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The perfect cocktail

Making cocktails isn’t about throwing together a few ingredients. It’s about understanding how different liquids taste on their own

THE TERM ‘cocktail’ has never quite enjoyed the same limelight as, say, ‘on the rocks’ or ‘single malt’. In fact, people often liken cocktails to reheated food or yesterday’s leftovers. For many, it’s just a way to dispense of alcohol that might be too cheap to be allowed to impart any taste to the final mix. Others drink them because they want to enjoy the high, but can’t stand the (bitter) taste of alcohol. Both these lots do the category much disservice.

Like the maitre d’hôte of yesteryears—who not only sat you at your table, but also carved the cold cuts and game joints for you—F&B used to involve a special skill set, one that couldn’t be emulated without putting in time and earning experience. Mixing cocktails is similar. It isn’t about throwing together a few ingredients as per a prescribed recipe—even a child could do that—but about knowing and understanding how different liquids taste on their own.

The knowledge of how they would work in a mix is something that comes only after years of tinkering behind the wood. There is no short cut to inventing a good, balanced cocktail—not the sweet, syrupy stuff that 90% of bars throw up, but the delicate nuanced flavourful potions that one can drink all night and enjoy a lilting high minus the crushing sense of intoxication.

PCO in New Delhi was one of the first bars to show us the power of good, balanced cocktails. The duo of Vaibhav Singh (who has now ‘Perch’ed elsewhere) and Arijit Bose made it an experience akin to a visit to Willy Wonka’s famed premises. Gurgaon has an awesome bar as well, but one that it doesn’t deserve: Speakeasy with the humble monk-like Yangdup Lama at the helm.

Seeing all this capital action, Mumbai, too, woke up. Bars like Ellipsis (Devender Sehgal rocked the place before pursuing a Michelin-starred career in Hong Kong) stood out for their mixed drinks. PDT (Please Don’t Tell), I am told, is great too, but I still loathe that they couldn’t use an original name. Irish House does good creative stuff and One Street Over is another cocktail-forward joint. Then there’s the latest and most formidable entrant, Masalabar. Moving further south, Windmills is a microbrewery in Bengaluru, but makes cocktails par excellence.

And now, we have Niche in New Delhi, which, under the tutelage of Mat Radalj, is churning out some of the most delicious liquids I have ever sipped. They are equal parts creative and yummy, a winning combination. The trouble is that all this goodness (VS cognac, premium vodka, aged tequilas) comes at a price and Indians are not quite ready to pay it. Most still see a cocktail as a thick veil to mask the hideous rather than haute couture to accentuate aesthetics, which it really is. This also explains why people still think that a cocktail must be made with cheap booze and cheaper fruit juice all shaken together with some ice and served in a ginormous glass decorated with an umbrella.
Unlike a single malt or even wine, which come ready to a bar, a cocktail is the only area where a real display of skill is needed. For me, a good mixologist can make or break a bar even more than the DJ. A lot of speakeasy and dive bars don’t even have one, but they invest in multiple mixology masters.

So for all of you who think cocktails are what women or those who don’t like alcohol drink, think again. Cocktails are much like a theological debate in that there are no right answers, but each seance draws us in deeper. But unlike theological debates, cocktails are comfortably supported by canapés and are best had at sundown.
The writer is a sommelier

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