“There's one thing common among all bartenders in the world. We don't do this job for money because there's very little money in it. We do this for our passion for hospitality… to ensure people have a good time,” says Pietro Rizzo, the globally recognized bartender and drink designer.
I'm at south Delhi's Sidecar, one of India's top bars, which is hosting a bar takeover for a day (16 March) with Rizzo, bar director from Aubrey Bar (the famed Japanese izakaya known for its cocktails) at London's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Adrian Choy, senior bartender. The bar takeover was initiated by Jack Daniel's and they had invited the two bartenders.
On the menu, there are four special cocktails that use Jack Daniel’s Old no.7, Jack Daniel's flavours and a white spirit with a Southeast Asian twist—Pandan Jack (that uses pandan leaves and hojicha milk tea, among others), The Death of The Lion (yuzu, quinine, lime), Black Cat (Umeshu, Okinawa sugar) and Ringo Highball (oolong tea soda, spicy Umeshu).
India is largely a country of whiskey drinkers, but over the past few years, especially after the pandemic, there's been a remarkable shift towards experimentation, especially in the cocktail space. Small wonder then that bars across the country are hosting cocktail festivals. Just two weeks before my visit to Sidecar, I had attended the fifth edition of a gin festival in the Capital city, where options for cocktails outnumbered any other style of alcoholic drinks.
It's not just India, Rizzo says, while making The Death of The Lion for me to taste. “Globally, there's been a huge rise in interest for cocktails. The pandemic was obviously bad for many reasons, but it turned out good for some reasons, like pushing more people towards experimentation,” adds Rizzo, who started his journey in the profession at the age of 16 in Italy. “This kind of shift would have otherwise taken 10 years.”
In a detailed conversation, Rizzo talks about the changing taste of cocktail drinkers, his favourite ingredients and more. Edited excerpts:
The cocktails on this menu are highly focused on oriental flavours. What are your key ingredients for today?
In Japan, everyone does their own sake; it's very much an iconic product… so we have that. Plus, there's one thing that I'm sure is going to be huge… people are going to talk about it much more globally. It's the Yuzu. Do you know there's more production of Yuzu in the world than tequila? Crazy right? But nobody knows what exactly Yuzu is. Even I didn't know till a year ago when I was experimenting with different flavours.
You said initially that consumers started experimenting more with alcoholic drinks during the pandemic. Did those years also push bartenders and drink designers to look for more unique ingredients?
The one quality that makes a super successful bartender is their curiosity. Yesterday, someone said to me they always see me eating something or the other, a leaf, a seed, whatever comes my way. We do that to understand flavours. I've been bartending for 17 years, and the one thing that hasn't stopped me from growing is curiosity.
Pandemic was, of course, bad like I said earlier but that quiet time also allowed us to develop more flavours, recipes. And when people started coming out from those lockdown restrictions, they were far more pumped up about trying new things.
What kind of change did you see in this post-lockdown customer?
The change happened globally. When stuck inside, people were trying different recipes at home, trying different gins with some tonic water or following a bartender on social media and following his advice. So when they stepped out they wanted a completely different experience of drinking. Having food and drinks is no longer about just having food and drinks. It's about the whole experience of it…how it makes you feel. That' why you see brands coming out with more flavoured tonic water, whiskeys, vodkas. Everybody wants to offer a different taste, a new experience.
But what about the purists… those who like their whiskey on the rocks?
I compare or actually pair drinks with music. Whiskey for me is like jazz, a bit sophisticated. Gin is like rock. Beer is definitely more pop music, more approachable.
Coming back to your question. You can't really do anything there (laughs). It's hard to convince the purists. I face this issue a lot back home in Italy. Italy is still very much into whiskey, and cocktails are thought of more like pina colada or like a lot of juice. To be fair, one of the best cocktails in the world is whiskey-based, the Old Fashioned.
I think whiskey lends itself more to cocktails, more than white spirits actually. I mean, look at the classics, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Hot Toddy… all are whiskey based.
And people, I think, are realising this now, including in India. Cocktails are not just for women, as people used to say or think earlier.
I'm sure social media has played a big role in bringing this change…
Absolutely. Social media created a global community in a sense. The distance sort of vanished because a consumer in India didn't have to fly to London and visit Audrey to taste my cocktail. They could just watch me demostrate on Instagram and replicate it in their own kitchen.
Do you think the younger audience is experimenting more?
Today's drinkers don't drink what their fathers did. They want new experiences. That's why the rise of flavoured drinks that I mentioned earlier. They want to make some cool margaritas at home but what if they turn out bad and their friends are disappointed? So they are most likely to order readymade cocktails in a bottle that actually taste nice. And that's where beverage companies are finding an opportunity to grow their business.
You have four customers in front of you, one from Paris, one from New York, one from London and last from India. What will they order?
London, a gin cocktail. They are very proud of their gins.
The New Yorker, some wild cocktail.
The French, a fancy champagne cocktail.
What is the best part of your job?
Traveling, and making people have a good time with a good drink.
How much alcohol do you drink?
A lot when I started, but now very less. This job requires you to move a lot, so with age my body can't take too much booze.
What makes like a good drink?
I know it will sound cliched, but love. There is not necessarily an ingredient that makes a great drink. A good drink requires passion and dedication, and ultimately, if you don't love your drinks, you won't be able to perform well.
Do you have a favorite ingredient?
Jack Daniel's Old No.7
Umeshu Okinawa Sugar
Garnish: Chocolate chips
Glassware: Old Fashioned Glass
Umeshu liqueur is mixed with Okinawa sugar (Okinawa sugar has a similar taste like molasses). Take a mixing jar, then add all the ingredients over ice and stir for 40-50 seconds. Pour over a good block of ice and top up with whiskey and garnish with a chocolate coin.