Bartending with Belvedere: As Cocktails Grow Up, New Natural Ingredients & Fresh Fruit Edge Out Sugar Syrups
MANY YEARS have passed since the then barman at Ricks, The Taj Mahal Hotel, Rishi Raj Singh (who’s since exchanged his Boston shaker with Excel sheets as he goes up the ITC Hotels corporate hierarchy), surprised me with a tamarind martini that tickled the palate as much as the imagination.
James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who bequeath to the world the Vesper (shaken, not stirred), must have turned in his grave — and Rishi was clearly ahead of his time, for bartenders then assumed that cocktails were for women and therefore had to be sweet. That was how sugary syrups that passed off as cocktail mixers attained their god-like status, even as trend-setters, notably barman-entrepreneur Yangdup Lama, popularised drinks such as the Southern Somras (rum muddled with curry leaves and jaggery!).
The drinks world is fast catching up with these pioneers and going natural is the new flavour of the season. As the world moves away from sugar, canned juices, which come loaded with the sweet temptation, have made way for freshly squeezed ones. Of course, with fruit juices, you do have to be careful to use them fast, for they turn bitter the longer they are kept unused (even in a refrigerator).
Barrel-aged cocktails, like the Negroni and Boulavadier (a negroni with whisky instead of gin) served at Grappa, the buzzy new bar in the city (at the Shangri-la), are now in vogue. So are locally infused alcoholic spirits such as the Kashmiri walnut-infused Bourbon that goes into Grappa’s Indian Sour. Even Schweppes, the life blood of every gin and tonic made in this world, is under threat from challengers such as East Imperial, which not only drum up the fact that their sugar content is less than 50 per cent of their worthy adversary, but also have tonic water varieties tailor-made for different kinds of G&Ts. Bartenders (or mixologists as they like to call themselves) have also become as obsessive as chefs about the ingredients, from hydroponically grown holy basil and edible nasturtium to curry leaves, that go into the cocktails they create.
Britain’s rising cocktail guru, Ryan Chetiyawardana, said during a recent visit to New Delhi that this trend has something to do with the economic downturn of 2008, when people spent on fleeting luxuries a lot more cautiously. They started paying more attention to ingredients because they wanted to know exactly what they were spending their hard-earned money on. “People now are returning to the idea of transparency,” Ryan said. “They want to know more and more about the origins of ingredients and the ways in which they can make cocktails taste different — and better.” Economic ground realities do this to food and drink.
In India, the sudden upsurge of interest in harnessing a new generation of ingredients has a lot to do with the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India Act‘s difficult labelling rules making it impossible to import as many as 60 varieties of liqueurs. There was therefore a clear and present reason for bartenders to start playing with natural ingredients. And we saw the array of new aromas and flavours being injected into the world of cocktails at a bartending competition organised by the Polish vodka brand Belvedere marketed by Moet Hennessy. From the seasonal sweet-and-sour fruit rasbhari (not to be confused with raspberries) to fresh strawberries from Mahabaleshwar and cardamom (which is what Moet Hennessy India’s Brand Ambassador Rohan Jelkie used in an uplifting spritz he made for me), these new ingredients are lending cocktails a new flavour dimension.
Unsurprisingly, Moet Hennessy’s Spirits Education Director, Claire Smith-Warner, declared affirmatively: “Cocktails are coming back in vogue.” And among cocktails, aperitifs are making a comeback as pre-dinner serves (“people are no longer drinking for the sake of drinking”); the easy sundowner, spritz (a low-alcohol Italian invention), is gaining currency, especially as a pre-prandial drink; and bitters (“the salt and pepper of the cocktail world”), which now come in many flavoured varieties are making cocktails “grow up”. Mad Men, the television drama series may have made cocktails fashionable all over again, but the world now likes them to be low on alcohol and lower of sugar. Less is the new more in cocktails.