Guest Post: Mhowra to Whisky: Two Centuries of Distilling in India

This post is part of The Historical Cooking Project's special series Booze, Brews, and Drinks, which speaks to the confluence and the divergence of the histories of booze and food.

This bottle demonstrates the legacy of a mid twentieth century law banning the use of grain for the production of spirits. Most Indian whisky is molasses based. This is no true Scotsman.

"Well, you know what they say: 'Indian whisky is risky!'"

Kuldeep wasn't really interested in my explanation that most 'Indian whisky' is molasses based, and therefore wouldn't even legally qualify as whisky in most of the world. The distinction between sugar and grain based spirits was lost on him. This was no surprise; as a good Hindu, he proudly informed me, he prefers marijuana to alcohol.

Somewhere on the road between Delhi and Dehradun, I'd asked Kuldeep if he knew where I might procure some mhowra liquor, and inadvertently started a discussion on the pros and cons of various intoxicants.

I had already sampled Indian whisky - legally classified as 'Indian Made Foreign Liquor' on account of the manufacturing process - and found it wanting. Now I was on a quest to find something more authentically Indian. Kuldeep was perplexed. If the industrially produced 'whisky' didn't meet my approval, what on earth would I want with mhowra spirit, a so called 'country liquor?'

"Historical research," I told him.

In 1799, the British House of Lords was presented with a report by 'The Committee who were appointed to consider the present State of the Laws relative to the Distillery of Spirits, and the Duties payable thereon, in that Part of Great Britain called Scotland.' This was at the very dawn of the age of 'rational' liquor distillation. By the end of the nineteenth century large and expensive patented still designs were ubiquitous throughout Great Britain, and anywhere else spirits were manufactured on an large scale. But in 1799 the science of distilling was still very poorly understood, and this Parliamentary Committee investigating the state of Scotland's distilleries was eager to collect any and all information regarding distilling practices from around the world.

The appendix to their report contained reprints of a number of letters collected by the Committee that outline the process of distillation as practiced elsewhere around the world. Nestled amongst letters outlining the method of spirit distillation in Holland, Germany and Livonia is one especially curious report on the 'METHOD of Distilling as practiced by the Natives at CHATRA in RAMGUR, and the other Provinces in India, perhaps with but little Variation' by one Archibald Keir, Esq.

Written in 1786, this letter, to the best of my knowledge, is the only document in the English language outlining the traditional method of producing a distilled liquor from mhowra flowers in north-central India before colonial laws and regulations resulted in major changes to that process during the nineteenth century.

Keir, writing to a companion in England, described the basics of what he generalized to be the 'Indian' method: 'THE body of the Still they use is a common, large, unglazed Earthen Water Jar, nearly globular, of about Twenty-five Inches Diameter at the widest part of it, and Twenty-two Inches deep to the Neck, which Neck rises Two Inches more, and is Eleven Inches wide in the opening; which they filled about a half with fomented Mahwah Flowers, that swam in the Liquor to be distilled."

Indian distillers created a rudimentary, "though seemingly not ill adapted" furnace by placing the still in a three foot deep hole, with its bottom third directly exposed to fire. The still was to be almost completely buried, leaving only the very top of the still exposed, and holes for more fuel to be added to the fire and for smoke to escape.

An alembic, fashioned out of clay and a simple copper pot "such as we use in our Kitchens" was then constructed around the neck of the jar, trapped rising vapours and collecting the condensed spirit as it cooled.

Keir expressed surprise that the cooling system (a two or three gallon pot connected to the still by a system of clay tubing designed to circulate liquid through the entire apparatus) was adequate to the job. 'Their stock of water... in this Sort of Circulation, was much smaller than it seemingly ought to have been [and] it soon became too hot.'

Still, Keir was keen to note that the Indian process seemed perfectly well adapted to the setting. All of the necessary materials and ingredients were locally produced and affordable. "In this country... where Labour and Earthen Wares are so cheap, for as many Rupees [as a European style copper still] Twenty Furnaces, with Stills and every Thing belonging to them, independent of the Copper Pots, might very well be erected, that would yield above a Hundred Gallons of Spirits a Day."

To assume that the European method of distillation was inherently superior was a mistake made not just by Europeans, but by Indian distillers themselves:

"The poor ignorant Indian, indeed, while he with Wonder surveys the vast Apparatus of European Distillers, in their immense large Stills, Worms, Tubs and expensive Furnaces, and finds that Spirits thus made by them are more valued, and sell much dearer than his own, may very naturally conclude, and will have his Competitors join with him in Opinion, that this must alone surely be owing to their better and more judicious manner of distilling, with all those ingenious and expensive Contrivances, which he can no ways emulate."

Keir argued that the real reason for the superiority of the spirits produced by European distillers was "...their greater Skill and Care in the right Choice, and proper management of the Materials they employ in Fermentation; and, above all, as I apprehend, from the vast Convenience they have in Casks, by which, and from their Abilities in point of Stock, they are enabled to do, in fact, in, general, keep their Spirits for a certain Time, when they are mellowed, and improved surprisingly both in Taste and Salubrity."

But storage and transportation of spirits, nevermind aging to create a superior product, simply wasn't part of the traditional Indian distilling process. Prior to the colonial period, communities that drank would have produced and consumed their own liquor domestically. It was only once colonial economic projects such as plantations and factories began to collect large numbers of migrant workers in one place, and pay them, however poorly, in coin that there developed a market for the sale of spirits.

Archibald Keir was a mine owner, and he seems to have taken an interest in the Indian method of distillation on account of the toll that it took on his workers:

"So very cheap, indeed, is Arrack here, to the great Comfort of my Miners, and many thoughtless people beside, that for One single Pesya (not Two Farthings Sterling) they can get a Whole Cutcha-seer of it in the Bazar, or above a full English Pint, and enough to make them compeatly intoxicated; Objects often painful to be seen."

Cheap liquor was dangerous liquor, especially around mines and plantations, or in urban areas, where large numbers of very poorly paid labourers lived at at least a degree of remove from traditional social controls.

Indeed because of fears over drunk labourers, controlling the price of liquor was to become a major objective of the Abkari ('excise') regulations enacted by the British colonial government of India during the nineteenth century. The idea was to regulate the price of liquor so that while the State would receive a decent amount of tax revenue from licensed liquor sales, labourers would not be able to afford enough liquor to do themselves serious harm, but likewise not be tempted to engage in illicit distillation or smuggling due to liquor being unaffordable: "Maximum revenue from minimum consumption.'"

While that policy often failed, it had the unintended - perhaps even unnoticed - consequence of dramatically changing the way in which liquor was produced and sold in India. By the middle of the nineteenth century, metal stills, often imported from Europe were common in India, and a small group of men best described as capitalists controlled the licit production of 'country liquor' across much of India. They were savvy businessmen, open to innovations that might enhance their profits; as Keir had suspected, many of them invested quite heavily in European stills and other equipment, convinced they could distill a more valuable spirit. The legal designation of 'country liquor' or 'Arrack' used to describe their product obscures major changes to the methods of distillation and raw materials used.

This is not to say that traditional distillation methods were completely abandoned, but rather that they became the practice of bootleggers, smugglers, and those living in remote, rural areas where the colonial state had little influence over daily life.

Today, liquor made from Mhowra (Madhuca longifolia) flowers, the very sort described by Archibald Keir in 1786 as being common to the whole of India, is usually associated with rural life and extreme poverty.
If Delhi traffic doesn't kill you, the illicit liquor will.
Mhowra, and anything else labelled 'country liquor,' has a very poor reputation among wealthy urban Indians. Two months based in New Delhi and I couldn't find a single bottle for sale in any liquor store, nevermind on the menu at any restaurant or hotel.

The general response when I asked where I might get some mhowra liquor was to question my understanding of the term, or my sanity. One auto-rickshaw driver told me I would get very sick. Rahul, an engineer from Bombay whom I met over a hotel breakfast, told me in no uncertain terms that 'country liquor will kill you.'

Willing to bet that Rahul had been exaggerating, I'd decided to to ask my friend Kuldeep if he knew a source for mhowra liquor. Although no drinker himself, Kuldeep is the kind of guy who knows where get everything.

'If you wish, I know a man who sells it.'

'How much for a bottle?' I asked.

'Bottle? Oh no sir, the man who makes it puts it in a plastic bag.'

So much for traditional. I took a pass. I'm still not sure whether or not I regret that decision.

Peter Hynd is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McGill University, and a PhD Fellow at McGill's Indian Ocean World Centre. His thesis is a study of efforts by the British colonial government to tax and regulate alcohol in nineteenth century India.


  1. The most mainstream misguided judgment about absinthe is that it is an unlawful medication, or possibly like a medication as a result. This is not genuine. The madness encompassing absinthe in the mid twentieth century energized the misinterpretation that absinthe was a capable intoxicant, brought about mind flights that made men frantic, had them into epileptic tantrums, and made van Gogh cut off his ear. Illicitly distilled liquor


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