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Home > News> Big Story > Cocktails in India come of age

Cocktails in India come of age

Cooking techniques like sous vide, fermentation, clarification, smoking and ageing are being adapted to mixology to create magic in a glass

Buransh Margarita from 10Speakeasy.
Buransh Margarita from 10Speakeasy.

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"When I say watermelon cocktail, what are the colours that come to your mind?” Devyani Nath, assistant beverage manager at JW Marriott, Bengaluru, asks me as a prelude to a discussion on her new cocktail menu, which will be launching at the hotel’s Merak Brewhouse during the festive season. My answer, naturally, is red.

Nath presents Salude—a crystal-clear, colourless cocktail bursting with flavours of watermelon, a hint of vanilla and a touch of mint. She has used clarification, a kitchen technique used to remove impurities from fats like butter, or from meat and vegetable stocks. There are several approaches to clarification—heating and skimming, repeated straining and filtering, and more—all dependent on the ingredient and its density.

“To clarify this cocktail, I add agar agar to freshly squeezed watermelon juice and allow it to semi-set,” explains Nath, who trained to become a chef and connects the dots between her learnings in the kitchen and the bar to draw inspiration for her creations. “The jelly is passed through filter paper, slow dripping overnight. The red colour filters on to the paper, while the drip from the jelly is a transparent liquid. It looks like water but has the flavour of watermelon,” she says.

She’s not done. “To this, I add a shrub (a combination of water, fruit or botanicals, sugar and vinegar to create an acidic syrup that adds complexity to a cocktail) made of scraped vanilla pods from the bakery and discarded mint stems from the kitchen. The drink is garnished with a watermelon leather.” For the garnish, she goes into the hotel kitchen to find used vanilla pods and discarded mint stems. She takes the juiced watermelon pulp, mashes it and spreads it out on a silicon mat. She adds caster sugar and bakes it to a thin crisp.

Sounds like complex work in a lab rather than a cocktail tossed together at the bar? That isn’t far from the truth. The idea of having a Martini “shaken, not stirred” has been immortalised by Ian Fleming’s fictional British spy James Bond. Several theories abound on why Bond loves his drink that way but for mixologists, stirring and shaking can achieve variations in taste and texture, clarity and temperature.

The Indian cocktail-making scene, however, has moved far away from such basic techniques. Several elements have combined to make the art the hotbed of excitement it is now. Some of them are the very same developments that changed the nature of dining out—the internet, increased global travel, the availability of better ingredients, and, in the case of the bar, glassware too—but there is also a rise in the number of bartenders and mixologists looking to innovate and elevate the drinking experience.

This means a number of techniques from the kitchen are crossing over into the bar. Mixologists and bartenders are ready, for instance, to use sous vide, fermentation, clarification, milk washing, fat washing and wood smoking to create cocktails that are flavoursome, fresh and innovative. They are also using a host of unusual ingredients to inspire cocktails and are drawing on the strengths of Indian-origin alcohol—the plethora of home-grown gins, rums, vodka, and even a 100% agave—to come up with unique flavour profiles. Add the desire to make it to the lists of “best bars” and stand out in a crowded market and you have a buzzing cocktail scene.

“The art of cocktailing has come of age in India. Mixologists are using science-driven techniques like clarification, ageing, fermentation and carbonation to constantly present something new,” says Radhika Dhariwal, founder and director of Pass Code Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which runs the PCO Cocktail Bar in Mumbai. “Bartenders see themselves as scientists and are experimenting not only with flavours but also with equipment like rotovaps and centrifuges to distil and infuse spirits and bring depth to each drink.”

Tiki Taka from 10Speakeasy 
Tiki Taka from 10Speakeasy 

Take the idea of fat washing, which comes from the concept of enfleurage, first used by perfumers to extract aromas from flowers and petals by heating and cooling them in an odourless fat to saturate it with fragrance. The resultant substance was washed in alcohol to infuse the fragrance into the alcohol. This was then separated from the fat, usually with heat, to leave behind an aromatic botanical matter.

Fat washing in cocktails is a scientific way of flavouring alcohols with molten fats from bacon, chicken, duck, peanut butter and sesame oil, among others. As unappetising as it may seem initially, fat washing adds richness and a silken mouth-feel to the beverage. A molten fat is added to alcohol and left to mix at room temperature. This is frozen for the fat to rise to the top and solidify before it is skimmed off. What remains is the flavour of the fat blended into the alcohol.

Yash Bhanage, founder and chief operating officer at Hunger Inc. Hospitality, speaks about the evolution of The Bombay Canteen’s (TBC’s) Hair of the Dog cocktail, made with clarified milk, toasted sesame, jaggery and green apple, which uses the fat-washing technique. “When we first introduced this cocktail as part of our weekly specials to get guest feedback, the flavour profile was well received by most; however, the feedback we got was that the cocktail was heavy because of the milk in it. Hence, while adding it in the menu permanently, we tweaked the recipe slightly to present it as a fat-washed cocktail with clarified milk to make it lighter and easy to drink! Making it to our permanent menu in 2019, it grew to become one of our popular cocktails,” he explains. The expertise of Hussain Shahzad, executive chef at the Mumbai-based TBC, currently closed for renovation, and O Pedro (restaurants of the brand), came in handy, he adds.

In Gurugram, Haryana, Varun Sharma, beverage manager, Comorin, uses another popular kitchen gadget, the sous vide machine, to capture the flavours of fresh fruits and herbs in their most natural form. Sous vide (French for under vacuum) is a form of cooking where food or liquid is placed in a container, a glass jar or a Ziploc bag and the air is vacuumed out. The container is then immersed in a temperature-controlled circulating water bath. Steady heat is applied for one-three hours to elicit a flavourful creation. While sous vide turns out amazing lamb chops, it is now also widely used to create some unique infusions for cocktails.

Comorin’s dedicated Sous Vide Cocktail section has the likes of Gin with Chamomile and Lemon, Vodka with Smoked Pinewood and Orange, and Gin with Rose and Hibiscus. Sharma first experimented with sous vide during the pre-opening stage of the restaurant, using it to create infusions at Comorin’s bar. But the great flavour profiles and the freshness of infusions they achieved made them rethink their approach—and live sous vide cocktails were introduced when Comorin opened in December 2018.

“We use small 90ml sous vide bags into which we pour a standard measure of 60ml alcohol along with our other ingredients and the bag is vacuum-sealed. This is placed in a hot water bath of 80 degrees Celsius for 90 seconds. The small quantity of alcohol used requires only a short time for infusion. This is transferred to a cold bath, cooled, strained into a glass and topped up with tonic or ginger ale. Sous vide allows us to create liquid infusions with stronger flavours at a faster rate, with a result tasting like it has been in the making for at least a week,” says Sharma.

Another kitchen technique that’s just as popular in bars now is fermentation. Tesouro in Goa uses it for The Salcette Salsa. “For this drink, the process of lactic fermentation is initiated from the natural yeasts present on the skin of fruits,” explains Arijit Bose, co-founder of Tesouro and Goa-based CounterTop, an advisory and consultancy focused on the development of alcohol brands and hospitality enterprises. “We use guava mixed with jalapeños sprinkled with salt and sugar and leave it overnight in an airtight container. Over the 12 hours, new flavours start developing which we characterise as ‘funky’. Tequila is added and it is left to macerate for another 12 hours. Tequila helps control the flavour of the final product and keeps the batch consistent. Next, it is strained through a muslin cloth and stored in bottles. Served like a Martini, it’s a super fun drink that has a hint of heat and the joy of good quality tequila,” he explains. The mixologists work closely with qualified chefs to apply complex techniques to drinks. They also refer extensively to works like Liquid Intelligence—The Art And Science Of The Perfect Cocktail by Dave Arnold, founder and president of the New York-based Museum of Food and Drink (Mofad) and a food science writer and editor, and take inspiration from the documentation of techniques shared online by the international mixology community.

THE SCIENCE OF MIXOLOGY

Using science to recreate the complexity of the strong aromas and flavours of jackfruit, without bringing in the real fruit, is something Vicky Singh, partner at Slink & Bardot in Mumbai, has achieved. “Our cocktail jackfruit is feni-based. Jackfruit is not a much loved fruit and we wanted to introduce it in a subtle way, without directly using it. We studied the flavour profile of feni and mixed ingredients like fermented pineapple, kafir lime, lemongrass and clarified coconut milk to achieve this. It took quite a few trials and research into breaking every element down for this.”

Then there is the concept of ageing, which you may have heard of for wines and whiskies. The PCO Cocktail Bar in Mumbai imports new American oak barrels to age its cocktails and has made many spirit-forward cocktails, from aged Manhattans to Old Fashioneds and Negronis. These barrels give the drink a rounded smoothness, with hints of oak and vanilla. “What is interesting with barrel ageing is that a 10-day aged Negroni tastes different from a two-week aged one and completely different from one aged for a month. We have also experimented with clay-ageing, where the earthiness of the terracotta urn adds minerality to the drink for an added layer of complexity,” explains Dhariwal.

EVOLUTION OF A CULTURE

India may be a country that loves its hard spirits but cocktail drinking isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. “India did have a cocktail culture, though limited, even 40 years ago. I was there,” says Shatbhi Basu, master mixologist and partner at Mumbai’s STIR Academy of Bartending. These cocktails, though, were mostly unimaginative and sweet, she adds. “Until 1997, when STIR Academy of Bartending began, bartenders were all self-educated, trying to introduce a cocktail culture. Between 1998 and 2000, our first batch of professionally trained bartenders stepped out with curated menus that offered a wider range of flavours. Bartenders were also trained to communicate better,” she says.

Shatbhi Basu. (Photo: Maanas Shah)
Shatbhi Basu. (Photo: Maanas Shah)

Ajit Balgi, founder, The Happy High Wine & Spirit Consultants, Mumbai, who has curated cocktail lists for UHNIs (ultra-high-net-worth individuals), believes mixologists are pushing the envelope every day. “From using distillers to rotovaps, some back bars are like laboratories. Ekaa in Mumbai uses ingredients like edible calcium stones for their drink Petrichor to remind the drinker of the scent of the first rain. Mixologists draw inspiration to use such equipment and techniques from the West, through online videos and sometimes from bartenders visiting from abroad. A lot of technique application is through the DIY mode of trial and error. This is fine as long as it is not detrimental to the safety of both bar staff and guests, and is within the legal boundaries,” he says, emphasising that there is a flip side.

Being well trained in the use of techniques is as vital as knowing your audience. For a technique can backfire when overused or done incorrectly. Fermentation with an untrained hand can go wrong. A smoke gun or the use of liquid nitrogen can prove disastrous, he adds. In a widely reported incident in 2017, for instance, a young businessman in Delhi burnt a hole in his stomach after drinking a cocktail laced with liquid nitrogen.

The inspiration for cocktails differs by city. “For me, Delhi is the best cocktail city,” says V. Karthik Kumar, a Bengaluru-based mixologist and beverage consultant. “People in Delhi are willing to experiment with Indian-inspired as well as international cocktails. Bengaluru has massive bars and breweries and 50% of people drink beer; the rest a mix of cocktails and spirits straight up. South India loves cocktails that are spicy, tangy and filled with umami. Hyderabad and Kolkata are yet to catch up with cocktail drinking,” details Kumar.

To ensure consistency, some bars, like Episode One in Mumbai, have introduced Taptails, cocktails on tap. Bartenders and mixologists are also considering “nightcap” inspired cocktails, which Kumar says feature on menus in Lair (Delhi), Bastian (Mumbai) and Brassa (Bengaluru). The mixologists, he too adds, work closely with chefs.

THE INDIAN TWIST

A rasam or a chaas inspired cocktail or one with curry leaves and pepper isn’t exciting any more, so mixologists are raising the bar when it comes to using Indian ingredients or flavours. “Indian-inspired cocktails today are fashioned with as much spectacle and taste notes as international ones. They are intriguing because of familiar ingredients that team effortlessly with different spirits to create a signature drink,” says Deepak Sharma, senior mixologist, Saga, Gurugram. Bartenders are blending tamarind juice, aam panna, kokum, masala chai, shikanji, jaljeera and kala khatta with celery, paprika, rosemary, thyme, basil, kafir lime and elderflower to create heady mixes. “The world is waking up to the strength of rich Indian history and there is a strong appreciation of ingredients available here,” Sharma says. The Thanneermukkam at Saga is a melange of flavours representative of south India, with curry leaf, black pepper, citrus, pineapple and vodka. In their Maratha Palace, fennel, once used to welcome guests to a palace, is the star ingredient of an infused cocktail.

Deepak Sharma
Deepak Sharma

Comorin has the Neer More, a take on spicy buttermilk where tequila is infused with green chillies and balanced with the flavours of cilantro, ajwain (caraway seeds), curry leaf and falernum. In Bengaluru, Nath turned to her grandmother’s pickling recipe and applied it, masala and all, to dragonfruit. The addition of vinegar brought all the flavours of dragonfruit, Indian spices, salt and sugar to the fore. With a touch of vermouth and Stranger & Sons gin, she has Meraki, a winner.

For 10 Speakeasy in Bengaluru, Yangdup Lama, a Delhi-based bar consultant, has created drinks like the Tiki Taka, which uses a pineapple-turmeric shrub; Hot Date, with tabasco and date pickle; and Buransh Margarita, with rhododendron. He says Indian-origin spirits are giving mixologists a unique advantage. “Hapusa gin (Himayalan Dry Gin) uses juniper from the Himalaya in each bottle, and so drinks like the Himalayan Negroni or a Buransh Hi-Ball become great examples of Indian spirits using regional ingredients and inspiration to create world- class cocktails.”

Yangdup Lama
Yangdup Lama

“Indian spirits today offer great quality and variety and are appreciated the world over, not just (as) a sipping liquid, but also as a proud ingredient in cocktails,” says Thrivikram Nikam, joint managing director, Amrut Distilleries. He points out that cocktails with Amrut Fusion whisky have received recognition at international competitions like the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, US, and Cultured Cocktails, Singapore. “Our Nilgiris Gin has been making waves as a preferred base for gin Martinis. Our Two Indies rum, made from locally sourced jaggery, is loved as a sipping drink and is coveted by ace mixologists for their hero cocktails. The jaggery adds depth to a cocktail while providing a flavour that is familiar,” says Nikam, citing examples of its use in bars like Tesouro (Goa), Sidecar (Delhi), Copitas (Bengaluru) and Saz (Delhi).

Two Indies, believes Nikam, offers bartenders a unique Indian flavour, jaggery, to play around with. “Mixologists are pushing boundaries and favour local brands that use Indian ingredients to make their own identities. A novel base ingredient like jaggery can elevate a simple mojito and add depth to the cocktail while providing a familiar flavour,” he says.

Nath is all praise for Indian homegrown gin brand Hapusa. With international gins, she says, the flavours are a given: “With a Hendrick’s, you know to expect a rose-cucumber palate. You just need to add an ingredient of your choice and it uplifts the gin.

“But with Hapusa you don’t need another ingredient to elevate it, just an ice cube, and every flavour is discernable,” she says. This makes it a unique base for cocktails.

While bartenders and mixologists have nothing but love for Indian-origin alcohols, it is also heartening to see indigenous spirits like feni, mahua, urrak and toddy being used in cocktails, albeit in smaller ways and largely within specific geographic regions. In the coastal town of Mangaluru, finding a lounge that offers toddy cocktails flavoured with bird’s-eye chilli, wine, mango-ginger or betel leaf, and toddy shakes is not uncommon.

NOTES OF HEALTH

With greater awareness of health, there is a growing demand for “healthier” cocktails. Bartenders and mixologists don’t dispute the ill-effects of alcohol but there are some attempts to reduce cocktail calorie counts. Substitutions of sugar syrup with honey, maple syrup or sugarcane juice are now par for the course. Ingredients like the Japanese gari (pickled ginger), known for its ability to cut down the impact of fat, are used.

Moderation must be encouraged, says Bhanage, adding that when TBC reopens, they will be introducing half-serve cocktails— where guests can opt for half the regular cocktail size.

Bars are also actively focused on sustainability. Copitas, at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangalore, has a menu dedicated to local ingredients. “Our menu has drinks where the focus is on the fruit—a gin stirred with home-made black lemon cordial; a flower with rum infused with pot tamarind with a blue pea cordial; a leaf with tequila and betel leaves; a stem where bourbon and cloves are infused; roots where vodka is infused with vetiver; and a seed which has gold rum, with home-made peanut candy liqueur. We want to tackle sustainability head on with the aim of promoting a more balanced ecosystem to support the bar industry. Our menu is designed to spark conversations,” explains Copitas bar manager Sarath Nair.

Sarath Nair. 
Sarath Nair. 

Taking the concept of sustainability forward is the idea of foraging for cocktail ingredients. Bars like Tesouro have foraged menus for two weeks in a year to take advantage of seasonal ingredients without reducing it to a gimmick.

PUT IT ON ICE

The right kind of ice is crucial to the cocktail experience, says Lama, adding that one cannot compromise on the science of chilling. “The harder ice is, the better it is for use in a cocktail. Ice that is not hollow and filled with bubbles will melt slower, ensuring a cocktail remains chilled longer and does not dilute. Shapes can be customised according to glasses—tall, short, elongated. They look great and cover a larger surface area in a glass. Such quality of ice, with hygienically clean water, free of bubbles and impurities, has to be custom-made,” he says.

Slink & Bardot has invested in a Hoshizaki machine, among the world’s best ice machines. Freeze time is about an hour, with each cube being made with an individual jet of water in a closed system to keep bacteria away. It creates a harder and clearer cube that takes longer to melt. This keeps drinks chilled longer without altering the taste. The cubes are more dense and can be of any shape.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Across the board, experts believe there is a lot more to come with cocktails. Bhanage says he would love to see a fully outfitted laboratory where bars come together and use equipment to experiment. Perhaps creating such laboratories is something alcohol brands could consider, he suggests.

There is so much happening—techniques, application of science, flavour distillates—that it truly is a magical time for bartending, says Basu. “We are taking from everywhere and are inspired by everything. Yet there is room for every kind of bartender. We are all playing with what drives us. I am driven by flavour nuances and layered complexity with simple techniques, others are immersed in the science of flavours and complex techniques, still others are adding sustainability to their basket of techniques.”

She adds that craft Indian brands like Greater Than, Stranger & Sons, Makazai and others are doing their bit. World Class by Diageo is a prime example. It launched the World Class Festival this year in Mumbai to bring immersive cocktail experiences to consumers and organise curated workshops focused on cocktails. This was alongside the World Class Bartending competition, a global competition that provides an international platform for participating mixologists and bartenders. Both these events opened the doors of magical concoctions to consumers, giving them a chance to experience great cocktails from global brands. Gin festivals across cities allowed for the experience of tasting different gins at one go.

“The realisation,” says Basu, “is that the consumer is king—and the more you allow them to explore, the bigger the pull will be.”

Recipe for a chocolate-infused cocktail named Mid-night Temptation

Midnight Temptation
Midnight Temptation

Serves 1 glass
Use a champagne flute. Making time is 4 minutes

Ingredients
30ml melted dark chocolate
3 red grapes
2 cherries
20ml coffee infused
30ml cranberry juice
5 dash coconut bitters
45 ml Hennessy

Method
Muddle & shake
Recipe courtesy 10 Speakeasy

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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