Indian tequila: one man’s quest to perfect a national spirit
This is the remarkable story of how tequila began to be manufactured in India’s Deccan Plateau. The stuff is so authentic that it is indistinguishable from the real thing. “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.”
So, who is the hero behind this remarkable enterprise? “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…”
The story behind how Nazareth started making tequila in India has the makings of a Bollywood blockbuster: “In the 1980s Nazareth moved to America to study film-making. During this time he began making cocktails…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…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.”