On a damp winter evening in the Esplanade neighborhood of Kolkata, India, Shibaji Mahato, 55, heads to his local watering hole. He works in construction in a nearby building. Already at the bar is Bhaskar Das, a fruit and vegetable seller. Shibaji, Bhaskar and many others who throng this bar are all drinking Bangla, a colorless, odorless, flavorless and potent alcoholic beverage with a complicated role in Indian history and culture.
The word Bangla has several meanings, only some of which relate to alcohol. Bangla is the language residents of Kolkata and India’s West Bengal state speak, and the term is often used to refer to the state of West Bengal, almost as an identity.
As a beverage, Bangla has no set definition. Almost any country liquor made with whatever grain is locally available in West Bengal can be referred to as Bangla. Regional differences abound.
“In West Bengal, most of the country liquor is made using the starch of sugarcane or molasses and fermented rice,” says Sanjay Ghosh, a spirits expert popularly known as Dada Bartender whose YouTube channel, Cocktails India, has more than 550,000 subscribers.
Contemporary attitudes toward this drink can incorporate an array of inherited classist and casteist stigmas.
“Manu disapproved [of] drinking by the Brahmin caste on the ground that liquor was obtained by the decomposition of rice, and it was manufactured by a lower caste who was untouchable,” writes Raktim Sur, associate professor at Herambra Chandra College of Kolkata, in A History of Liquor: Response and Resistance in Bengal (1790-1906). While Hindu and Muslim aristocracy occasionally celebrated milestones with alcohol, Sur writes, most of that happened in private.
Sociocultural developments during the British Raj (1848–1947) stigmatized homegrown spirits like Bangla, too. The early 19th century saw the rise of the Bhadralok class, comprised of wealthy, upper-caste Bengali Hindus who were either employed by British officials or did business with them. In trying to impress the English, many Bhadralok took up the habit of drinking foreign liquor while looking down on alcohol made in India.
Today, the gap has widened further due to the menace of “hooch,” or adulterated country liquor that can contain high levels of methanol, which causes blindness and death. West Bengal has seen many such incidents.
“Hooch or moonshine, made with bad equipment, unhygienically, by people having no technical knowledge about distillation, ends up killing people,” says Ghosh. It also affects how people view country liquor that is carefully prepared, legal and safe to consume.
There are legalized brands of Bangla, like Dada, Race and Bagh, sold in Kolkata and its adjacent districts of Howrah, Hooghly, North and South 24 Parganas. Sold in 600 ml bottles for approximately INR 120 ($1.60), these Bangla brands are owned by a Kolkata-based private entity firm, Transways Exim Private Limited.
“These brands were launched in 2012,” says Raj Kumar Shaw, Transways’ communications manager. “They enjoy a market share of 15% of the entire sales in West Bengal.”
Shaw believes part of the success of Transways’ Bangla brands is due to the manufacturer’s proximity to its markets and ingredients. In West Bengal, he says, the company produces alcohol without any impurities extracted from grains, known as Grain Extra Neutral Alcohol (G-ENA). “We procure G-ENA from distilleries in West Bengal and its neighboring states like Bihar and Jharkhand,” he says.
Demineralized water is added to the strong spirit G-ENA in a controlled manner so that the resulting beverage acquires the desired character of the brand. Complying with the Excise Department’s rules, they do not add additives like flavors. They mature the liquor for a period of 3–7 days in steel tanks before it hits packaging. “Varying periods of maturation for different brands is our in-house trade secret.”
Sarthak Banerjee, a 25-year-old from Howrah, twitches his nose at the mention of Bangla. “I don’t drink it and never will,” he says, “but I know someone who does.”
He’s not alone. Consumers from the upper strata of socioeconomic status tend to want to distance themselves from the drink. And, despite Shaw’s pride in his company’s production and sourcing methods, many distillers, Bangla liquor stores and even Excise Department officials are uncomfortable revealing their association with Bangla in public.
However, according to Ghosh, distilleries who supply G-ENA to country liquor bottling manufacturers send the same ingredients to Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) manufacturers. IMFL is a blanket term used for all non-indigenous alcoholic beverages produced in India.
“The IMFL units add color, flavor and the resulting alcohol becomes rum, vodka and whiskey,” says Ghosh. “These are then sold at much higher prices.”
Ghosh has blended Bangla with lime, pineapple and mint leaves to whip up a mojito, and also suggests serving it with green chilli and salt. He hopes Bangla will one day be promoted as a specialized drink with Geographical Indication status, like cashew feni, the homegrown alcohol of Goa, or the Judima rice wine of Assam.
“Legally made Bangla is nothing to be ashamed of, but there is no awareness,” Ghosh says.