At present, cocktail culture has evolved from just a splash of the spirit and mixer in the glass to rather fancy names based on their origin, region or even ingredients.
By Vaishali Dar
The 1920s Madame Fleur cocktail, inspired by the French 75, was designed by bartender Harry MacElhone of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. It was named after the French 75mm field gun used in WWI and was tagged as ‘don’t let the innocent lemon twist deceive you, this drink has power’. With the warning, this cocktail begins with a mix of Bombay Sapphire gin and Hennessy VS, lightened up with soothing chamomile and a float of Veuve Clicquot. This is one of the many signature recipes created for the revitalised menu of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ global lineup of masterfully balanced cocktails known as Classics Perfected 2.0: ‘The Decades’. A rewarding spin-off to the first menu released in 2015 that pays homage to some of the most fascinating cocktails in history with modern takes on the French 75, the Mai Tai and premium spirits. Some celebrate the influences of foreign cultures, the glamour of travel and the innovation of bartenders throughout the ages. “Cocktail culture has always been about more than just drinking as charismatic bartenders have been shaping cocktail trends, regaling guests with stories and providing over-the-counter wisdom for more than a century,” says Sharon Cohen, vice-president, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
Molecular and flair bartending dates back to the first cocktail book written in 1862, The Bartender’s Guide by Jeremiah (Jerry) P Thomas, known to professional bartenders as ‘the professor’ and considered ‘the father of American mixology’. He had created unique concoctions like the blue blazer. He used fire on his blue blazer to warm up the cocktail and wow his guests. However, mixing drinks neither saw innovation nor recognition till as recent as less than a decade ago, when a bit of fire play or smoke added for instant attention did much to enhance the experience of the guest.
At present, cocktail culture has evolved from just a splash of the spirit and mixer in the glass to rather fancy names based on their origin, region or even ingredients. Fatter menus are being designed keeping in mind the theme of the restaurant, and bartenders are hired to accentuate the dining experience. Take for instance, the signature chai pani cocktail and chuski margarita at Farzi Café. Chai pani comes in a real chai kettle made of glass with dry ice in the middle — vodka is infused with tea, home-made spice syrup and coffee liqueur. An Indian twist to the classic margarita, chuski margarita is a tequila-based cocktail, shaken with raw mango reduction (aam panna) and lime juice, topped with an ice popsicle to take you back to childhood memories.
“Chai pani was named after chai — quite relatable to the Indian palate whereas pani stands for vodka, water of life. We have diners who are willing to complement their gourmet experience with these uniquely prepared cocktails,” says Zorawar Kalra, founder-owner of Massive Restaurants (Farzi Café). “Mixology adds fun to your dining experience with culinary techniques and is now gaining prominence on beverage menus too,” says Kalra, who uses advanced equipment, custom crockery and glassware to concoct cocktails. His YOUnion in Mumbai has over 200 varieties of shots served in customised barware along with an expansive coffee menu with over 50 kinds of brews. The drink menu has been curated by Barnaby Ingram and Dino Koletsas of Dare Hospitality with bespoke cocktails. Options include cactus shapes, hearts, skeleton face-shot glasses, even high-heeled shoe-shaped shot glasses. The bar’s stormtrooper cocktail is served in a helmet-shaped glass, designed by Andrew Ainsworth, the prop maker who made the original helmets for the Star Wars franchise.
A restaurant without a bar cannot survive for long as cocktails, fancy gins, mocktails are the real menu influencers. “When good food and drinks pair up in a perfect ambiance, it is always a win-win situation for the diner as well as the restaurateur,” feels Navjot Singh, mixologist at Pra Pra Prank resto-bar in Gurugram. But the idea of fatter bar menu works. “Diners are aware about the global trends and eager to try out the culinary experiences back home,” feels Vikrant Batra, founder of Café Delhi Heights and Nueva. Mixologist Mahendar Mahy of Molecule Air Bar in Gurugram observes, “Mixologists are making interesting stories with some fun elements. It’s like you’re the writer and your customers are the readers. Your menu needs to follow a clear narrative. The menu can highlight the use of local ingredients or even add a small description about the cocktail and its inspiration.”
The balancing act
Many restaurateurs add exclusivity through cocktails and there is great scope of experimentation. The dining menu at Dragonfly Experience flaunts over 80% of authentic pan-Asian fusion and European fusion dishes. The cocktail menu curated by renowned mixologist Richard Hargroves features 16 concocted blends. “Richard and I have designed 12 cocktails and 4 mocktails inspired by Manga Art. The main ingredients also include the cordials (sweetened distilled spirits),” says Priyank Sukhija, MD & CEO of First Fiddle Restaurants that runs Dragonfly Experience in Aerocity, Delhi . The menu should be a perfect balance of food and drinks. “A food-driven bar can be 70:30 or a cocktail-driven bar can be 50:50. A lot of it depends on the availability of ingredients. Innovative cocktails are always a USP of the place and fancy glassware is always an add-on,” feels Singh. “There should be signatures, classics depending on the season. Some items should be available at low prices too,” adds Mahy.
Inspiration is big
About a decade back, it was challenging for Batra to create a menu using distilled spirits as some spirits can become musty and lose flavour if stored for too long. “Beer and wine were regarded as a status symbol. We zeroed in on symbolic ingredients, cooking methods and expanded some ideas into a set of thoughtfully constructed cocktails steeped in Delhi’s history,” adds Batra whose menu is inspired from the country’s rich culture and heritage and changes every season. He recalls a story behind the cocktail named ‘six wise men go mad’ in Cafe Delhi Heights. “A group of friends regular at our café used to enjoy different premium whiskies on every visit. Once they requested the mixologist to curate a cocktail that is not a classic whiskey one, and our mixologist came up with this drink. All of them went mad after drinking it and liked it so much that they ordered the same drink every time they visited. Later, it became a permanent feature on our menu,” he says.
Sly Granny and Foxtrot pay attention to a carefully crafted menu with fresh seasonal ingredients and hand-picked bitters. “It helps take the standards up a notch at bar-centric venues,” says Sumit Wahal, brand head (drinks). Sly Granny offers in-house concoctions taking inspiration from classics: a combination of elderflower and vodka in Brixton Smash; sweet-sour Penicillin cocktail made with whiskey, honey ginger syrup are among the off-beat mixes unique to the place.