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The scent of a cocktail

Indian bars have entered a fragrant new era of cocktails that borrow inspiration from the world of perfumes

 The drink, Star of Bombay, at the restaurant Native in Mumbai.
The drink, Star of Bombay, at the restaurant Native in Mumbai.

Until 1882, when Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual published a recipe with egg white, the all-pervasive Whisky Sour was largely a simple combination of whisky, lemon juice, sugar and ice. Then came Scotch (Scotch sour), bar spoonfuls of red wine (New York sour), maraschino cherries and wheels of orange and lime, creating new iterations of the classic cocktail.

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Sunil Muthupandi, head bartender at the Thai-Japanese restaurant Seefah, Mumbai, says the last two garnishes were likely added to tackle the pungent smell from eggs, indicating the importance of fragrances in craft cocktails.

Today, there is a greater understanding of the role of fragrance in cocktails as the world moves toward sensorial dining. Though the worlds of perfumes and alcohol mixology have always come together to strike the delicate balance between ingredients, notes and flavours, it is clear Indian mixologists are on the scent of a redolent new trend, driven by innovation and practicality.

In July, at the launch of a new cocktail menu, the nutty and citrusy aroma of a coriander and cinnamon perfume embraced my senses at KMC in Mumbai’s Fort area. Head bartender Jishnu Dhar had engineered a sampling station of edible sprays—from the Ayurvedic plant, jatamansi, and rose, vetiver and cardamom, to mace, and chocolate and orange. There were 10 combinations of notes; each came with a corresponding tipple. Fragrance blotters allow you to sample the entire menu through perfume sprays before you pick a drink, offering a peek into the notes and flavours in store.

“I came across this video on YouTube,” Dhar says, referencing a clip on Kannauj. Perfume-makers in this Uttar Pradesh city have been credited with mastering the art of distilling all kinds of smells in a bottle, including the seemingly intangible fragrance of fresh rain on dry soil, or petrichor. “I got this idea… I mean, why can’t I just make perfumes as a menu instead of a written one; something that is more experimental that guests can experience? If you order a drink, you don’t know what exactly is going to come to your table. But at least if you are smelling these perfumes, you will get an idea,” he says.


 Perfume samplers from KMC’s new cocktail menu.
Perfume samplers from KMC’s new cocktail menu.

Dhar is not the first to explore the intersection of perfumes and mixology. Be it luxury perfume brand Kilian Paris’ Kilian Bar—where they offer cocktails inspired by their fragrances—New Mexico’s The Shed at Santa Fe, US, which has scented libations, or Fragrances in Ritz-Carlton, Berlin (listed under World’s 50 Best Discovery’s database), mixologists have borrowed ingredients and techniques from the universe of perfumes on several occasions. Closer home, in Kolkata, a relatively new bar, Little Bit Sober, is using the hydrosol method to create spritzy perfumes, featuring gondhoraj, lemon, grapefruit and cardamom (which features in their Cardamom Sandesh cocktail). The hydrosol method entails creating herbal or floral waters and distilling these to capture smells, either using equipment like Rotovap (rotary evaporator) or more improvised devices, such as a combination of glass distillers and water baths.

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It has enabled Md Shahbaz, general manager and chief bar master of Little Bit Sober, to create in-house sprays, bitters and tinctures that play a seminal role in uplifting cocktails. “These artisanal perfumes, thoughtfully paired with premium spirits and fresh ingredients, help create cocktails that can open up your senses and leave a lasting impression,” says Shahbaz. Similarly, at Mumbai’s Akina, the Smoked Matcha, made with whisky, umeshu and matcha cordial, makes use of a home-made spray comprising peaty whisky, prunes and vibrant lemon oils. At Yauatcha, which has outlets in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, the sake- and gin-based Jing Mei utilises a lavender-scented perfume. Star of Bombay, a cocktail served at the modern Indian restaurant Native in Fort, features gin, carambola cordial, lime juice, black salt and a spray made with fennel-infused vodka.

Like hydrosol, infusing, too, is a method common to both perfumes and mixology, and involves combining aromatic herbs, spices and botanicals. The process is often used to create bitters, foundational for cocktails. At Slow Tide, Goa, a range of tinctures—from orange, Indian sarsaparilla and mixed berries to the souring agent kokum—help bar manager Sujan Shetty give his tipples artsy twists. “The striking similarities between perfumes and cocktails lie in the art of blending and the scientific process that combines various components,” he explains.

Manan Gandhi, founder of Bombay Perfumery, which has been collaborating with F&B entities on perfume-inspired drinks, connects the worlds of perfumery and mixology to “provenance”. “I think, with any good perfumer, like with any good cocktail, the most important thing is the ingredients. We focus a lot on natural extracts, essential oils and things like that. And for people doing mixology, a starting point is also the ingredients,” he says.

The optimal use of these sought after ingredients could also be a reason why more mixologists are transforming aromatic ingredients into home-made sprays and tinctures, suggests Muthupandi, explaining how a kaffir lime spray—instead of wheels or leaves of the fruit—could help reduce wastage. “Garnishes help elevate the look of a cocktail but nobody ever consumes it. I don’t want to use a big word like sustainability but when it comes to perfumes and tinctures, they do reduce wastage. Four small kaffir limes cost about 100; if I kept using them, my cocktail prices would shoot up too. But I can take just 10 leaves, as an example, and using the hydrosol method or infusions, turn them into sprays,” he argues.

Suman Mahfuz Quazi tries to make sense of the world around her through food. She’s also the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.

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