The terms ‘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 off 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. Then Gurgaon went and got itself an awesome bar as well, but one I always lament it doesn’t deserve: Speakeasy with the humble monk-like Yangdup Lama at the helm. Soon enough these were joined by PDA, Sidecar, Saz, Juniper and Hong Kong Club, both at Andaz, Together at 12th at Le Meridien, Gurgaon, at Shangri-La…the list has certainly exploded.
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 sentence draws us deeper. But, unlike theological debates, cocktails are comfortably supported by canapés and are best had at sundown.