The Tree of Life
Mahua is the world's only clear spirit distilled from a sweet flower. It enfolds legends, history, culture and struggle in its sharp notes.
It’s a bloom like no other.
In spring, the flowers of the mahua tree fall to the ground in a blaze of yellow and green. They fall at night, covering the ground in a thick carpet, sending a sweet intoxicating smell into the environment. The flowers are consumed either cooked, or mostly dried. Rich in sugars, they are used as a sweetening agent.
During times of famine, it was the mahua flowers and fruit that provided sustenance to and prevented starvation among Adivasis (indigenous tribal communities), which includes communities such as the Gond, Korku, Kolam, Pardhan, in the Central Indian Forest belt (Mahua is commonly found in Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal). The dried flowers are distilled into a liquor that is consumed by most of these tribal communities.
Mahua (Madhuca Longifolia) is a hardy tropical tree found in India’s central and eastern forests and plains. Mahua refers to the tree, its bloom and the spirit distilled from it. To the Adivasis, the tree is kalpavriskh (tree of life) as it provides them with food, drink, fodder, wood for fuel and even medicine. Adivasis oral literature features stories, songs and sacred verses about the mahua tree and its many blessings.
Yet, mahua liquor isn’t something you will find in liquor shops or bars and restaurants. Strict government restrictions and a dodgy colonial classification have kept this drink out of the mainstream alcohol industry. It is mostly consumed clandestinely.
As one of the country’s oldest liquors, mahua deserves a better rep.
In his recent book, An Unholy Brew (Alcohol in Indian History and Religions), James McHugh calls mahua one of the oldest drinks of India. Mahua finds reference in many old texts. The twelfth-century Mānasollāsa lists drinks made from grapes, coconut water, mahua flowers. Buddhist monks and nuns, forbidden to take liquor, were permitted sugary ‘medicines’ like honey (madhu) and sugary fruit juices, though the juice of mahua wasn’t allowed possibly because of its association with liquor. “I strongly believe India is the cradle of distillation. Mahua is probably one of the first spirits distilled here,” says Aniruddha Mookerjee, mahua specialist, and Advisor to Government of Madhya Pradesh on Heritage Liquor.
Spring is when mahua flowers fall to the ground. Each family usually has at least one mahua tree, passed down generations. The flowers are never plucked from the branches but collected from the ground; in recent times and in some places, mahua collectors tie cloth or nets under the tree for food-grade mahua. The collected flowers are transported in wicker baskets to be sun dried on the ground. Sugars caramelise in the hot sun turning the flowers reddish brown.
Mahua is used for its seeds, and flowers. It becomes food, fodder for livestock, the seeds are pressed for oil, and the leaves and bark are medicinal. In the agricultural lean season, mahua is sold for hard cash, and in some interiors, is bartered for food at weekly haats (markets).
Its commonest use is as a pot-still distilled spirit.
To make mahua liquor, dried flowers are fermented using yeast-infused rice balls (ranu) for a few days; jaggery (cane sugar) is mostly added to increase sugar and alcohol content. The fermented product is distilled using clay wood-fired pot stills, connected by a pipe to a bottle or can. Women generally do the distilling. The finished spirit is stored in coloured bottles. The mahua is tested by fire: its potency and purity are tested by throwing it into the fire. Mahua liquor is faintly floral and heady. “Mahua is not like ENA-based drinks, it gives a different high, a mellow one,” says Mookerjee, adding that he makes his own mahua in a traditional pot still, and is experimenting with isolating local wild yeasts.
“There’s a tribal saying: when you have the first drink, you become like a parrot and laugh and repeat things; the second and third make you feel like a tiger and you start roaring. More than that and you become a pig, start grovelling in the ground or go lie in water.”
Mahua has been distilled by Adivasis for centuries and as such, is important to their lives and culture. The mahua tree features in their festivals, weddings, funerals, celebrations and even in their folklore. It is part of social gatherings. Mahua is sprinkled at the start of some festive rituals. “Mahua is a part of their lives from birth to death. During the naming ceremony they put a little mahua on the head of the child, and feed them a few drops. It’s an initiation they receive early in life,” says Mookerjee. At childbirth, the umbilical cord is kept in mahua and then buried; after being cut, mahua is applied to the navel.
In some tribes, he says, when the groom’s family goes to the bride's home, they carry a branch of mahua. The liquor is part of the celebrations, and is sprinkled on the mandap. “Every puja, every death…there will be a feast thereafter and mahua will be a part of it.”
There’s an interesting legend associated with mahua, which claims that when the flowers fall in the forest, all animals and birds eating it come to an alleged truce because everyone is high.
Mahua is a big industry in India, but completely unregulated and clandestine.
The total quantity of mahua liquor produced is not known though estimates put that annual figure at 500 million litres. A 2008 study on minor forest produce by the Forest Governance Learning Group revealed that India produces more than 5,00,000 tonnes of mahua flowers each year and an estimated 95 percent of this goes into making alcohol. The flower is one of the top ‘minor forest produce’ items in the country.
There are three categories of liquors in India — country spirits, imported spirits and Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL). In India, mahua is classified as a ‘country liquor’, a distinction introduced to separate it from foreign liquor. In her paper, ‘On Drinking and 'Drunkenness': History of Liquor in Colonial India’, Indra Munshi Saldanha writes that the British liquor policy was formulated on the basis of generating revenue from liquor, and the moral objective of checking consumption and temperance. Much of their revenue in the late 1800s came from excise (from country liquor). The same is true even today.
Two important legislations, The Bombay Abkari Act of 1878 and the Mhowra Act of 1892 had the most impact on the drinking habits of the Adivasis — the former classified mahua as an intoxicating substance and limited its production to central distilleries, the latter banned the collection and sale of the flowers in Bombay Presidency. Possession of mahua was criminalised. Stringent laws and increased prices meant people took to illegal distillation.
Post-Independence, the laws didn’t change. “Mahua has become a symbol of country liquor, and this tag is imprinted in the Indian consciousness as bad liquor,” says environmentalist Sanjiv Valsan. “We are still colonised in terms of our liquor consumption.” Country spirits still bear a negative connotation. Prohibition became common in many states; other states impose strict policies and regulations. Each Adivasi family can only store five litres of mahua.
An unregulated market means the Adivasis suffer the most. A lack of storage facilities means they sell the flowers to middlemen (local traders called koochiyas) during the flowering season, and buy it back from them at marked-up rates. This increases the cost of making alcohol. There are limits on home distilling in some places, each home is only allowed to store up to five litres. Distress selling is common. Mahua flowers are taxed. Lack of a regulated market means prices fluctuate. Illegal brewing in some states means some of the product gets adulterated. Raids and crackdowns, even arrests are common. Except in Odisha, where its production is licenced as a country liquor, mahua isn’t sold in government liquor shops. It is usually sold and consumed in hiding.
Overall, it’s the negative perception linked to drinking mahua — alcohol poisoning to moral laxity — that has affected the drink. McHugh writes, ‘Perhaps mahua has a low profile in Sanskrit texts because, as today, mahua liquor was associated with rural, sometimes Adivasi communities, whose drinking cultures are less frequently represented in our sources.’
Mahua has much potential for growth. It needs a sustainable model that would benefit the Adivasi communities who collect and dry the blooms, and giving them a fair price. In addition, recognising the problems, regulating the industry, and changing the excise laws and taxes around the liquor are the need of the hour. It is something Desmond Nazareth has been working towards for a decade.
The founder of spirits company Agave India (AI), Nazareth’s first interaction with mahua was near Daman in 2002. “When I travel, I seek out what’s made locally. The mahua was of indifferent quality. I hadn’t seen the flower at that time. I realized there was something special in this - if made well, it could turn into good spirit,” he says. Nazareth launched his craft distillery in Andhra Pradesh (AP) in 2011 to produce agave and cane spirits. After three years, he turned back to mahua, which he had researched well by then. “It was deeply connected to Indian heritage, more so than palm spirits, feni, and grain-based spirits at least in terms of its footprint. Mahua had the deepest cultural links to the indigenous tribal population and in all likelihood had a history older than the rest.”
He convinced the AP government to allow him to make mahua spirit, and brought it to Goa to bottle. He got Goa’s excise laws changed to allow mahua to be sold as an IMFL product. In 2018, AI launched two mahua drinks, DJ Mahua (with cane sugar) and DJ Mahua Liqueur (mahua infused with honey and spices). Now, Nazareth and his colleague Conrad Braganza will be taking mahua to the world, with their USA-based start-up Mahua to The World Inc, and through private investments and equity crowdfunding. They will soon be launching a super-premium spirit in the UK. Their aim is to take something important to indigenous people and showcase it as a potential national heritage spirit of India. The focus is on provenance and accordingly, forest is a big part of the branding. “The story is about taking the flower and turning it into a spirit without adding anything beyond water and yeast. It reflects the purity of some of India's forest areas,” says Nazareth.
Nazareth worked on introducing pot still alcohol standards of India, which didn’t exist till 2018. He also wants to bring about policy changes that will benefit the Adivasis communities involved in making mahua; he is pushing for mahua to be India’s national heritage spirit, with a Geographical Indication tag of its own. “At least 13 Indian states are involved in making mahua. It has the biggest footprint of any other heritage alcohol here.”
Last year, mahua showed up in France. MAH (Spirit of the Forest) is an alcoholic drink made in France using flowers imported from India, combining local techniques with French ones. In their mission statement, they want mahua alcohol to be given respect and recognition in the world of spirits and liquors, give its inverted social status a makeover, and help indigenous communities who are economically dependent on the collection and local sales of mahua flowers to develop their own companies for the distillation and sales of local mahua liquor.
Closer home, there are efforts on the ground to improve mahua’s image and bring about change.
There are efforts to create a new tax category for heritage alcohol like mahua, one that is higher than country liquor but much lower than IMFL. “Excise has always been very anti-indigenous liquor and pro industrial liquor due to its strong lobbies. It became the norm after independence. Mahua doesn’t cross boundaries. In states that respect mahua, it is still looked upon as country liquor,” says Mookerjee. “Country liquor has always been a derogatory term. There’s a caste factor involved too in the perception of the drink as lowly. The younger generation among the tribals who are educated go for cheap IMFL. Anyone with a little bit of money and aspiration will not drink it there.”
Valsan is coordinator of a citizen afforestation initiative in Mumbai, Ped Lagao Ped Bachao (PLPB), which recently took up the plantation of mahua in the city. “Mahua is an extremely useful tree. Liquor is just one of its many uses. It is drought resistant, requires no fertiliser, irrigation and has limited input costs. You just don’t cut it and allow it to grow and keep reaping the rewards,” he says. “It is ecologically beneficial.”
Last year, the agricultural and processed foods export development authority took dehydrated mahua flowers to Paris. The state of Madhya Pradesh declared Mahua a ‘heritage liquor’. Maharashtra has made the collection, sale and transport of mahua flowers legal. Most recently, they have decided that liquor made from cashew fruits and mahua flowers will be classified as indigenous Indian made foreign liquor (an anomaly, since mahua is not Indian Made Foreign Liqour at all).
Mookerjee works as an advisor to the Madhya Pradesh government on Heritage Liquor. They are currently working on setting up two distilleries and opening up a centre for Adivasis communities to produce and sell mahua. “They were the ones who always produced mahua. They are the ones who should have the ownership. The historical wrong has to be righted.”
Joanna Lobo is an independent journalist who enjoys writing about food, is an independent writer, and a strong advocate of freelance life. She writes about food & drink, travel, her Goan heritage and strong, independent women. Follow her on @thatdoggonelady across platforms
A selection of photos from Agave India, of life in and around the mahua.