Rajasthan’s heritage liqueurs might just be the state’s best-kept secret, but not for lack of trying. The herbal alcohols are historic, from a time when the desert state’s royal families used to each have their own darukhana or distillery with fiercely guarded recipes. The libations were local, seasonal and possibly alchemical. The ingredients were carefully sourced and the time of preparation decided by Ayurvedic physicians who studied the seasons, and mantras were chanted when the boiler was fired for distillation. Notoriously potent, the liqueurs are the stuff of legend, said to revive one’s health, libido and spirits, and were banned for decades after India became a republic.
Yet, for all the mystique, heritage and high standards of production, although the state government began distilling eight liqueurs with recipes shared by some of the erstwhile royals in 2006, the bottling stopped in 2008 as the drinks were deemed too expensive.
The former royals continued to brew at home, and the liqueurs continued to appear in exclusive spaces, such as at Rajasthan’s heritage hotels, and even at the opening of chef Sujan Sarkar’s modern Indian gastropub Baar Baar in New York City in 2017. Its Royal Mawalin cocktail blended Nolet’s gin, Barolo C, potli masala-infused Aperol, dates and spices, all served on ice with a dash of Rooh Afza, in tribute to the eponymous heritage liqueur of the Sodawas family of Jodhpur.
Now, nearly two decades after the royal liqueurs were introduced for public consumption, things are looking up again, with the state government resuming production in 2020 during the lockdown. And a new short film, premiered at Jaipur’s Diggi Palace and released on YouTube last week, just might help the brew regain its shine.
Rajasthan’s heritage liqueurs 101
Titled Mahansar – The Royal Sip, and directed by young filmmaker Aditya Sangwan, the 19-minute film gives a crash course on the royal liqueurs, with a spotlight on the privately distilled Maharani Mahansar Heritage Liquor. This family-owned range also began production in 2006, and is available at booze shops across Rajasthan, Haryana and Goa.
A few travellers have always found their way to Mahansar village, not just to see the painted havelis of the Shekhawati region, but also because the Mahansar family, who run the Mahansar Fort Heritage Hotel, have kept their legacy brews going for 250 years. The family has made heritage liqueurs since Mahansar Fort was founded in 1768, director Sangwan wrote in an email interview with Condé Nast Traveller, and in 1890, Thakur Durjan Saal Singh began commercial production. In Sangwan’s film, Rajendra Singh Shekhawat, the eighth-generation descendant of the Mahansar family and the founder and chairman of the Shekhawati Heritage Herbal private distillery, says their liqueur was once popular with the eminent in the region. It was transported in clay containers on camelback to the courts of Bikaner, Bahawalpur and Sindh, and across business hubs from Attock (now in Pakistan) to Cuttack (Odisha).