through the development of value-added products. Apart from traditional liquor, Mahua can be used to create a range of innovative and high-quality products, such as brandy, wine, vermouth, cocktails, and even non-alcoholic beverages. Value-added products can also be made in conjunction with black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fenugreek, nutmeg, fennel, and Indian cassia. These value-added products can help diversify the market for Mahua and attract a wider range of consumers, both in India and internationally.