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There's dessert in my cocktail

While sweet cocktails have always been a part of a bar’s repertoire, a new legion of concoctions is channelling the complex flavour of desserts

Patricia’s Pussycat at Bandra Born.

By Suman Mahfuz Quazi

LAST PUBLISHED 19.04.2024  |  09:07 AM IST

When spirits’ consultant Pankaj Balachandran was curating the drinks menu for Mumbai’s Bandra Born, he asked the restaurant’s partner-chef Gresham Fernandes about his memories of growing up in the Bandra neighbourhood. The latter’s list included everything from the local marzipan to the breezy promenade on Carter Road. This conversation led to a drink christened Patricia’s Pussycats, complete with vodka, Aperol and orgeat (an almond-based syrup), which also renders it decidedly marzipan-y. “It tastes a lot like an Easter egg; specifically what my grandmother used to make," Fernandes says.

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In Panaji, the Goan bar and restaurant Petisco’s Dodol drink is inspired by a popular sweet called dodol and is made with rice water, jaggery and feni. Chef and owner Pranav Dhuri felt it could help distil “a traditional Goan dessert in a glass while sparking a sense of nostalgia".

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Like Petisco’s dodol-inspired concoction and Bandra Born’s marzipan-like cocktail, several other bars across the country are serving cocktails inspired by the flavours of desserts. At Mumbai’s Mexican restaurant and bar Mezcalita, the drink Strawberry Fields draws inspiration from strawberry cheesecake and features Campari, and tequila milk-washed with vanilla cream cheese.

At the Italian restaurant Napoli in Mumbai, the spirit-forward and sweet Pavarotti’s Passion draws inspiration from the classic crème brulée, with gin, white wine, limoncello and marshmallow foam. It is a lemony sweet drink akin to the lemon bruciata, which is a crème brulée with lemons. There’s a similar version echoing the flavours of crème brulée’s Spanish cousin, Catalan cream, at the Mexican restaurant Poco Loco in Mumbai, which has the vodka and vanilla-based Crema Catalana.

At Slink & Bardot, the burnt cream fat-washed and vodka-based Coast Guard’s Brew takes cues from the caramelised milk residue produced while making ghee at home, and which is consumed in Indian homes as a quick treat with bread.

Mumbai and Goa aren’t alone in their dessert-fuelled exploration of cocktails. In Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, the Indian diner Miss Pinto stirs up Batch No.50, which combines vodka, black rice liqueur, cardamom and clarified butter for a kheer-inspired drink.

A stone’s throw away at the European-Asian restaurant Red, custard becomes the base for Tall Tales, a clarified tipple featuring rum, banana, guava, vanilla, citrus and strawberry condensed milk.

In Bengaluru, Asian diner Muro plays with the foundation of the Thai mango sticky rice for a rum, mango, pandan, coconut and cream-based concoction dubbed Stick Around.

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Mixologists are experimenting with everything from the flavour of gulab jamun to mango cheesecake to infuse their drinks with the spirit of a cherished dessert. “It is a by-product of cocktail culture picking up in the country—everyone is trying to make cocktails more accessible to a larger crowd; what better way to do it than by giving a sense of familiarity?," says Dhuri.

Muro’s bar manager Sahil Essani says the increased availability of ingredients and bar-specific technology has a big role to play. “Bartenders are a lot more comfortable serving food or dessert-inspired drinks now because of the access we have to ingredients and techniques," he explains.

It’s important to point out here that a cocktail inspired by a dessert and a dessert cocktail are not one and the same. Folklore suggests the first dessert cocktail—typically served at the end of a meal and necessarily sweet—cropped up in the 20th century in the form of Brandy Alexander, comprising brandy, crème de cacao, cream and freshly grated nutmeg at Rector’s, a New York City restaurant. Troy Alexander, the bartender, crafted the drink to celebrate Phoebe Snow, a fictional character in a popular advertising campaign for a ​​railroad company. A cocktail inspired by a dessert, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be sweet and can very much be served as an aperitif.

Essani gives an example: “Stick Around was inspired by a Ramos gin fizz, which we converted into a rum fizz. If you look at the technicality, a fizz is a highball—it’s supposed to be light and fluffy. This is in contradiction to what you would expect from a sweet and heavy mango sticky rice pudding, which is what our cocktail’s flavours are inspired by. While the final drink has the tonality or fruity notes of the dessert, it’s still light and fizzy."

The line between “dessert cocktails" and “dessert-inspired cocktails" can be elusive, but what’s important is that Indian bars are no longer bound by well-worn recipes. Instead, they are embracing innovation, and incorporating the flavours of food into cocktails, and in doing so, managing to capture some of our sweetest memories in a glass.

Suman Mahfuz Quazi is a food writer and the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.

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