In a quiet part of Goa on the west coast of India, three identical enamelled cups were perched on a bar. Each contained a clear alcohol. In one cup was a local Indian spirit. The other two had different brands of mezcal. This spirit is made from agave, a plant grown across a semi-arid swathe of Mexico, the best-known variant of which produces tequila. To judge the drinks, a veteran of boozy sabbaticals in Oaxaca, the spiritual home of all mezcals, sipped from each cup twice. He couldn’t identify the Indian impostor.
Why should anyone care which was mezcal or the home-grown approximation? The pursuit of authenticity is a funny thing. The bizarre case of India’s first and only agave spirit is a prime example of that.
Desmond Nazareth, a 62-year-old from Mumbai, has spent the past 20 years working to perfect an Indian equivalent to tequila and other mezcals. It is made from semi-wild agave, more than 16,000km from tequila’s cultural and legal home. A cartoon motif of Nazareth appears on a range of orange plastic screw-capped bottles labelled “Indian agave spirits” under the brand name DesmondJi or DJ. Though it is still a fairly small operation – some 13,000 cases, each containing nine-litres, were sold last year – demand is growing. The drinks are now available in a number of bars and shops in the more liberal parts of India.
Tequila is made from blue agave, a particular variety of spiny succulent native to Mesoamerica which can be found on Mexico’s dusty plains. Mezcal, its country cousin, can be made from a number of different agaves. Like many other regional foodstuffs – parmesan and champagne among them – there are tight restrictions over what products can be called tequila or mezcal. According to World Trade Organisation regulations, no spirit with these names can be made anywhere else in the world.
In the 1980s Nazareth moved to America to study film-making. During this time he began making cocktails as a way “to please people, or to charm them”. The margarita was an indispensable part of his arsenal. But when he moved back to Mumbai in 2000, he found that the main ingredient for his drink of choice was both scarce and pricey.
Nazareth had a hunch that the terroir of India’s semi-arid Deccan plateau might be similar to that of central Mexico. He knew that agave plants, brought by European colonists centuries ago, already criss-crossed the landscape.
A good agave plant takes 10 to 12 years to mature. But mimicking the correct method of distilling is tricky. To make tequila, the barrel-shaped trunks of mature agave are pared-down, steamed and finally distilled in special copper stills. The right equipment isn’t sold outside Mexico. So, in 2007, Nazareth and his business partner went as sightseers to see how the experts did it. The pair were welcomed by producers in and around the town of Tequila, and took pictures of the machinery. When they returned to India, they commissioned steelmakers to make pressure chambers, guillotine-like cutters to slice up the agave hearts and distilling pots.
Nazareth opened his factory in 2010. He built what he describes as “madness in the middle of nowhere”. The first thing you see as you approach the site in Andhra Pradesh in south-east India is a curious-looking water tower, built in the shape of a Martini glass. On a star-shaped plot, surrounded by fields, one man’s daydream has become India’s first craft distillery. The borders, which stretch to 2.5km, are planted high with manicured giant agave. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of their offspring have been propagated in the surrounding countryside.
A neat cluster of buildings inside the perimeter is painted pink to match the granite hillside at sunset. Workers swing a long-handled version of an Indian sickle to first cut off its spiny leaves and hack down the agave, and then later to trim clean the agave hearts (they find the Indian tool nimbler than the traditional Mexican hoe, the coa de jima). Others load discarded biomass into a furnace. Technicians mind the towering, stainless-steel vats of agave juice. It ferments in one vat and is then moved over to the pot stills.
Nazareth took on his first employee in 2007, now he has 32 people working for him. But he encounters bureaucratic obstacles at every corner. In the early days, Mexican trade officials called him to ask if he was producing their national spirit. When he told them he was producing “Indian agave spirits” they let him be. But the Indian authorities couldn’t work out what licence Nazareth needed to sell his produce. One official asked him, “What the hell is agave?” Another told him that he needed an Ayurvedic licence, which usually covers the production of natural medicine.
Though many types of alcohol are available in India, they are often drunk under a puritanical glare. Imports are expensive and can be bought only in the metropolitan centres of some states. Where booze is legal, rough-and-tumble stores do brisk business. Some shops sell crude “country wine”. Others offer heavily taxed Indian Made Foreign Liquor, which starts life as a “neutral spirit”, an ethanol that can be made from molasses, rice or wheat. Artificial colour and flavouring are added later and the mixture is watered down. This end-product may then be labelled whisky, gin, rum or nearly anything else. In contrast to these ethanol-based drinks, Nazareth’s agave spirits come straight from the field just like the Mexican original.
Nazareth also faces another hurdle: sentimental drinkers who want the real thing. Indian agave spirits have no place on the world stage. Since the shelves of supermarkets around the world are already well-stocked with authentic tequila, the only sizeable market the Indian one is likely to find is a local one (though Nazareth's product has been sold in America since 2017).
But Nazareth is tenacious. Recently he turned his distilling expertise to mahua, a traditional Indian moonshine made from the dried flower of the mahua tree. Nazareth now has the backing of the government of several Indian states to make his new production benefit the tribal people who’ve drunk it for centuries. Unlike his Indian agave, he hopes it could someday become to India what tequila is to Mexico or whisky is to Scotland. Indians could rally round it with patriotic fervour and foreign drinkers might swoon at its exotic bouquet. Even if it does taste a bit like grappa.•
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article implied that Nazareth's trip to Mexico in 2007 was covert. In fact Nazareth and his partner made their intentions plain to the Mexican producers they met, who welcomed them to their distilleries. Sorry.