“India’s mahua is even more unique than the Mexican tequila”

Mahua liquor has great potential both within India and outside India, and there are new opportunities for tribal people to earn better livelihoods by collecting food-grade Mahua, which can be used to manufacture alcohol and also made into food products.

India Business and Trade engaged in a conversation with Desmond Nazareth, the principal founder and MD of Agave India, and Conrad Braganza, the blender and manager of exports, sales and marketing at Agave India in Goa. The two experts shared fascinating insights about their journey and the significance of Mahua liquor in India. 

The interview unravels the significance of Mahua which goes beyond its role as a Mahua spirit and how it is deeply ingrained in the cultural and livelihood practices of tribal communities. It also highlights the efforts to obtain a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag for Mahua, emphasizing the need for a unified approach involving all 13 states where Mahua is found. The potential of Mahua Liquor as a Heritage spirit of India is underlined, drawing parallels with the success of tequila in Mexico.

Mahua Image

Image source: TPCI

IBT: Please share your journey of Mahua Liquor. How have you started, what motivated you and what is your plan ahead?

Desmond Nazareth: In 2000, my journey as an innovator in the Indian alcoholic beverages industry began. After eight years of research and development, Agave India was founded in 2007 with the aim of establishing India’s first craft distillery. In 2011, our first products were launched, which included Indian Agave spirits and alcoholic margarita cocktail blends, as well as liqueurs flavoured with Nagpur orange and cane spirit. Throughout this time, our sights were set on Mahua, a spirit traditionally designated as a lowly country spirit for the past century. We believed that Mahua had immense potential and could be manufactured to a high quality.

Permission was sought from various state governments to manufacture and sell this spirit. It was pointed out that all the international spirits, including the ones we made, started off as country spirits. Mahua deserved to take its rightful place as a national spirit and perhaps even become a national heritage spirit of India eventually.

Conrad Braganza: This spirit has great potential both within India and outside India, and there are new opportunities for tribal people to earn better livelihoods by collecting food-grade Mahua, which can be used to manufacture alcohol and also made into food products. However, we are aware of the need to protect tribal culture and livelihood, as well as tribal practices involving Mahua. Plans are underway to take Mahua abroad after manufacturing it in India.

Desmond Nazareth: There are certain methodologies that can be implemented by tribal folks that are backed by government, CSR, and foundation initiatives so that they can keep more of the money that they spend on Mahua to themselves, as opposed to giving it to middlemen. We have also pushed the idea of a Mahua Research Institute at a national level because it is a national economic resource of significant value. We believe it is an industry easily worth 250 million dollars annually. We have been pushing for initiatives at the state level. Some states have taken up some of the initiatives we have proposed, the most notable being Madhya Pradesh.

IBT: Do we also have any value-added products of Mahua liquor?

Conrad Braganza: Mahua spirit itself is a value-added product. The spirit itself is very valuable from a whole range of standpoints, but it is also a very versatile spirit. So it can form the base for a lot of other products, including liqueurs. Based on this spirit, we have created our own Mahua liqueur, where we complement the flavour of the flower with honey and spices. You can make ready-to-drink beverages with a lower alcohol strength with the Mahua spirit base. You can pair it with beer; you can pair it with wine. We have made various things, like a plethora of cocktails with the Mahua spirit as well as a dry Sangria with the Mahua liqueur.

Desmond Nazareth: It really becomes a new base for bartenders for a lot of cocktails. It is going to be one of the few alcohols that have lots of value-added products. There are various avenues for further adding value to the spirit.

IBT: As per your opinion, which region is the origin of Mahua liquor and for which states of India should be given the GI status?

Desmond Nazareth: It is available in up to 13 states in India. If you look at the Mexican model, they have defined a geographical region in which only the spirit that is made from a certain species of agave and follows certain standards can be labelled as tequila. Similarly, in India, as Mahua is so widespread, the GI will have to include all these 13 states, and it will be owned by the government of India and not by any particular state. With individual states applying for a GI, it’s creating confusion because it’s not like you can award a GI to one state because Mahua is found in other states as well. So, it makes sense for the government to follow the Mexican model for tequila: the Government of India owns the GI on behalf of manufacturers in all 13 states that are Mahua States, where there are tribal populations that harvest and use Mahua.

Thirteen states can agree on sharing a GI owned by the government, just like there are regions of Mexico, including Jalisco, that share the GI of Tequila. The GI is owned by the government of Mexico, not by any one state, district, or municipality because it is fairly widespread. GIs are generally associated with a country when there are multiple manufacturers in multiple regions within that country. GIs are rarely owned by individual states unless something is only located in that state. Mahua respects forests, it does not respect state boundaries.

We believe state-level GI applications will cause confusion and conflict. So our proposal says that each state or region can declare their own state heritage alcohols and the Mahua-producing areas will have Mahua as one of them. MP has done that for Mahua. It has not gone for our more general proposal of declaring all the local heritage alcohols to be considered state heritage alcohols. But what MP has done thus far is a big step along the way.

Conrad Braganza: I think it would be best to have India as a country own the GI, and you can recognise special expressions of Mahua state-wise.

Desmond Nazareth: It’s essential for the application to be made by the Association of Manufacturers, rather than the government. Currently, we are the only ones producing Mahua at an international quality level. However, there are emerging distilleries in Madhya Pradesh, run by tribal self-help groups that have been supported by the government. Several states, including MP, Maharashtra, and Bengal, are considering applying for Mahua as a GI. It’s important to avoid conflicts between states regarding ownership, as Mahua has various varieties that cross state boundaries. This geographical diversity can make the GI process complex and challenging to manage once it spirals out of control.

We are not recommending applying for a GI right away because not all the conditions are ready for a GI. We still don’t have an Association of Manufacturers. We still have to agree on certain standards for calling something intellectual property. We also don’t want to disturb the tribal practices of distillation that are used by tens of millions of people. We would like the GI to be of international quality and value. The GI has to recognise that there are two levels of Mahua. One is distilled traditionally, at a community level, without rigorous regulations and testing, for local consumption, and the other is produced with SOPs achieving international standards. It is a little complicated, but not outrageously complicated. It can be handled if everybody comes to the table.

Government should issue a statement indicating their plan to apply for a National GI for this uniquely Indian product, which has great potential in India and abroad as a Heritage spirit of India. Making this announcement will ensure that the concerned parties are aware, including organizations and companies in India and companies abroad.

IBT: If a GI tag is given to Mahua liquor, what strategies should be taken to promote it?

Conrad Braganza: Mahua has been officially suppressed for over 100 years. Now we are part of the freedom movement of Mahua, and we are helping to free Mahua from the clutches of suppressive law because it has a lot of potential. The good news is that the Mahua flowers are owned by tribal people, so nobody can really seize their access to the flowers. They are key to the livelihoods of lots of tribal people, by virtue of the fact that historically and culturally they own them, even if they are part of the public forests.

The natural wealth should be recognised, and the tribals can be facilitated to collect food-grade Mahua flowers to meet the quantity of food-grade Mahua that will be needed both in the food side of industry and the alcohol side of industry. Already, there is a company in the UK that has imported multiple tonnes of food-grade Mahua from MP at a price significantly higher than the Minimum Support Price (MSP). The Mahua flowers have been used to produce Mahua nibs, Mahua powder, and Mahua tea. We function on the alcohol side. Having a GI for Mahua Spirit is going to be a huge marketing tool. It will help in the sale of Mahua liquors, both within India and abroad if the GI is done properly.

IBT: In your view, what do you think is the future of Mahua liquor after getting GI status?

Conrad Braganza: Mahua liquor has a bright future, and it’s nice to draw parallels from history to see where this can go. I think a good parallel is tequila. Tequila was also a country liquor in Mexico and gained some recognition after the Olympics were held in Mexico. Tequila then got a GI and sort of promoted this spirit and became quite iconic, such that tequila now represents Mexico. Last year, Mexico produced the highest amount of tequila ever, at 600 million litres. It was sold in 120+ countries with a value of US$ 11 billion. If you look at Mahua, conservatively 600 million litres of Mahua are produced and consumed in India annually, but it is produced and consumed in a hyperlocal manner, with most of the producers and consumers living on or below the poverty line.

Mahua has the potential to become India’s version of tequila, with its unique cultural and livelihood significance. To achieve this, a change of vision is required. For instance, Mezcal, a lesser-known Agave spirit from Mexico, sold only 10,000 cases in 2009, but last year, Mezcal sales crossed a million cases. With a little impetus, Mahua could experience similar growth in production and consumption, while also gaining recognition as a heritage spirit. Mahua is even more unique than tequila, as it is primarily grown in India and is the only spirit in the world safeguarded by indigenous peoples. It has a rich storytelling tradition, with folklore, music, and poetry, and plays a significant role in cultural practices such as marriage, births, deaths, and engagements. Although Agave India is Asia’s only manufacturer of Agave spirits, Mahua’s potential lies in its uniqueness to the Indian context.

Desmond Nazareth: As Conrad said, getting a GI is the crowning glory of an effort; it is not the starting point. So, at the end of a lot of this effort, which is state-level recognition, quality standards, and a tax category to encourage entrepreneurs, especially tribal entrepreneurs, to make high-quality spirits and then bring them out of India to other countries, it will be the crowning glory to have a GI, which becomes a marketing tool internationally and a source of national pride internally. This national pride will cover 13 states at least, which is two-thirds of India in terms of population. So the spirit has tremendous potential for us, and a GI will be the additional punch that will help it go abroad and be recognized. Many countries have a globally recognised heritage spirit. India has nothing at present, but Mahua can be that. Mahua has all the qualities to be that thing, and nothing else in India competes with it at the level of scale, cultural significance, and importance.

Desmond Nazareth

Desmond Nazareth has been a scientist, an engineer a filmmaker a computer software specialist and now an alcohol alchemist and the principal founder and MD of Agave India. Desmond Nazareth is known for his work in the alcohol industry, specifically in crafting traditional spirits like Mahua. He is passionate about taking the Mahua spirit outside India’s borders.

Conrad Braganza

Conrad Braganza is the blender, manager of exports, sales and marketing in Goa and in-house mixologist/bartender for Agave India. He is passionate about the Mahua spirit and has experience working in the spirits industry.


  1. The nation must applaud the proposal that the Government of India “should issue a statement indicating their plan to apply for a National GI for Mahua, a uniquely Indian product which has great potential in India and abroad” as our Heritage spirit.

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