It’s all in the ingredients, they say. While ‘ingredient-led dishes’ are big on the food side, ‘rare ingredient-led drinks’ are also becoming all the rage, especially among well-travelled millennials, open to experimentation. Mixologists across the world are sourcing different kinds of cacti, honey, chocolates, spices and herbs to make innovative drinks that will compel their customers to visit their bars or restaurants repeatedly.
The appetite for alcohol around the world depends on one rule; discovery and rediscovery of the flavours of various spirits. Gaining ground as a major player in the liquor industry, from restaurants to bars and global pop-ups, ingredient-based concoctions are changing the way consumers enjoy liquor. Leading international bartender Evgenya Prazdnik, Head Mixologist at Goa’s S.E.A perceives ingredients as the protagonist of a cocktail, which gives guests a customised experience. She believes that consumers today want to drink better, as opposed to drinking just to get tipsy, and hence rare ingredient-starring drinks have become popular. Millennial consumers go out drinking to socialise with friends. In the West, restaurants have been giving more importance to their bar menus, and eateries are often known for their signature cocktails more than their food.
If one closely observes cocktail trends over the years, continuous innovation and experimentation have been the key to pleasing guests. Today’s aware consumers know of or have tasted different drinks in different countries. They want the same kind of variety in India as well. It becomes imperative then to keep the excitement level high by inventing new mixes. As in the fashion world, trends seem to come and go and make second appearances even in the liquor industry. “The last decade saw a huge cocktail upsurge,” says Somnath Bhattacharya, COO of deGustibus Hospitality, the group behind Mumbai’s famous Indigo, Indigo Deli, D:OH!, Tote, and most recently, the new bar Tote Talli. “The trend then moved to spirits. Next came the wine phase. And now, we’re moving back to cocktails.”
“Basic liquors are, sometimes, very harsh for some, which has led to the creation of alternate ingredient based cocktails that may be sweeter and fruitier,” says Ishaan Singh, F&B Manager at Soneva Fushi, Maldives. Cocktails also make for easy drinking. “You consume the same amount of alcohol more excitingly and can have two to three more glasses of cocktails than alcohols’,” says Dinesh Mondkar, Head Bartender at Mumbai’s newly opened BlueBop Café, and formerly with The Bombay Canteen.
For a mixologist, every newfound ingredient is worthy of becoming a signature in the menu. “We let the team think on their toes. For instance, if someone sees a ber fruit in the market, they’re encouraged to pick it up and see what they can do with it. Just like chefs are spontaneous with the food, so are bartenders with their drinks,” says Bhattacharya. There is a sea of ingredients, still unexplored. “Sweet, sour, bitter and acidic are some key elements that you can play around within the cocktail,” says Mondkar.
The idea of giving unique flavours to the cocktails inspires bartenders and mixologists to craft unique cocktails. Consumers can expect to discover Indian spices such as raw turmeric, ajwain (carom seeds), saunf (fennel seeds), kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves), kesar (saffron), indigenous flowers like Butterfly-pea and hibiscus, fruits like kiwi, passion fruit, dragon fruit, noni (tropical produce), and chocolate and coffee, in their drinks.
Luxury in your drink
Playing the luxury card, many mixologists are now welcoming the use of unusual, expensive ingredients, found only in rare locations; resulting in the creation of some of the most interesting, high-end cocktails. According to Bhattacharya, the inclusion of these luxury bits in drinks is in demand at wedding events to match the underlined theme of the opulence of a grand affair. For Prazdnik, cacti from the untouched jungles of Latin America, Mad honey from Nepal and Mediterranean edible flowers round up the exotic flavours.
After all, a colour component like squid ink lends an attractive jet-black tint to the drink, says Mohtasim Dalla, Bar Manager for Lite Bite Foods, which operates brands like Shizusan, Punjab Grill, Bar Bar and Clink Bar. Rathijit Dutta, Director of F&B Service at the Trident, Nariman Point, Mumbai, sees tomatillo, chayote, fiddleheads, jicama and sunchoke on the cocktail counters. The cocktail menu here is led by seasonal ingredients such as muddled pears, bitter-sweet oranges, coriander, fennel, strawberries, coconut and 80 per cent single-origin, organic dark chocolate, Egyptian Chamomile, Canadian maple syrup, cold coffee brews and fruit syrups.
Mixing it right
Before that striking glass of cocktail reaches your table, there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. Ideating on a cocktail includes understanding the alcohol notes and striking the right balance between a liquor’s flavour and the mixed ingredients’ flavours. “If an ingredient overpowers a gin, then it is better to use vodka as a base, rather than confuse the guest with the flavour palate of the drink,” explains Singh.
In many ways, crafting a cocktail is more like a lab process, which requires many trials. “Chocolate, coffee and cigar can be beautifully incorporated in whisky-based cocktails,” says Dutta. The menu under him also uses saké as a base, infused with tea, gari (Japanese pickled ginger) and yuzu.
Once the cocktail makes it to the menu, the next step is to educate and sell the creation to guests. “A majority of Indians are inclined towards whisky and vodka, very few choose gin or rum,” says Dalla. To make room for cocktails, the staff at the highenergy bar Shibui in Shizusan is trained to sell the drinks in a very simplistic, transparent manner, just like how a food dish is explained and sold.
Harish Subramanian who bartends at AER, Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai, thinks that the technique of making a cocktail is significant too. In a business that comprises of numerous bars and restaurants, inventing newer mixes every month helps AER stand out. Subramanian and his team attend pop-ups around the world to learn global ways to make exciting drinks.
Others like Tote Talli are going the healthy way. The Mumbai bar has reduced the sugar content of its cocktails. “Apart from the healthy element, we also decided to go slow on sugar to reduce the heaviness on the palate created by it, often leaving consumers bloated,” Bhattacharya says.
Cheers to gin and vodka
“Gin and vodka have always been the best liquors to highlight the flavours of the ingredients, and as gin is now being considered as the new whisky; cocktails are in trend,” explains Dutta. There is also a focus on sustainability that has made its way into the mixology world through methods like making garnishes edible and using rare ingredients.
Trending on Instagram
The cocktail craze appears to have a predominantly millennial demographic; one that desires what it sees on social media. “Customers today come in, show us pictures, and tell us exactly what they want,” says Mondkar. This only goes to show the kind of importance mixologists must place in making cocktails Instagram friendly.
A balance between visuals and flavours, Bhattacharya believes, makes or breaks a cocktail, whereas Singh believes that visuals have the greatest impact followed by taste. A big part of this attraction comes from the colour of the cocktail. For instance, Bluebop Café’s Hibiscus Gimlet or Shibui’s White Lady always turns heads.
Choosing the right glass for a cocktail is another critical aspect of its presentation, believes Dalla. Of course, theatrics always pleases the crowd. At BlueBop, fresh fruits are added to the drink in front of the guests. “This adds value to the drink, and is a nice way to serve the cocktail,” he says.
Bars like Shibui have even taken their marketing strategy as far as stamping their logo on the ice used in the preparations. “Drinks go straight to Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook stories,” Dalla says, adding “If a cocktail looks good, people will take a picture before they take a sip.”