Chicago bartenders are acquiring a taste for the challenging Indian spirit feni


Yet-to-be-named feni cocktail at the Annex - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Yet-to-be-named feni cocktail at the Annex

"It's not for everyone," Fat Rice chef and owner Abraham Conlon says of feni. The Indian spirit is made from cashew fruit, which resembles an apple; the cashew itself grows from the end of the pseudofruit, also called a cashew apple. Conlon compares feni's aroma to gasoline; Julia Momose, head bartender at GreenRiver, thinks it smells a bit like acetone. But despite—and in some ways, because of—the spirit's off-putting scent, both have put feni on their drink menus. 

There's more to feni than the nose, of course. "It's almost funky," Momose says. "There's nuttiness, an astringency, a very young, tart apple. There's also these softer, cooked pear notes. It's got waves and waves of flavor." It also has a quality she says she's noticed in mezcal: "A petroleum, oily, tar—like warm asphalt flavor, which is something I actually really enjoy. I like that it's a little bit dirty."

Cashew fruit - THINKSTOCK
  • Thinkstock
  • Cashew fruit

Both Momose and Conlon are using Spirit of India, the only brand of feni available in stores in the U.S. (One other brand can be purchased online.) Drew Whited and B.J. McCaslin, both now 33, started the Chicago-based company three years ago after meeting an Indian woman who told them about feni. At the time, Whited owned an Internet company in Chicago that customized bar and restaurant websites, while McCaslin was in LA launching Coco Cafe, a brand of coconut water blended with espresso and milk that he'd created. (He sold the company to Vita Coco last year and now lives in Atlanta.) 

The longtime friends and entrepreneurs didn't know much about spirits, but they did a little research, saw that feni wasn't easily available in the U.S., and sensed a business opportunity. Intrigued by the possibilities, they immediately booked tickets to Goa, India, the only place that the spirit can be made, in accordance with a geographical indication designation. They stopped at the first roadside hut they saw that sold feni to taste it.

"We wanted it to taste better, I think," Whited says. But "the thing about feni, if you have enough drinks it starts growing on you." By the end of the trip—many drinks later—he and McCaslin were sold on a triple-distilled feni made by the Vaz family, longtime producers and ambassadors of the spirit. After a fund-raising effort among family and friends, Whited and McCaslin began selling it in Chicago at Binny's last September; they've since expanded to other liquor stores in the rest of Illinois, Texas, and Georgia, with plans to launch in six more states this fall.

Spirit of India feni - COURTESY DREW WHITED
  • Courtesy Drew Whited
  • Spirit of India feni

Conlon was familiar with feni before Spirit of India existed, he says, because Fat Rice focuses on Macanese cuisine, which has a direct connection to the southwest Indian state Goa and uses the spirit quite a bit. After it kept coming up in recipes, he says, "I was like, let's get it. And it was nowhere to be found." He did get a chance, though, to try feni a few years ago on a trip to Lisbon, where there are quite a few Goan restaurants.

"Like many fruit distillates, there's a funk to it," Conlon says. "They're not that great. I'm pretty sure the stuff I drank in Portugal, if you drank enough of it, it would make you go blind." Spirit of India feni, on the other hand, is "very good," cleaner in flavor than many other brands he's tasted.

"We probably tried 20, 30 fenis [in Goa], and there were some pretty sketchy ones," Whited says. "There's been no quality control. There are people who've been introduced to feni and it's not been the best experience."

As soon as Spirit of India feni became available in Chicago, Conlon says, he ordered a case of it—which sat gathering dust until Fat Rice beverage manager Annie Beebe-Tron began playing with the spirit in preparation for the July opening of the Ladies' Room, a tiny red-lit bar in the former waiting room at Fat Rice with its own cocktail menu. She describes feni's flavor as "fruity, grassy, with a citrus-peel bitter acidity right at the top." Conlon adds that he's had fresh-squeezed cashew fruit juice in Brazil, "and it's the most funky, ripe, half-rotten, gritty juice. But oh my god, it smells just like [feni]." (Former Next restaurant chef Dave Beran, who worked with cashew fruit for the Reader's Key Ingredient challenge several years ago, said that the fruits "smell like sweet vomit when they're roasted.")

Goan Calamando at the Ladies' Room - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Goan Calamando at the Ladies' Room

Still, Beebe-Tron and Conlon didn't hesitate to include a feni drink on the Ladies' Room opening menu. Called the Goan Calamando, it includes rum, Iraqi date syrup, pureed calamondin fruit (which is similar to calamansi), and roasted almond orgeat; served in a mug shaped like a Japanese raccoon dog, it's the closest thing the bar has to a tiki drink. Her goal, Beebe-Tron says, was to "recognize that [feni is] big and wild and ripe and match that wildness." She's already working on another feni cocktail, and says that the next step is to make a drink that's cleaner, more refined, less tropical. The recipe isn't set yet, but may include grapefruit juice and a southeast Asian rose syrup made in-house.

Unlike Conlon, Momose was totally unfamiliar with feni until McCaslin showed up at her bar with a bottle of Spirit of India feni last September. "I'd never tasted anything like it before," she says. She found it challenging, and wasn't sure at first that she wanted to use it in a cocktail. "But I'd go back and taste it and be like, Wait, there's something here that I really love," she says. "I was like, I'm going to conquer feni. I'm going to figure out a way to put this in a cocktail in a way that can be balanced and delicious for anyone, not just people who want something crazy and out-there—because it is a little bit out-there."

Chorus Girl at GreenRiver - FRANCIS SON
  • Francis Son
  • Chorus Girl at GreenRiver

What she came up with for the opening menu at Annex, the ingredient-focused cocktail bar next to GreenRiver that the GreenRiver owners opened in February, is called the Chorus Girl. It pairs feni with Batavia arrack, a funky Javanese spirit made from sugarcane and fermented red rice, along with lemon and pineapple juice for brightness and Noilly Prat Ambre Vermouth for herbal notes. Momose made an infusion of amchoor (dried and powdered green mangoes) and turmeric in a blend of Italian herbal liqueurs, adding it to the drink along with vanilla syrup; the cocktail is served over crushed ice and topped with grated black lime.

The Chorus Girl was retired, along with the rest of the opening cocktails, when Momose introduced the summer menu. But she's developed another feni drink that will be featured on the fall menu; for this one, she says, her goal was to highlight the spirit's fruit notes and add some herbaceous elements. For that she uses Chareau, an aloe vera liqueur infused with cucumber, muskmelon, and spearmint; pistachio orgeat adds a nuttiness that plays up that element in the cashew apple, and Aperol, lime juice, and cinnamon complete the drink.

Julia Momose makes the feni cocktail she's planning to put on the fall menu at Annex. - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Julia Momose makes the feni cocktail she's planning to put on the fall menu at Annex.

As for feni's off-putting qualities, Momose says, "Sometimes it's what you're looking for. All these flavors that can be unpleasant can be really good and offer more depth and complexity to a spirit or drink." She points out that descriptors like "barnyardy" and "urine" are often applied to wine and aren't considered negative.

At Fat Rice, Beebe-Tron says, "We knew that we weren't going to immediately have people doing shots of feni. When it's unfamiliar it can be really challenging. It's just so new to people's palates that it doesn't have a place to fit." But customers at the Ladies' Room seem to be enjoying the Goan Calamando, Conlon says—and he now drinks feni on the rocks with a squeeze of lime. "That's the thing about acquired tastes," he says. "Once you acquire that taste, you love it."

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