Arrack, arishtam, Chambakka wine: Keralites find alternatives to alcohol during lockdown

In Kerala, which boasts of the highest per capita liquor consumption in India, many found themselves unable to legally source liquor for two months, a situation seen across India.
A man demonstrates how to make toddy at home.
A man demonstrates how to make toddy at home.

“Today, I am going to show you how to turn tender coconut water into thengum kallu or toddy,” a man explains calmly in Malayalam, as he flips a two-litre tetra pack of coconut water on its head and the liquid gushes out into a spotless jar placed on a table.  He goes on to add a generous dollop of yeast, sugar and then carefully wraps the jar with a porous linen towel.

The above description is from one clipping out of the several video tutorials that this reporter chanced upon on social media platforms after India imposed a lockdown in March and banned all liquor sales temporarily.

Across family and friends groups on WhatsApp, the floodgates of video tutorials on how to brew your own liquor this lockdown was opened in March, and keen viewers, hankering for a drink, lapped up these instructions.

With the COVID-19 lockdown shuttering bars, hotels and liquor stores in every state in India, the infamous serpentine queues outside wine shops in Kerala, too, disappeared overnight.

Within days, the state, which boasts the highest per capita alcohol consumption in India, was left to grapple with the physical, psychological and financial effects of a prolonged liquor ban — a situation witnessed across the country.

TNM spoke to social drinkers, excise officials, and even Ayurveda doctors in the state, to understand how the average non-teetotaler Malayalee is surviving this lockdown.

An average drinker

“When we knew of the lockdown, most people I know started stocking up on imported liquor. They were paying double and triple the amount for foreign liquor,”  recalls 53-year old Rajashekhar (name changed), a Thrissur based gold-smith.

“But now, it has been two months and everyone’s quota has dried up,” he adds.   

With a sly chuckle, Rajasekhar, who consumes alcohol every day, adds that he has now plucked chambakka or Rose Apples from his front yard and made wine with it, to tide over the lockdown.

A social drinker

For Malappuram native Elizabeth, who stays with her husband and extended family in Perinthalmanna, the lockdown meant no visits from friends, parties and alcohol.

“We are social drinkers and throw an occasional party at our house with friends. For me, the whole point of drinking is to have a good time with friends over a glass of wine. But with the lockdown, I have not seen anybody apart from my family now,” she says.

No socialising means more free time in hand. So what does she do instead? “We have taken to farming and now grow watermelons, pumpkins, beans, cucumbers, okra etc on our patch of land. We got the seeds from the Agricultural department as the government is encouraging home farming,” Elizabeth tells TNM.

More deaths due to liquor ban

But unlike Elizabeth and Rajasekhar, not everybody is able to cope with the liquor ban. Since the lockdown, Kerala has had more deaths from the non-availability of alcohol over deaths due to coronavirus.

While four patients succumbed to COVID-19 in Kerala, at least seven deaths - some of them suicides - have been reported since March 24 due to the ban on liquor.

Two days after the lockdown, on March 26, a remand prisoner in Palakkad died after mistaking sanitiser for alcohol and drinking a bottle of it. Another man from Kayamkulam died after he drank after-shave lotion due to intense alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

‘Home-brewed liquor is illegal’

In just 38 days between March 24 and May 2, the state excise department seized illicit liquor almost equal to the amount seized during the whole of 2019, says Sam Christy Daniel, Additional Commissioner Excise (Enforcement).

Post lockdown, at least 505 people have been arrested for brewing wash (fermented liquor pending distillation) in the state. With jaggery being a key ingredient of wash, the increasing demand for arrack has led to jaggery packets vanishing from store shelves, officials add.

Sam says that most of the people arrested were making wash for illegal sale and distribution.

However, he says, the real challenge for the Excise Department are individuals who brew liquor at home for personal use.

“My family groups are discussing how to distil arrack for Easter. Whether to use pineapple or cashew apple, how to get wild boar from the plantations and how to set up firewood to roast lamb amid this lockdown,” a friend of this reporter disclosed during the long weekend ahead of Easter on April 12.

“This might seem like an innocent and fun thing to do, but it is a cognisable offence under the Kerala Abkari Act, 1975. All those watching WhatsApp tutorials and brewing tipple can be booked,” warns the Additional Commissioner.

In October 2019, the Kerala government amended the excise laws to make home-brewing of alcohol a non-bailable offence. This was done shortly after the state allowed the manufacturing of wine and low alcohol content liquor from fruits in October 2019. It created a lot of confusion among home-based wine-makers who brew fruit wines and other liquor during festivals.

“Brewing of liquor without a licence, regardless of the quantity or alcohol content, is an offence in Kerala. However, we do not usually target home-based wine-makers who brew wine during festivals for personal use. However, the wine should either be non-alcoholic or contain an alcohol level below 4%. Anything above that, is actionable if it comes to the notice of the police or the Excise Department,” Sam elucidates.

He adds that this exercise is to crack down on those who make them in excess and sell/ or distribute them via social media.

“The only issue is, it is difficult to identify people who brew for drinking it themselves,” Sam adds. While only 10% of the reported cases consisted of people who brewed for self-consumption, Sam suspects that, in reality, home brewing could be 10 times the official count.

Demand for Ayurvedic medicine

Where home-brewing is not an option, doctors suspect that a section of people in Kerala is misusing Ayurvedic medicines to get high.

“Arishtas and Asavams are fermented herbal potions and have a little less than 10% alcohol content in them. Ayurvedic doctors, prescribe only 25 - 30 ml per dose. However, if people drink a whole bottle, they might get drowsy,” explains Manoj Kaloor, a member of the Central Council of Indian Medicine.

Manoj says that he has identified several posts on Facebook that suggest Arishtams as an easy replacement for liquor.

“It is easy to procure as medical shops are open and nobody usually asks for a prescription. However, with the state recording a spike in Arishtam and Asavam sales, shops have now begun asking buyers to furnish prescriptions,” Manoj adds.

Financial impact unknown yet

For Kerala, sale of liquor contributes to a significant chunk of the state’s exchequer. In August 2019 alone, Rs 1,229 crore worth of liquor was sold through the outlets of Kerala State Beverages (Manufacturing and Marketing) Corporation Ltd (BEVCO) across the state even in the midst of heavy rains and floods.

Even as state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan resisted shutting down of wine shops and warned of the possible social impact it could trigger, Kerala followed the Centre’s orders and eventually shut down liquor stores on March 24.

But with each passing day, the state suffers crores in losses as wine shops remain closed. And while the physical and psychological effects of the liquor ban have now become apparent among its people, it’s the financial toll on the state’s health is yet to be known.

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