Abish Cheriyan, Elias Cheriyan and Sareesh Kunjappan originally from Ernakulam district launched their brand ‘Mandakini’ in Vaughan, Ontario last month.
It’s been 23 years since Patta Charayam or Vaattu Charayam — arrack or locally distilled liquor — was banned in Kerala, but the alcoholic drink still has many fans. Almost weekly, the Excise Department seizes illegal arrack or its raw materials from across the state. While some still make it at home for their personal consumption, it is always done in secret. But recently, a photo of a stylish bottle began to circulate on social media. Mandakini, called Malabari Vaatte, is an unaged spirit from sugarcane extract that’s currently made and sold in Canada. The bottle carries five Indian languages to describe the liquid inside, including ‘desi daru’ in Hindi and ‘Nadan Vaattu’ in Malayalam.
Three men originally from Ernakulam — Abish Cheriyan, his brother Elias Cheriyan, and Sareesh Kunjappan — are behind the new label in Canada. The three have been settled in the country for over a decade, and are bringing out the alcoholic beverage through the popular Last Straw Distilleries, owned by Don DiMonte, a Canada-born businessman with Italian roots.
“Mandakini is an attempt to bring the Indian flavors of unaged sugarcane-based spirits to a global platform,” according to Mandakini’s website.
Speaking to TNM, Abish Cheriyan, who also works as a maintenance manager with another company, says Mandakini became a reality after experimenting for two to three years. He notes that though they aren’t spirit experts, this product was launched out of passion.
“The idea came out of discussions after my brother tasted different types of liquor available in the market. While he was searching for a job after reaching Canada, his hobby was to experiment with different liquors,” Abish says. “I did my schooling in residential schools. It was my brother Elias who knew more about country liquor. We all know that though it was banned people still drink it everywhere,” he adds.
Once the three started developing the product, there were moments where they wanted to forget the entire project. But they overcame their challenges and were finally able to launch in August 2021.
“We envision a brand of liquor with the taste of our country. To brand it with a place, we named it Malabari Vaatte,” Abish says.
Abish, who reached Canada in 2005, worked in many different jobs to make ends meet. He has worked in an insurance firm, in mechanical engineering and even studied business fashion. But he never thought he would enter the liquor business.
“It was not easy to get a distillery license in Canada. The rules are very strict. That is how we approached Last Straw Distilleries in Vaughan, Ontario. When we first met DiMonte, he understood that we didn’t have much knowledge about this business. He gave us many valuable insights, which helped us a lot,” Abish says. He explained that all the ingredients, including spices, were easily available in Canada, and that even the production process went smoothly.
Abish recalled how local arrack was served even at weddings in Kerala. They were high-quality liquors distilled using spices and fruits. Vaatte uses cashew fruits, pineapple and grapes among others, making the liquor unique.
“We also realised that every state in India uses almost the same ingredients in locally brewed liquor. In Kerala, we use jaggery as it was available in plenty. In the north, sugarcane is used. Like Malayalis, Punjabis, Maharashtrians, Sri Lankan Tamils also drink liquor in good amounts. That is why we planned to market it to the Indians and Sri Lankans” he adds.
The products were ready for sale on August 27 but without a license from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, they weren’t able to sell in liquor outlets as yet. So to begin with, all sales were done directly from the distillery.
“I posted a photo of the bottle in some WhatsApp groups. The next day, a news article appeared in Asianet News. It had gone viral,” he says, adding that a large number of people rushed to the distillery to grab a bottle, resulting in a massive sale.
After seeing the huge rush to buy Mandakini, DiMonte was also surprised by the demand. He said he was astonished by the passion that the community showed for the liquor. While the batch was meant to last six months, it ran out within a week-and-a-half. People bought them in cartons, and took selfies and photographs outside the distillery.
And now that stock from the first batch is sold out, the team is gearing up for larger production.