Their folksy names -- Heer Ranjha, Ghoomar, Narangi, GM Santra and GM Limbu Punch – are enough to tell you that these are homegrown products. If you were shown the actual stuff, you’d obviously be looking at some amusing-sounding country liquor.
The popular image of country liquor, or desi daru, is that of a crude and vulgar rural drink. In Bollywood movies, it’s often a cloudy liquid, drunk neat. In contrast, Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) – or spirits such as whisky, rum, vodka, brandy and gin – is supposed to be the superior stuff. Think again.
Our lead story in the current issue shows how the vast majority of IMFL spirits are very different from the authentic ones. In short, they are mostly made of molasses, not grains, not aged and only an approximation of the original, achieved by adding artificial flavours and colouring, such as caramel.
Country liquor and the IMFL are just not any different from . The difference largely has to do with flavours, which begins only once blenders take over the alcohol.
A deep dive into the business of country liquor shows that at the level of the basic spirit, it’s the same as IMFL: premium country liquor is highly purified and distilled. Some big manufacturers of country liquor in fact supply the same base spirit to IMFL manufacturers.
The conclusion is obvious: IMFL and country liquor goes through the same manufacturing process and is distilled from the same agricultural source (molasses). The differences are in strength (the percentage of alcohol) and flavours. Add whisky or brandy flavours, for instance, and it becomes IMFL. Take the flavour to a tangier side, it’s desi daru.
This also means that it’s not country liquor that’s masquerading as something else but it’s IMFL that’s being passed off as genuine whisky, alcohol, gin, and brandy etc.
The similarity largely has to do with the manufacturing process. “Both IMFL and country liquor use the same commercial reactive enzymes and multi-column distillation process. At a basic level, it’s the same. That’s the standard distillation equipment that gives rectified spirit. This is further distilled to make extra neutral alcohol,” says Dhiren Pattanaik, a veteran distiller.
It’s not just coincidence that country liquor and IMFL are technically the same. In fact, comparisons of the specifications of the Bureau of Indian Standards – the quality benchmark regulator -- for country liquor and IMFL show they are ridiculously similar.
Country liquor, according to the BIS standards, is rectified Grade I spirit or any neutral spirit which may be obtained from fermented molasses, grain or any other source of fermentable carbohydrates. Cut through the technical jargons, all it means is that alcohol made from molasses and grains and distilled to a fairly high degree so that you get rectified spirit, minus the impurities.
Now, contrast this with the specification for whisky: “Whisky shall be made either from neutral spirit or rectified spirit, Grade I”.
Virtually, no technical difference in the source of ethyl alcohol and the grade of neutral spirit between IMFL and country liquor means the latter has had robust growth and a price advantage.
While the lower end may be cheap moonshine, the higher end within country liquor is evolving into a catchment area for market share. Nearly a dozen brands now hog over 30% of the market share, according to Globus Spirits, one of India’s top country liquor manufacturers. Others include IFB Agro Ltd, Haryana Distilleries Ltd, Associated Alcohols & Breweries Ltd and Piccadilly Agro Industries.
“We supply our alcohol to IMFL companies like Diageo and also use it for our own country liquor brands,” an official of the Bhopal-based Associated Alcohols Ltd told Outlook over the phone.
IFB Agro, one of the largest manufacturers of alcohol, also supplies the same grade spirit to whisky manufacturers and country liquor. Its biggest brands are Hero, Joy, Captain and Dil Se. Tall boys indeed, with the largest market share in eastern states, such as West Bengal and Jharkhand. It’s bottling plants at Panagarh, Dankuni, Murshidabad and Purulia are state-of-the-art facilities that make no distinction between country liquor and IMFL as far as the multistage distillation is concerned.
IFB's Diamond Harbour distillery uses the same multicolumn multipressure distillation technology to remove all impurities from the distillation process to produce extra neutral alcohol. This meets the high specifications of pure alcohol.
“The brands that use extra neutral alcohol or rectified spirit conforms to the Bureau of Indian Standards specifications for country liquor, just like for IMFL,” said Beni Agarwal of Haryana Distilleries Ltd.
“Extra neutral alcohol is finely distilled. It is purified ethyl alcohol that cannot have foul smell or impurities that can be sometimes found in rectified spirit, he said.
IFB’s extra neutral alcohol is used towards its own production of country liquor and also sold to IMFL firms, its company website states.
Pattanaik says there’s no branded country liquor that is semi distilled anymore. “Therefore, you won’t find the strong foul smell that is associated with hooch.”