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How a mixologist creates drinks using method and memory

Mixologist Sahil Essani, winner of Diageo’s national cocktail-creation contest, says making a good cocktail involves storytelling

Essani was the winner of the Diageo Reserve World Class 2022 India and will be participating in the global competition in Sydney
Essani was the winner of the Diageo Reserve World Class 2022 India and will be participating in the global competition in Sydney (Instagram/worldclassin)

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Mixologist Sahil Essani believes in meticulous planning when it comes to creating unique drinks that, besides being delicious, tell a story. While preparing for the finals of the cocktail-making contest, Diageo Reserve World Class 2022 India, held in Mumbai in July, Essani kept detailed notes, created spreadsheets and blueprints, and conducted extensive trials alongside mining his own memory and experiences to create an individualistic flavour profile distilled into a drink. Speaking to Essani, it becomes clear that making a standout cocktail is as much about method as it is about madness.

To arrive at the Patoleo Highball, which won him the national competition featuring the top 100 bartenders in the country, Essani took inspiration from flavours popular in his hometown, Margao in Goa, to create a distinctive highball. Patoleo is a seasonal delicacy made by stuffing turmeric leaves with a mix of grated coconut, rice and jaggery and steaming them. Essani distilled the dominant flavours of patoleo into a ‘patoleo soda’ using turmeric leaves, palm jaggery, coconut and Fuggle hops, clarified the mix to make it more shelf-stable, and mixed it with Johnnie Walker Black Label to create a fruity, creamy drink. He also used the whey left over from making the clarified pre-mix to make patoleo-flavoured macarons, because he subscribes to the idea of sustainable, zero-waste cocktails.

“I trusted these ingredients to work beautifully as they are essentially the components of a seasonal delicacy that I have loved since childhood. Through my extensive trials, the trust was validated,” says Essani, who is now prepping for the World Class Cocktail Festival and World Class Bartender of the Year Global Finals 2022 to be held in Sydney between 10 and 16 September, at which top mixologists from across the world will participate in a series of cocktail-making competitions.

Essani says his habit of planning his work down to every last detail is standing him in good stead. The 24-year-old, who until recently was bar manager at Rick’s at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi and currently heads the bar at Tesouro By Firefly in Colva, Goa, started going on urban foraging trips around Delhi when he moved to the city to discover flavours unique to its plant life. “I contacted an ecologist who takes people on foraging trips in the Lodhi Gardens. What I saw was stunning. For instance, I discovered the cardamom leaf —while I have always loved the flavour of cardamom, I didn’t know that the leaf has a slightly more complex flavour profile. I used many of these ingredients to create new cocktails—for me, passion has to be channelled into decision,” says Essani.

For the preliminary rounds of the Indian finals of World Class 2022, Essani dived into his experience of working on a CSR project for empowering Adivasi communities, taking inspiration from bhunja chai, a drink made using roasted rice and tea by Santhals, and turned it into a cordial. He also created a cocktail called Jack of All Trades, using jackfruit as a base flavour to “give it the chance it deserves” while creating value for farmers, producers and consumers. To make the cocktail, he first concocted a fermented jackfruit and curry leaf juice by reducing deseeded ripe jackfruit with castor sugar, adding dry yeast for fermentation and infusing this with curry leaves for 5 days. The juice was then added to Kettle One Vodka and served with a garnish of roasted jackfruit seeds. “In India, we have an immense repository of flavours and tastes from every corner of the country that are completely unexplored,” says Essani.

Much as he loves crafting new cocktails that are all about celebrating regional and seasonal ingredients, he says he also loves “banging Manhattans” and other classic cocktails. “The classic cocktails also have stories to them. The Moscow Mule spearheaded the vodka revolution, for instance,” he says, predicting that many classic cocktails that have vanished from menus such as Cuban, Miami Vice and Palmetto will be making a comeback.

For the global finals of the World Class contest in Sydney, Essani is currently in the process of extracting flavours from all his ingredients into infusions and cordials and conducting trials to understand loss in quality over time. Although he can’t reveal what he has in store for his final showing, Essani does say that he will be playing to his strengths. “The drink will be a distillate of flavours and experiences that are very special, very personal to me,” he says.

Disclosure: The writer has been invited to attend the World Class Cocktail Festival and World Class Bartender of the Year Global Finals 2022.

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