The first cocktail Santosh Kukreti ever made featured the juicy Indian orange. The Mumbai-based independent mixologist took an empty jam jar, poured in some freshly squeezed orange juice, gin, honey, a smidgen of lime juice and lots of ice, put the lid on and gave it a good shake. Then he strained and served the drink. The home experiment turned out to be wildly delicious and refreshing. There is no reason why it can’t be turned into a party cocktail, especially since it’s the season of Nagpur oranges, Khasi mandarin and kinnow.
Or opt for the oft-overlooked and flavour-packed amla (Indian gooseberry), which can make great liqueurs, not just medicinal concoctions. The home bar can go all desi with ingredients from the neighbourhood sabzi mandi (market). While entertaining at home, you could stock up on packaged juices and Diet Coke, but it might be more fun to give the guests a warm welcome with liqueurs and syrups made in the kitchen.
One of the simplest syrups to prepare is with ginger. All it needs is a cup of water, a cup of sugar and three-fourths of a cup of fresh grated ginger, simmered for about 30 minutes, cooled, strained and stored. This can be used in simple gin and tonics, vodka with soda, and even Mojitos. “While adding a new ingredient to a cocktail, my philosophy is to not overpower the drink with it,” says independent mixologist Rahul Raghav, highlighting the importance of balance. Try it out a few times, it’s okay to make a few mistakes along the way.
Mumbai-based Raghav experimented with amla and kokum liqueurs when he was the bar manager at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. “These ingredients work because they evoke nostalgia. Amla pairs well with jaggery as a sweetener, while kokum with kala namak is a flavour bomb.” Amla can replace lime in a Daiquiri and Tom Collins, which can be served in kulhads or terracotta mugs to heighten the desi feel.
He shares two simple recipes for amla liqueur. Place two amla halves in 100ml gin and let this concoction infuse for 24 hours. This can be used to make a gin and tonic with mint, coriander or even dill leaves as garnish. Another liqueur recipe includes 100ml vodka, four amla halves and 50g sugar left to infuse for 10-14 days. Give it a good shake daily, and check to see that the amla doesn’t overpower the flavours. Use it to make cocktails on the day of the party; it can also be served as potent shots.
Kokum is, of course, inherently Indian, and has a loyal following among mixologists. While the easiest hack is to keep a store-bought kokum syrup handy, you can make a liqueur at home with a little planning. Infuse 10g of dried kokum with 100ml rum and 50g of sugar for two weeks. It can be used to make a Daiquiri by adjusting lime and sugar in the cocktail, if needed.
The Goa-based bar Tesouro is known for cocktails that use locally grown ingredients. And they have a cocktail with a Konkani name, Tambde Roza (Red Rose) that uses just three ingredients—cashew feni, brindao (Konkani for kokum syrup) and soda or sprite to top up. Head mixologist Karl Fernandes explains the traditional technique of making brindao sarap (syrup): The kokum fruit is coated with sugar and stored in an airtight jar which keeps for a year. “It gives a distinctly sour and sweet syrup which can completely replace sugar and lime in drinks,” says Fernandes.
Fernandes’ experiments with cocktails involve feni and indigenous spices like peppercorn. He is also a consultant with the brand Cazulo Premium Feni and aims to make the strong smelling spirit—with cashew and coconut variants—friendlier with cocktails. “In drinks, feni complements three flavours—tropical, citrus and spice. These make the spirit more approachable.” Apart from feni cocktails with kokum, he shakes it up with jamun and lime leaves. Fresh peppercorn, widely grown in Goa, introduces the spice factor.
But unless friends and family bring feni from Goa, it isn’t available outside the state. The other option is mahua. Fernandes explains that mahua goes well with floral ingredients. Pick an elderflower tonic and stir it in with mahua and lime juice with some sugar, if needed, for a luscious drink.
A home-grown spice, like fresh peppercorn, can be muddled with rum and pineapple juice with a squeeze of lime and sugar syrup, shaken with ice and served in a martini glass as a spiced desi cocktail. Although green peppercorn would be ideal, it can be swapped with black whole pepper. Fernandes suggests: “Serve it with some pepper dusted on top. When you take the first sip, the peppery aroma will be inviting.”
Another trick to add a desi element is to experiment with fresh garnishes like tulsi, curry leaves and dill. “In a drink like gin and tonic, a sprig of holy basil works better than Italian basil,” says Kukreti. But the ultimate time-saving hack is to freeze some ingredients in your ice tray and just drop them in the drink for flavour as well as aesthetic value. Kashmiri saffron, cloves and cinnamon will do the trick. Kukreti suggests simmering some water with two-three strands of saffron and freezing it in ice trays. “Drop these in white-spirit based cocktails. It will slowly release its colour and flavour like magic.”
Jahnabee’s pick:I find the orange cocktail by Santosh Kukreti really refreshing. It’s a super versatile drink and can be made at home with zero fuss. All you need is a white spirit, fresh orange juice, honey, lime juice and a slice of orange for garnish. It is highly recommended that the orange juice be hand-squeezed so that the oils from the peel also get infused in the drink. They add a lovely aroma. Kukreti suggests that for a celebratory feel, top it up with sparkling wine.