Thought I'd fill you in on the north Kerala drinking experience, such as it is. After all, if we're going to take a 5 1/2 month trip to India and only write a handful of posts about it, one of them might as well be about booze.
So, various places in India have 0 legal drinking. Gujarat, where we stayed for a month is one of those places. There are coolers in the restaurants (like what you'd find juices in in a coffee shop in the US, say by the register) with, of course, juices, and some soft drinks (like Coca-Cola, e.g.) in them. Then the bottom 1/3rd will have things that look very much like malt liquor or alcoholic beverages: big "40" or 22oz. looking bottles, big labels with big type, maybe really dark glass, etc. The names will be things like "9pm", "5500", "Strong" or whatever. But they're all non-alcoholic. Some of them even go so far as to say things like (tiny print) "not" (huge print) "ALCOHOLIC" (tiny print) "at all", to give the impression from a distance that one might be drinking booze.
That's one end of the spectrum. Somehow there there is a way to get booze, either via some "permit" process I have never remotely understood (and I continue to persist in blaming the British for all Byzantine administrative bureaucracies extant in the former Raj), or presumably smuggled across the border from a neighboring state (such as Rajasthan, home of the infamous "Godfather" beer; Maharastra (Mumbai), etc.). The kids down the road from Kukma village where we were staying on New Year's Eve were so schlitzed they started screaming at 11:45 and didn't let up until 2:30am. Good times. Even the burgeoning population of cur dogs shut up and cowered down for that one.
Much of India subscribes to the "it ain't forbidden but we're trying to pretend like we don't have a problem" philosophy. Hooch is not available in restaurants, but rather only through barred-windows / big-metal doored liquor stalls. You don't walk in, you walk up to the front, and they get it for you. None of this browsing in the ails bidness. It's big guys at the window, and seedy guys milling about on the sidewalk.
Which also means that at dusk in such a locale you're likely to find some rode-hard-and-put-away-wet mean looking hobo (or saddhi, aka purported Indian holy-man wearing orange so you know he's not just a homebum) fuckers staggering and strung out, distributed in a Gaussian from these alcoholic medians. Berinag, up in Uttarakhand, was just another piss-smelling concrete-shacked mountain village with a serious litter problem during the day, but come 5:30pm you'd better get your gingham-totin' wife back on the stage coach before she got a grope and a chaw-stain from the local outlaws (reader is invited to apply all relevant cultural translations at his leisure). We meandered back in the evening a few times and the transformation was distinct once they let the drunks loose. It strikes me as odd now that they didn't ring a five-minute warning bell.
But, just like no state in India has a problem with litter -- while in reality the US litter peak in the mid-70s, before the proliferation of single-teared (ahem) Indian ads and "adopt-a-highway" advertising-cum-altruism (did I mention they use the X-cum-Y construction a lot here?) campaigns was a bio-degradable big mac container, quickly picked up from the roadside brush of life, in comparison to the vast fields, gulleys, and hillsides of half-incinerated-and-urine-doused plastic refuse smearing the subcontinent -- so does no state in India have a drinking problem. Which of course makes things 5 times worse and infinitely more interesting.
Where it really gets good, however, is at the other end of the spectrum, where India's contact with "the West", and its desire, nay, need, to pander to the international tourist market produces such extravagances as Indian-interpreted multi-cuisine shacks, Givson guitar dealers, western-toilet-populated beach huts, and, lo and behold, sales of beer and other alcoholic beverages in bars and even restaurants.
Goa is, without a doubt, the endpoint of the spectrum: Anjuna beach is arguably the birthing ground of Goa trance (still eking out the occasional rave), every restaurant worth its salt in Calungate or Baga has a variety of Kingfisher products on ice, and the main drag has a number of bars with all the rip-offs and inconveniences you'd find in upper-end Mumbai. But, even here, some places will serve your beer in a teapot; or you will find your waiter coming around to put your Kingfisher bottle on the floor so it's not visible from a distance. No matter how many bikinis (an utter scandal in 98% of India) are walking the beach, no matter what % of the nightly take is from the booze trade, it's arguably still not legal by the letter of the law, and the police in Goa, like anywhere else over here, don't miss a good opportunity for a shakedown.
But, Kovalam beach in Trivandrum, Pondicherry (up until post-independence still a French colony, now its own oddball "Union Territory" rather than part of Tamil Nadu, though sometimes good luck getting a beer in a restaurant, due to observance of "Tamil holiday") / Auroville (think hippie time-capsule from the late 60s replete with massive bucky-ball containing the world's largest crystal), the outskirts of Dharamsala, and islands of expats from Bangalore to Mumbai to Delhi, they all have bubbles of varying strength containing western debauchery in the sea of Indian traditionalism (whatever that is, uniform only in its variety).
Fort Cochin, just outside of Ernakulam, is another small little tourist enclave, pretty busy, lots of white folks. Just north of that, a 10-minute ($0.04 per person) ferry ride away is Vypeen Island, mistakenly designated on its wikipedia page as having the highest population density of any island in the world (that would supposedly include consideration of Taiwan, Manhattan, etc. -- it's always fun to find a wikipedia error in the wild). Another $0.10 will get you an hour-long bus ride where you can have a 60-year-old Indian man sleep on you while being thankful you have a rather huge backpack in your lap instead being defenseless, without even the pidgin Malayalam necessary to excuse yourself and your new paramour; ultimately ending up at Cherai, just a few miles walk from Cherai Beach. Somehow even when the most-carried Indian travel guide in the Western world (Lonely Planet) says it's "one of the best kept secrets [yada yada]" it has still managed to be an underpopulated and quiet experience here. Beautiful, nearly empty beaches, clean air (finally curing what I presumed was an intractable case of bronchitis, tuberculosis, and a touch of dropsy), and a distinct lack of people trying to hijack you to their "cousin"'s "spice shop"/"tailor shop"/"gift shop".
Here they have a couple of "beer parlours" which seem to be deserted (perhaps defunct), a number of restaurants sporting Kingfisher paraphernalia, and at least one place designated as a "toddy parlour".
We sampled the fare at some of the Kingfishered restaurants. These are under-the-radar joints: the beer is not on the menu, you can order it and it will usually appear, but not without some risk. The first night we were at one of these places it wasn't clear that beer was on the menu. We noticed an older British couple getting a very large Kingfisher and I began to toy with the idea (one of the major downsides being that it is only Kingfisher, after all -- imagine getting worked up over a Corona, but a Corona without that hint of Mexico (sweat?), and sans limes) of perhaps ordering one myself. Shortly thereafter the waiter breezed through and hijacked the beer, with ensuing confusion and consternation. Some rumblings soon after to the effect that "the S.S. is making rounds", and maybe 45 minutes later, on our way out, "the S. S." (about six 40- to 50-ish Indian men with tucked in shirts clearly looking for a bit of the graft) themselves busted into the place and were seen looking behind buildings, etc. On walking outside we realized they'd even brought a paddy wagon along, with enough room to haul off 30-40 people (granted, the design was for about a dozen captives, but folks travel differently over here).
But, the toddy parlour was pretty open about their wares, and one must presume that the S.S. justifies its crusade in the name of the downtrodden -- i.e., those who have bothered to cough up in advance the loot and favors necessary to secure an actual legal license to sell whatever it is that they're selling. Ali, in a move so outside her normal mien as to prompt later note, was hell-bent on "us" partaking of some "toddy".
As the internet will tell you, "toddy" here is a palm wine. The shit ferments to high gumption in a matter of hours. There are palms everywhere here. Regulating the brewing of toddy is an incomprehensibility here in India, a country where every law on the books is open by all parties to interpretation, the most strict enforcement amounts to a negotiation, and the court system is fundamentally useless. That's not to say the government (those with an incentive, presumably, to carve out some take from the regulatory coffer) hasn't tried various tacks in the past. But, ultimately, they've limited themselves to licensing "parlours", restricting transit of the hooch over state borders, and letting some folks set up as legitimate "brewers".
Of course, palm wine seems to be "brewed" about as much as prison wine is. I can only presume that the incorporated breweries are most concerned with getting the fermentation process to halt prior to producing a thick mealy vinegar or, seemingly more likely, sulfuric acid, than they are with attaining a hoppy finish or a subtle "mouth feel". The only secondary considerations are making sure the bottles don't explode and that the labels point back to their coffers and not someone else's.
All this being said, yesterday, noon-ish (because noon is always a good time for some drinking), we hiked it down the road in 85+ degree high humidity heat (because drinking when it's hot is also not a bad idea) about a mile or so to our local "toddy parlour". The sign faces town, not out in the boondocks where we're staying, because we need the kids to support the regulars, obviously (in fact, I'm pretty sure, having thumbed through a copy briefly at the now-defunct Shirley Street Station, that this is in the international franchising manual for dive bars). Walking down the drive you reach what looks like yet another (though longish) concrete house, and we for a moment wondered if this joint was shuttered like many of the rest. Seeing a few plastic tables in the unlit interior I decided this is probably the place and went in. The saloon metaphors from earlier in the tale should come to mind again: dank, dirty, dark; swarthy men, not particularly pleased, hands mucking about in small plates of something unidentifiable, "getting the job done" -- the job being to soothe the slow burn of not having whatever it was they were pouring over the burning parts.
The proprietor, of sorts, came out of the kitchen after some noises from a patron, and, seeing that we didn't fall into the swarthy (much less 100% male) nor domestic category, ushered us outside to a concrete hut with more light and a larger table (and presumably fewer potential international diplomatic concerns). After some negotiation it was revealed that our vegetarian options are fish, prawns, some other fish, and maybe tapioca (???), which I presumed actually meant "tilapia" though I haven't encountered tilapia on a menu in 6 months. We ordered the tilapioca and a bottle of toddy.
We got a plate with a fish on it, a plate with manioc on it, and a big-ass bottle purporting to be "Sand Piper" "beer", at some elevated alcohol %age. From a cursory inspection it was obvious that (a) the liquid inside was potent, (b) homemade, and (c) put in this bottle as a handy carrying and dispensing device, but without any connection to the provenance labeled.
A slight ruckus outside keyed us in to the fact that 3 of the patrons of the big house were ambling towards the main road. One of them was dialing in his walk to a setting somewhere between "no sidewards stability" and "possessed of the inclination to take a few dance-ish motivated back-steps with every 4 or 5 front-steps". He adjusted his ballast by urinating on the concrete wall along the driveway, and then proceeded to amble at a more respectable "dedicated stumble" down the road.
Ali jumped on the fish plate with relish, helped herself heartily to the toddy, and even found herself trying to take pictures of the interesting rat climbing in the corner of our shack (the combination of which evoked a word of surprise from me and a positive appraisal of the palm wine). The wine itself was hearty: it was a white-ish color, filled with a silt of the yeasts at work in its production. The taste was very much akin to a home-made ginger beer, but with a very strong kick and none of the "heat" of ginger. I'd give the taste maybe a 6 out of 10 -- which is a great score from me for a bucket-"brewed" 3rd world concoction without hops. Trying to estimate the alcohol content I'd put it at 10% perhaps up to 13% or 14% -- definitely a kick. The bottle was 650ml, so about a 22oz. beer size. Upon standing I had a minor sway happening, and we were acting a bit shitty for the next 90 minutes or so.
Final tab: 55Rs., or about $1.10. We figured the toddy was $0.80, so not bad at all for a good buzz.