A couple of months ago, a cocktail party at my home for 15 friends and family had gone swimmingly well. The elegant bar menu, designed by my niece, was Wimbledon-themed. A freelance bartender, Rakesh Rai, had devised a gin, lime and fresh jamun (java plum) cocktail for the evening, sweetened with lemongrass cordial that matched the All England Club’s signature purple. The menu included, from the Negroni family, an Americano named Taylor Spritz, a corny nod to the graceful top 10 player Taylor Fritz. Rai had aced with his other cocktails as well. Yet, he wanted a quick review as the guests departed. For the next time, he wanted to ensure there was enough ice; cooling glasses and mixing drinks in a shaker make ice a key ingredient. Rai said, “Running out of ice can be a showstopper.”
The conversation was a reminder of how cocktails at home can be an elevated pursuit if you hire a freelance bartender. It is a decision more and more people are making for parties large and small, from house parties to after-parties. Kishore Thapar, who runs Barsolutions, a beverage catering and bar consultancy, in Mumbai, reports that on Diwali last year, his company provided bartenders for 108 parties across the city where his firm operates. They supply everything from rented glassware to juices and ingredients at their standard MRP to clients. His clients’ house parties are typically for 30-40 people.
Thapar caters to requests of all kinds with aplomb. One client wanted a bartender who could make London’s Soho House’s Picante, which, with its chilli and sprigs of cilantro added to tequila and lime, is bound to be a crowd-pleaser in India. Some of Thapar’s clients want a bartender who can use a cocktail smoker. “The cocktail has more visual appeal and becomes a conversation point among guests,” says Thapar.
My preference is for small sit-down dinners, a legacy of having lived overseas for decades and having had to manage cooking-to-washing-up afterwards. I enjoy the intimacy of mostly making cocktails myself for smaller get-togethers, often lazily ordering in the food from home cooks. I rarely stray beyond a list that includes Negronis and Old Fashioneds. The Negroni and simple derivatives, such as the delightfully named Sbagliato (or bungled Negroni where prosecco or sparkling wine is added to vermouth and Campari), are easy to make and flavour bombs. An ancient bottle of Drambuie, almost forgotten at the back of the home bar, is now used to jazz up Old Fashioneds. Most important from the perspective of setting drinks at home apart from the watered-down cocktails served at pubs and restaurants across India is that one should use good quality liquor and offer classic, alcohol-forward cocktails—along with gin and tonics and a Sangria in a jug for guests who might want something lighter. My late mother, who hosted dinners seemingly effortlessly after a long day at work, used to tell her college-going sons who were expected to fix drinks for guests: “Make sure the first drink is a strong one to get the party going.” Or as Bertie Wooster often said: “Stiffish, Jeeves. Not too much soda but splash the brandy about a bit.”
Using better alcohol and not diluting cocktails, as too many bars do, can make up for the lack of technical expertise when you do it yourself. A friend recently had cocktails at Bengaluru’s best-known five-star hotel bar. I asked how my Old Fashioneds stacked up. “No comparison,” he replied. What he meant was the combination of Four Roses small batch bourbon, using large block ice as well as Drambuie, made my version superior. Well, you could have knocked me over with a swivel stick.
At a recent party in Bengaluru, Rai started with Old Fashioneds and Whisky Sours that had guests downing them as if they were rehydrating after exercise. Other cocktails included a gin-based drink with muddled basil and cucumber, which was heavenly without the gin as well. Rai, who believes adaptability is key to a successful house party and used the standing computer desk on the balcony as a bar, was stretching the bourbon through the last hour or so of the party. He judiciously diluted the drinks as the laughter got more raucous, while ordering more ice and limes via Zepto without interrupting the flow of alcohol. Two bottles of bourbon had been emptied to the last drop.
The enduring lesson from hiring a bartender is that you can join in on the laughter while leaving the juggling act to a consummate professional.
On speed dial
• Bar Solutions @barsolutionsllp, Instagram
• Cocktails & Dreams @cndmumbai, Instagram
• Rakesh Rai + 919880921800
• Karthikkumar@karthikbarlife, Instagram
• Alice Lascelles’ excellent ‘The Cocktail Edit’ is a peerless primer on everything from the 12 essential spirits you require in a home bar to the need to chill glasses for cocktails.
• ‘Highballs For Breakfast: The Very Best Of P.G. Wodehouse’, on the joys of a good stiff drink, by Richard Kelly.
Rahul Jacob is a former travel, food and drink editor of the Financial Times, London.