The world today is a sweeter place. I don’t mean to discount all the violence and deceit, and the pollution and population woes that plague us collectively. What I am doing is merely suggesting that we use more sugar than any generation has ever before us. Sugar forms such a large part of our diet that the next big war we fight won’t be against humans, but mostly against carbohydrates and empty calories. It does make me wonder just how much sugar we are capable of consuming. I, for one, love sweets, but can’t, for the life of me, have more than a glass of juice. Or, more correctly, half a glass of juice watered down. I eat half the portion of most Indian desserts and can barely survive a whole slice of any sweet gateau. If the sugar is balanced and not cloying, I will be the first to clean the plate, but that is rarely the case today, given how everything is saccharine-saturated.
Why and when did the world decide to go sweet, I can’t tell, but it’s a bad thing. For one, we are losing our appreciation for a variety of other tastes. Sour is falling, but the first one to feel the loss is bitterness. We appreciate bitter so little nowadays that it could soon be wiped out.
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Thankfully, our mixologists understand the value of bitterness in a drink, especially a sweet one. It’s all about balance. Without a touch of bitterness, which will only show up on the finish, a drink risks feeling syrupy. This extra sweetness has a high satiety value, which means that if you were ordering these drinks at a bar, you might stop after one, citing reasons of feeling full or bloated. However, if the bartender finishes the same drinks with a touch of something bitter, you have a balanced drink, the kind you can work your through three or four of easily. This is what bitters are capable of doing, helping you sustain, even as they help the establishment, well, sustainably profit from it.
Every outlet will serve you a bouquet of drinks that sound like a fruit basket, but then they will have some serious stuff, the one for the boys with hair on their chest and the ladies with the chutzpah to sit with such boys and drink them under the table. Ask for that list. At Hakkasan in Mumbai recently, they served me a lovely Sensei, which was their take on the whisky sour. Yauatcha, to match, did a fantastic Tokyo Slide, a bourbon and jasmine tea drink, incorporating Aperol foam for that bitter touch.
This Aperol bit, while I was still luncheoning at Yauatcha, is what got me thinking about bitter for balance in drinks in the first place. This set me off on a journey, where every time I happened to be perched on a bar stool, I tried to explore the menu for similar flavours. It is a rare joy, lamentably. I wish more places did such. PCO and Grappa in Delhi are two bars that know how to walk this tightrope well. Rick’s, too, gets it right. In Mumbai, from The Table to Bombay Canteen, and Harbour Bar to Aer, the drinks were fabulous. Surprisingly, drinks at MasalaBar have never enthralled me, never mind what the awards may say. Complex, but lacking that final masterstroke of genius.
At the end, each to their own. I, by privilege of this scribble, have shared forth my views and choices. It is by no means binding, but if it does encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try something hitherto unknown, my job is jolly well done. Here’s to us then. Let’s raise a toast to sweet beginnings and even sweeter bitter endings!
The writer is a sommelier