Colour and cocktails go hand-in-hand. The piña colada is a soothing yellow and a Negroni has sunset hues. But here’s the twist: Each can have a crystal clear variation, with their flavours intact.
Goa-based Tesouro by Firefly, one of India’s top bars, has a clarified cocktail named Midnight Brekkie. The ingredients include peanut butter, fresh watermelon juice, strawberry syrup, vermouth, citrus and gin. With peanut butter and strawberry, it’s positioned as breakfast in a glass. Don’t wince, the drink has acquired cult status.
“It constitutes 50% of our cocktail sales,” says co-founder and partner Pankaj Balachandran, adding: “After the first sip, when people taste the peanut butter, they ask us, ‘where is the peanut butter?’ To me, that’s the best question.” It’s pure sorcery when you can taste that which can’t be seen.
Two years ago, The Bombay Canteen (TBC) introduced a Hair of the Dog infused with til-gud flavours, with no trace of sesame or jaggery. Last year, The Living Room opened at Mumbai-based Masque with a clear as spring water guava-infused gin cocktail named Gamble. The sublime flavours sit lightly on the tongue.
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But though modern bars are open to experimenting, not everyone is a fan of clarified cocktails. Nor are they a new concept. It is believed the clarified cocktail originated in the 17th century, when a glass-clear punch was concocted by English playwright Aphra Behn. Behn used milk clarification to extract the spicy and fruity notes of the drink—it’s a process where milk is added to a cocktail, curdled with lime, and the concoction is filtered through a muslin cloth. This was the process for the til-gud flavoured drink at TBC.
There are other processes too, like the expensive rotovap, used for distillation for a higher concentration of flavour and aroma, or fat wash, where butter is mixed with the cocktail and kept in the freezer—butter freezes, alcohol doesn’t. It’s then filtered for hours, and you are left with a drink infused with the flavours of butter. This is the technique used for the peanut butter infused Morning Brekkie.
Keeping in mind the experience of top bars internationally, mixologist Yangdup Lama predicted in January that clarified cocktails would be a prominent trend in 2022. “India’s bar scene is still emerging and we have bartenders who draw inspiration from the trendiest bars in the world,” he noted.
As essential as experimentation is, it is also important to know what not to meddle with. Lama, who specialises in classic cocktails like Martini, Manhattan and Whisky Sour, says he would not serve these as clarified cocktails at his award-winning bar, Sidecar, in Delhi.
Neil Alexander, the beverage director at the Windmills Craftworks microbrewery, is not a fan. “Clarification to me means taking the life out of a cocktail,” he says. Colour and flavour, he believes, have equal roles to play in the experience of a cocktail; so if a Negroni is stripped of its warm orange hues and served as a clear cocktail, its essence would be diluted. It must, he argues, look like a Negroni.
It can be a tricky space to navigate. Lama’s advice to new bars is to carve out a strong identity. While Sidecar is known for a classic cocktail menu, Hoots’, in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, champions technique-forward drinks which are identified by numbers and flavours. For example, #No4 is tequila, clarified pink grapefruit, hibiscus cordial, sparkling bubbles. Balachandran conceptualised the ingenious menu in 2018. “The drinks at Hoots’ look minimalistic, elegant and clean, but are power-packed with flavour.”
Hoots’ is a small bar with about 20 covers, which makes it easier to have a menu with only clarified drinks. For clarification requires skill, practice and time. Even a tiny error can lead to huge wastage; usually , the drinks are pre-batched in small quantities to stem wastage or loss.
There may be two views on whether or not you should mess with a Negroni. But there is space for both classics and contemporary cocktails. For now, clarified cocktails have seeped deeper into the menus of high-end bars in India.
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