Feni, the state spirit of Goa, is a groovy, smooth-tasting prankster: it appears as a simple organic liquor, the result of a historic craft — yet before long, you are sloshed. Goans like to say that finding the perfect pour will save you from a hangover, although after countless tastings to find that sip, I beg to differ. Feni is made from a double distillation of ripened cashew apples that ferments in copper or earthen vats buried underground. And like Champagne or tequila, its geographical indication status demands strict adherence to conventional production methods; to be bona fide, it must be crafted within the state. Nothing — not even a fresh crop of cashew apples are considered proper for the original recipe. The essence of the ripe and fallen is a customary tradition.
This liquor has been made in the coastal inland regions of Goa since the early 17th century, and since became inseparably linked to the state identity. Native Goans often reach for a shot of Feni to soothe the symptoms of the common cold. The coconut Feni, an adaptation consumed popularly in and around Southern Goa, is an indigenous variation of toddy, a distinctive tree sap from tender coconut water, that undergoes the same distillation process to make an off-season beverage mimicking the original recipe. There’s even a week dedicated to the celebration of this drink.
Entering the Victorian era, the bar menus shifted to accommodate a new wave of trendy drinks, so did Feni, reaching a golden age during the pub culture boom of the late 19th century, when an influx of international crowd refined beach holidays. A slew of coastal taverns and upscale bars dotted the Goan coastline, catering to a broad array of styles. In Goa’s bars, Feni flowed copiously back then, though it was the Portuguese that first established the spirit as a regional beverage of origin in 1740 CE. But unexpected and bleak times followed soon: amid social behaviour reforms and a limited production capacity that plagued Goa for most of the last century, the virality of Feni sank. Holidaymakers defected to Cosmopolitans and aperitifs — Feni reduced to a regionally produced drink lacking an advertising firm.
In the last few decades, though, the emergence of cultural travel rediscovered Feni and boosted it to the forefront of must-have experiences in Goa. Despite its GI status, the modern era of travel brought with it a generation of travellers that embraced slow and rooted vacations, an idea that to immerse in a culture is to travel wisely. With its newfound fame, today, the drink does not only appear in bars and restaurants across India but doesn’t shy away from making an exotic debut in private speakeasies, and Italian-style bistros that are a must on your South Goa tour package.
Dedicated distilleries are now producing dynamic varieties, and the mixology renaissance that has transformed the drinking scene globally has also landed in Goa’s bars. Here are four spots in and around the capital city that in their distinctive yet traditional way, reflect how Goans have rediscovered their native spirit.
Beco das Garrafões: Nestled near the swank beachfront of Cansaulim in Southern Goa, the world’s first Feni cellar is an elegant open patio and greenhouse-style spot perfect for tasting the tipple. The drinks on the menu are crafted by Hansel Vaz, widely considered Goa’s most inventive Feni expert. Beco das Garrafões — literally translating to ‘alley of bottles’ traces the journey of Goa’s greatest spirits through a tour unlike any. From cashew plantations to crafting cocktails like the Jambul Reddo, a tangy pour of Java plum and Feni that is served at the beginning of the tour, if you plan to skip the bars for one extended tasting in Goa, do it here, a perfect destination for your Goa holiday.
Escobar: This show-stopping classic bar is home to not one but two of Feni’s most stunning flavours. Host to the infamous ginger and masala Fenim, and a distinctive skatepark in the backyard, Escobar Bis is a triumph in style as well as the vibe. With a menu that celebrates Susegado, local spirits (pay close attention to the fine whisky) and special happy hours, a detour here will make any party goer swoon. It is a must-have destination on your Goa tour plan.
The Fishermans Wharf, Cavelossim: The Fishermen’s Wharf is an epicurean hideaway perched on the bankside of River Sal, with a reputation as a Goan nook for the Feni-loving tourist set. The scene is part Irish-inspired enthusiasm, part 90s themed elegant nightclub, encapsulated best by our favourite cocktail, the Feni mojito – a mix of the classic cashew Fen, Indian tonic, lemon and mint syrup. The drinks order can be accompanied by a selection of rib-sticking small plates, from masala-drenched red snapper to batter-fried calamari and butter garlic prawns.
Joseph Bar: Panaji’s hole-in-the-wall bar, Joseph’s, has become one of the capital’s hottest stomping grounds for locals and visitors alike. Nestled on the gram-worthy Gomes Pereira Road, this is where you must visit for a taste of the high life, and arguably the smoothest Feni in Goa. With a wildly outlandish and uber one-room setup, mounted on the wall are quirky one-liner to complement the bottle-lined bar. Order the Tambde Rosa cocktail or play it safe with a well-made Cazulo, sit back and soak up the atmosphere as you work your way through stacks of Goanese Rava-friend prawns.