Alcohol in India: The Untold Story

Ordinary Indians—men who make it—love to consume alcohol, but few would be interested in learning about its turbulent past in the nation. However, it is a compelling tale that you should not skip. And The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Alcohol in India by Magandeep Singh (Penguin | Viking, 233 pages, Rs. 599) gives you enough oomph to take your next drink more mindfully and with fewer hangovers.

Jun 29, 2023 - 16:24
Jun 29, 2023 - 17:51
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Alcohol in India: The Untold Story

Alcohol in India: The Untold Story

Without our adoration for alcohol, many Indian state governments, particularly Kerala, would have had trouble fulfilling their fundamental duty of paying salaries and pensions to their employees, let alone fulfilling their more lofty welfare obligations. Most people who abuse alcohol do so because they are struggling to make ends meet and want to escape their numbing reality. Yes, for most Indians, pleasure is secondary. They are mostly searching for a high, even though it usually comes from contaminated, unpalatable substances.

But prohibition, policing pleasure, and returning the populace to the terrible Gandhian era are the government's open goals. Consider Bihar, the neo-convert, and Gujarat. Previously a social delight, drinking is now frowned upon as antisocial behavior and subject to a steep sin tax. According to a 2014 industry survey, Indians used over 3 billion liters of spirits and 28 million bottles of domestic wine annually to satisfy our thirst, putting a figure to India's love of booze.

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Rig Veda, which discusses intoxicants like soma and prahamana, has the earliest mention of alcohol in Bharat, or India, with the Vedas. The most comprehensive book on medical sciences of the time, the Charaka Samhita, according to Singh, has thorough descriptions of alcohol and its intake. However, the true partying in India begins with colonialism, more notably the Raj. Singh finds that Indians owe their secular drinking habit to the British—gin, The India Pale Ale, Scotch, and English Punch—as well as the Portuguese, who brought along their wines and left us with feni. Statesman and politician Shashi Tharoor claim that the only real, positive fallout of the Raj was tea.

In his recounting of the liquor trail in India, Singh claims that punch was introduced to the West by India, but you have to interpret it right. According to him, the word "punch" comes from the Sanskrit word paanch, which means "five," alluding to the five components that make up a punch.

That could sound encouraging, but Singh brings you back to reality by pointing you that, while being the country that consumes the most scotch whiskey worldwide, the majority of Indian whisky is not truly whisky. A large portion of the scotch brought into India is utilized as flavoring and added to locally made patent still-neutral spirits to make them as similar to whisky as possible, rather than being consumed directly.

Singh leaves unanswered the question of why brandy is revered in South India while whisky is adored in North India. It could require more zealous work.

After exploring the past, Singh then provides an outline of the dominant Indian spirit scene. He outlines the top and most well-known brands in the category in the chapter The Whiskey Connection. The greatest rum, brandy, and vodka options in the nation are featured in Spirits: White and Dark. Singh, a qualified sommelier, provides us with a fascinating history of wine in India and then recommends his favorite picks. He also does the same with beer, arousing nostalgia for some of the lost labels following the introduction of India Made Foreign Beer and offering a glimpse at the burgeoning craft beer market. The brief chapters on assessing beers, spirits, tasting techniques, and drinking etiquette would be of great help to the majority of readers. Raise the bar, then.

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