James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Rethinking the Unsophisticated Local Tipple

Rethinking the Unsophisticated Local Tipple

Feni in Goa

After weeks of passing the nondescript, yellow home with a little wooden double door, I decided I had to give it a shot. It had a narrow doorway that would make anyone taller than 5 feet 5 inches stoop to enter. I was intrigued by the plastic curtain separating the outside from the inside, and the dulled metallic single-letter signage on the wall outside. Pinto Bar, it read, with what looked like a top hat precariously placed to look like the dot on the I.

On the inside, Pinto is a humble little watering hole that should seat no more than 12 people, but with mismatched tables set snugly close, it can accommodate about 20. And therein lies its charm: while you sip the freshest feni—liquor distilled from the cashew apple—seated elbow to elbow with not just the buddies at your table, but the next table too, you meld into the atmosphere.

I seated myself at a table with a view of the small taverna. There was a dinky little refrigerator tucked away in a corner, stacked to the top with aerated drinks, soda, and tonic water. Beside it, a table was lined with bottles galore. A tray held empty glasses waiting to be filled, with a plate of fresh lemon, green chilies, and a saucer with some salt, speckled no doubt with years of dust and grime.

Feni is a distinct alcohol local to Goa, India. Legend (and some history) has it that it was popular among Goans as early as 1740. Feni is heady, with a sharp burn, and a taste that puts it in the league of some of the finest white spirits. It gets its distinct strong, pungent flavor from being distilled multiple times. It’s often called Goa’s local firewater, and has even been bestowed a GI (geographic indication), much like champagne in France or tequila in Mexico.

I always make it a point to drink feni, which is often mistaken for an unsophisticated local tipple. So I ordered a double. I enjoy it best with a lemony soda, lots of ice, a generous squeeze of lime, sprinkle of salt, and the crowning glory—a sliced green chili that doubles up as a stirrer. The drink is the best combination of subtle and punchy: the flowery effusion from the soda hits my tongue first, but when the feni slowly seeps in, I feel the distinct burn of chili on my lips.

Feni tastes best in a taverna, surrounded by others who are there because they’re loyalists. Loyalists of the bar, of feni, or their staples—perhaps fried fish or pork-sausage-stuffed buns. I sipped at my feni and waited for my order of prawns, dusted in semolina and fried to a crisp.

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