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The spirit of a city, distilled in a cocktail

How new-age bar menus document a place with innovative drinks that capture its cultural quirks, history and nostalgia

A selection of cocktails from PCO Mumbai's Ode To Textiles menu.
A selection of cocktails from PCO Mumbai's Ode To Textiles menu.

Years ago, I used to pass by the cacophonous Dadar flower market on my daily commute to work in Mumbai. The dissonance of the clamour would be soothed by the heady scent and vibrant colours of piles of marigold. This long forgotten memory was stirred by a cocktail named Phool at The Bombay Canteen (TBC). The floral libation with gin, vermouth and marigold soda is inspired by this landmark. It’s part of their new cocktail menu, Make Mine A Bombay, which captures the essence and cultural quirks of the megapolis through experimental drinks.

Also read | The scent of a cocktail

City-based, nostalgia-inducing menus have caught on in India’s new-age bars over the past few years . They don’t just allow for a distinct presentation but also act like storybooks, aiming to give a new identity to drinks, connect with guests in a familiar and imaginative manner, and become effective marketing tools.

One such example is the DU Special from the Sidecar Dear Delhi menu that borrows from street food vendors integral to Delhi University’s culture. Come winter, the experience of shakarkand (sweet potato) chaat topped with mouth-puckering star fruit has been re-imagined in the tequila-based DU Special with star fruit juice and sweet potato syrup.

For bartenders, drinks such as these make space for regional ingredients, which have become a mainstay of modern mixology. “In the beginning, most of our cocktails used Western ingredients, because the cocktail culture comes from the West. Over time, we realised that drinks are all about flavours, driven by interesting concepts. Our country offers thousands of ingredients and hundreds of stories, and both are rich in flavour. What better way to do this than give a tribute to our city?” says Yangdup Lama, the co-founder of Sidecar in Delhi.

Also read | The cocktail capital of India

Beverage professional Gagan Sharma explains the practicalities of the exercise. For one, the motivation to rank high on global bar listings. “Most of these award platforms want to know how bars are celebrating the region in which they are located,” he says. Two, customers learnt how to make classics like a Manhattan, Negroni and Martini during the pandemic—and are looking for more. Just like chefs, then, bartenders are discovering a sense of pride in regional ingredients. For instance, bars in Kolkata replace sugar syrup with nolen gur, and a souring element like lime is swapped with kokum in Goa.

This year, the brand new brewery, Fort City Brewing, in Delhi’s Hauz Khas introduced the Takht-E-Dilli menu, highlighting the Capital’s eight historical cities—Shahjahanabad, Tughlaqabad, Mehrauli, Lal Kot, Siri, Shergarh, Firozabad and New Delhi.

In Kolkata, Little Bit Sober has a menu based on the city’s love for poetry, with drinks like the Kasundi Tomato, Gondhoraj Grapefruit and Ghee Rice Old Fashioned described in four-line poems. The Park Street brewpub Olterra’s In Search of Bengal takes one on a flavour trail from Darjeeling tea to Bandel cheese, with cocktails named Ingraj Bazaar, Lalpahari and Aparijito.

Also read | On a cocktail trail in Kolkata

Sharma, a Delhi-based history buff, conceptualised the Takht-E-Dilli menu and explains the idea by starting with the backstory of a drink named Shahjahanabad. It’s inspired by the Red Fort built by emperor Shah Jahan, whose invaluable contribution to Mughal architecture was white marble. “Shah Jahan made the inner chambers (of the Red Fort) with marble and then he ran out of money. The outer part has red stone but the emperor wanted it to look like marble and painted it white. Over the years, the ivory faded to an orange-ish hue, rather than a pure red. Behind the fort, there was a massive garden with grapes called Angoori Bagh; but it doesn’t exist any more,” says Sharma. To make a cocktail by distilling these elements—the emperor’s romantic personality, the colour of Red Fort and the essence of a garden—Sharma created a riff on the Negroni.

The classic drink has three ingredients—gin, vermouth and Campari—served with a twist of orange peel. The Shahjahanabad version has kaffir-lime infused gin reminiscent of a herb garden, the vermouth was replaced by orange-ish Martini Fiero to mimic the fort colour, and it’s served with a kaffir-lime leaf. The narrative is compelling enough to give the drink a try.

Jhakaas at The Bombay Canteen.
Jhakaas at The Bombay Canteen.

Yash Bhanage, founder and chief operating officer at Hunger Inc. Hospitality, which runs TBC, emphasises the relatability of menus that “become marketing tools”. TBC’s first menu in 2016, based on Art Deco, featured iconic buildings like Soona Mahal and Green Fields. People who lived in those buildings visited TBC, tried the drinks, purchased the posters and shared them with friends, says Bhanage. Over the years, as TBC started visiting other cities for pop-ups, the team would borrow drinks from their city-based menus. Bhanage says: “We still do the Jhakaas (with vodka, fresh carrot juice, orange and cardamom syrup), especially when we do bar takeovers. Telling guests the meaning of the word jhakaas (superb) brings a smile. As more of us are taking our bars to different cities and countries, having something that relates to India just makes sense.”

As mixology evolves, so will destination-inspired menus. A recent example is the two-week-old Ode To Textiles by PCO Mumbai, located in NRK House, which used to be a textile workshop and factory. “Each cocktail is an interpretation of a particular textile and created from the experiences of PCO’s mixologists. For instance, the Paithani is a cocktail inspired by traditional Maharashtrian paithani saris. It has a bitter melon liqueur because Sourabh Patil, who created the cocktail, has memories of his mother cooking bitter gourd while wearing the sari,” explains Rakshay Dhariwal, co-founder of PCO. To borrow from wine-speak, this approach gives cocktails a sense of place—or (cultural) terroir.

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