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Whisky, masala and gulab

At a pop-up in Delhi, New York-based mixologist Hemant Pathak will stir up masala whisky, mulethi gin and gulab vodka

Hemant Pathak at Loya.
Hemant Pathak at Loya.

It’s World Whisky Day, and mixologist Hemant Pathak reminisces about a drink he is most proud of making. Coincidentally, it involves whisky. The cocktail, named Masala Whisky, took him three years to perfect. It’s a twist on the Old Fashioned, a blend of whisky, bitters and sugar. The last element is replaced with a sweet spiced syrup containing eleven ingredients, like bayleaf, nutmeg, white pepper and more. It’s finished with flair with star anise smoke.

This cocktail, along with several others, are on a pop-up menu today crafted by Pathak for Loya in Taj Palace, Delhi. The mixologist who is the general manager of the restaurant Junoon in New York has a long-standing relationship with the Taj where he began his career in 2008.

In an interview with Lounge, Pathak talks about his approach to the menu, the change in Indian bartending scene and a few favourite drinks. Edited excerpts:

  1. The menu is inspired by North India’s botanical abundance, time-honoured techniques and heirloom ingredients. Could you explain with examples?
    Loya is a project dedicated to the heart of North India, from the Hindu Kush to the North West Frontier and the foothills of the Himalayas. I’m from Uttarakhand. It was easy for me to think about what ingredients from this region feature in history and then come up with a menu. Two ingredients stood out for me. The first is mulethi, which my mother used to give as an antidote to cure mild cold and cough. To create a cocktail, I have extracted the flavour of mulethi and mixed it with gin. The second is gulab (rose) which has been blended with vodka for a sour cocktail. With drinks such as these, we are trying to tell the story of cuisine from North India.

2. You started your career in India, moved to New York and have been in this profession for close to two decades. What changes have you noticed in India’s bar scene over the years?
When I started my career about 16 years ago in Delhi, bars offering excellent cocktails were restricted to five star hotels. But, things began to change in the following decade with standalone bars creating fantastic craft cocktails. The first to do so was Cocktails & Dreams at Gurugram in 2012, followed by PCO in Delhi around 2013-14. Now, I have noticed that the scene has completely transformed with standalone bars shining and mixologists experimenting with native Indian ingredients. In India, due to the unavailability of several liqueurs (due to prohibitive import duties), bartenders create their own liqueurs with everything from spices to locally available fruits which add a distinct Indian touch. This is taking Indian mixology to the next level.

3. What are your three favourite bars around the world and why?
I will start from my home, which is India. The first is Sidecar in Delhi; not only does it make world class drinks, but it also gives hope to Indian bartenders by putting Indian mixology on the global scene. The second is Dead Rabbit in New York. When I landed in the city about 10 years ago, it was the one bar I wanted to visit. And, the third is Tayēr + Elementary in London. I have not been there as yet, but it’s on my list. They experiment with different flavours and make their own unique spirits. It’s something that I want to do as well. I picked these names, because they have had an impact on my bartending career by inspiring me to do better.

4. What are the key attributes of a good bar?
It needs to have a great and focussed ideology when it comes to food and drinks; a knowledgable team that offers phenomenal service; and most importantly it must pay careful attention to music. You are not going to a bar for just the drinks, the complete experience matters.

5. What makes a good bartender?
Knowledge, knowledge and knowledge. Apart from this, be a good human being, understand your team and the guests you are serving. Keep sharing and learn to grow as a team.

Quick takes:
Your favourite classic cocktail: Negroni
The first cocktail you mastered: Margherita 
A cocktail that reminds you of college: Cuba Libre (Rum & Coke)
Your favourite wine: Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand

Also read | What ChatGPT didn't tell me about ice and cocktails


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