Mahua: The Indian liquor that the British outlawed.


While the drink – and its flowers – had been part of daily tribal life for centuries, it was banned by the British during colonial rule and has only recently reclaimed the spotlight.

I could smell the sweet flowers before I could see them. Thousands of pale-green blooms were falling from the surrounding trees and carpeting the forest floor during an early morning drive inside the Similipal National Park in the east Indian state of Odisha.

“These are mahua trees,” Suresh Kisku, my Santhal tribal guide, explained. He pointed to a clump of short, stout trunks with dome-shaped canopies that surrounded a small clearing.

The mahua tree, or madhuca longifolia, grows abundantly in the forested plains of western, central, and eastern India, where tribes such as the Santhal, Gond, Munda, and Oraon have called it the “Tree of Life” for the last 3,000 years.

These tribes have traditionally used its flowers, fruits, branches, and leaves for food, cattle fodder, fuel, art, medicine, and even as currency to barter for grains. They’ve also honoured it with lively folk festivals, songs, and verses. Perhaps its most well-known application, however, is in the form of a sweetish liquor with strong floral notes simply known as “mahua,” which is brewed over a pot still in an eight-day process.

This indicates that the mahua spirit is pure.–100-guaranteed-success-63999bc79561920b31d29e2d

Kisku took me to his house on the outskirts of the forest later that day, where his mother and younger sister, Geeta, crouched close to a sturdy metal pot containing fermented mahua juices over a woodfire. Two additional pots were placed on top of the larger pot to brew the spirit, which would condense and travel through a tube to be stored in a container on the mud floor. After a while, Geeta dipped a ladle into the brew and threw it into the fire, which erupted in a white blaze. “This means the mahua spirit is pure,” Kisku explained.

That evening, I sipped the clear, colourless liquid from a small cup made of leaves Geeta had given me. The freshly distilled mahua liquor burned its way down my throat, leaving a smoky, floral aftertaste.

“How come I’ve never tried this before?” I was perplexed.

Indigenous families like Kisku’s were free to distil, consume, and sell mahua liquor from ancient times until the late 1800s. The production of what the Indian government considered a “country spirit” suffered a heavy blow during the British Raj rule in India. Mahua was deemed a dangerous intoxicant that posed a threat to public health and morality, so colonial lawmakers enacted legislation, such as the Bombay Abkari Act of 1878 and the Mhowra Act of 1892, that not only prohibited or restricted the distillation of the spirit, but also prohibited indigenous tribes from collecting and storing mahua flowers.

Because there were fewer mahua flowers, clandestine brewing occurred, which was frequently infused with impurities added as filler. The resulting drop in quality only served to advance the British Raj’s agenda at the time, which was to control the production of local spirits in general, as the revenue generated by imported alcohol from places like Britain and Germany helped fund military occupations.

“While some colonial officials recognised the cultural and nutritional importance of indigenous drinks like mahua,” said Dr Erica Wald, a modern history professor at the University of London.

Surprisingly, even after India’s independence in 1947, the old economic and social norms persisted. “The state, like the former colonial rulers, remained closely associated with the monopoly on the sale and production of alcohol, and mahua remained subject to stringent laws and limitations,” Wald explained.

“Alcohol was a common target for temperance advocates and early nationalists,” Wald went on to say. “Boycotts and pickets of alcohol stores, as well as some nationalists’ insistence that alcohol was ‘foreign’ to India, meant that even drinks like mahua, which were so important in the lives of many tribals, were labelled as problematic.”

As a result, mahua was classified as a low-quality, “dangerous” drink, and tribal people were denied the right to produce and sell it outside of traditional village markets.

“It reveals the nature of post-independence Indian elites who were highly dismissive of indigenous people’s lifestyles,” said Krishnendu Ray, a food studies professor at New York University. “It resulted in a lot of mediocre, homogeneous stuff that shaped the Indian liquor industry.”

Against the backdrop of this socio-political backdrop, it would take a few strong entrepreneurial voices interested in rebranding mahua as a quality craft spirit while also attempting to change excise legislation to begin lifting liquor bans.

“We introduced mahua in Goa, made under the IML (Indian-Made Liquor) category, a tag we got after much persuasion with the government,” Desmond Nazareth said, who launched Mahua Spirit and Mahua Liqueur under the DesmondJi brand in 2018.

The Goa-based craft distiller also sells mahua in Karnataka, the only other Indian state to recognise mahua as an IML opposed to a “country spirit”.According to Indian law, country spirits cannot be sold across inter-state borders, so by branding it as IML, it can reach a larger consumer base when sold in other states. 

Over the last few years, there has been a gradual shift in attitude among local governments and agencies. For example, the Madhya Pradesh government declared mahua a heritage liquor in 2021, and the Maharashtra state government changed its archaic laws to legalise the collection and storage of the flowers by local tribal groups. In the same year, a government organisation called the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority shipped dehydrated mahua flowers collected by tribals from Chhattisgarh’s forests to France for the first time.

While some states are lifting mahua prohibitions, lifting them on a national scale will make it a much more viable business venture for distillers.

Susan Dias, the director of Mumbai-based Native Brews, began brewing mahua with Vasantdada Sugar Institute in 2018. “We have our recipe in place, and we need the regulations around mahua production, distribution, and marketing to ease up on a national level so we can start with our first batch,” she said.

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