Pankil Shah of Miss T
Pankil Shah of Miss T

Enter a new age of cocktails

  • Restaurants and bars across Mumbai and Delhi are creating a new template of excellence with their beverage programmes
  • Cocktails are crafted with precision, mixes are made from proprietary recipes and ingredients are sourced to an exacting standard

Guests may not be able to tell from where they are standing, but this is what a bartender at Miss T has within arm’s reach behind the counter: five bottles of in-house liqueur, 25 bottles of fresh house-made syrups on ice, about a dozen infusions, seven-eight tinctures, and two oak barrels in which signature versions of classic cocktails are being aged. Then there are the basics: an eclectic variety of spirits, blocks of crystal-clear ice made from water that has been boiled thrice, a stamp to imprint the ice, tools to carve it, an array of garnishes (one made of edible paper), and a fridge dedicated to keeping a few of each kind of glass cold. All this for a short menu of 17 cocktails. Each of the 17 drinks includes elements made in-house, in Miss T’s kitchen, or at the bar: peanut-butter-washed bourbon, cardamom and bird’s-eye chilli tincture, slow-cooked basmati reduction, house-made dry rosé vermouth, peach liqueur, mango shrub and celery-infused vodka.

Miss T is emblematic of the breed of restaurants and bars that have opened in Mumbai and Delhi in the last couple of years, where drinks are crafted with as much care as food. Ingredients are sourced with a view to freshness, quality and seasonality. At these bars, we don’t merely get drinks menus, we experience beverage programmes where cocktails are crafted with precision, technique and attention to detail, mixes are made from proprietary recipes, ingredients are sourced to an exacting standard, menus are constantly upgraded and staff training never ceases. If the kitchen has a chef, the bar needs a beverage director.

“The beverage director doesn’t only design the menu," says Dimi Lezinska, a mixologist and bar consultant who has designed the cocktail menus at KOKO and Foo in Mumbai. “The bar needs to be as good as the restaurant, so he trains staff, he looks at the quality of ingredients, he chooses glassware, he selects a spirits partner, he looks at pricing and profitability—he essentially does everything to make the drinking experience a great one."

Most importantly, the beverage director helps create a concept for the bar, and themes for its programme. For example, at KOKO, Lezinska’s current menu celebrates Asian inventions. One drink is inspired by the seismograph, so it’s earthy, thanks to its base spirit of morel-infused brandy. It is then sweetened, elevated and perfumed with Drambuie, in-house pineau (a fortified wine), in-house anantmool (Indian sarsaparilla) tincture, and lime peel, which gives it immense balance.

“A good beverage programme is not about what’s in the glass, it’s about everything," says mixologist Arijit Bose, partner at Bar Back Collective, a consultancy that helps set up bars, trains bartenders and creates programmes. “It’s in the hygiene, the uniforms, the ice. (For example), a good (comfortable, springy) floor mat is for the bartender’s knees, not just cleanliness."

When the beverage programme is being conceived, beverage directors start with the broad basics. They think about the placement, size, design and construction of the bar itself, the lighting on and around it, the kind of music they will play, the kind of staff training they need (even how much the bartender chats with guests and what he or she says), the kind of equipment they need to source, from stirrers to ice machines which may cost lakhs of rupees.

Arijit Bose of Bar Back Collective
Arijit Bose of Bar Back Collective

“It’s what makes the same beer taste better in one bar than it does in another," says mixologist Yangdup Lama, who founded Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy in Gurugram, as well as a beverage management company by the same name. In December, he opened an artisanal cocktail bar in Delhi named Sidecar, where the central theme is to serve elegant twists on classics using all-natural ingredients and in-house flavour extractions.

Many of the themes are arrived at after a ton of research—some of it involves drinking, of course, but a lot of it does not. For Miss T, the team wanted to showcase flavours inspired by Asia’s Golden Triangle, using new and interesting techniques, both in food and drink. As part of the explorations, Pankil Shah, one of the partners, made a three-day trip to Hong Kong to visit 21 bars. He came back armed with a stronger understanding of Hong Kong’s evolved cocktail culture. There was also a visit to Vietnam, where Miss T’s chef Nikhil Abhyankar had been training for a few weeks. That trip was not only for research, but to source ingredients such as good-quality fish sauce, coffee, and so on. Both these visits yielded flavours like rice, umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur), pandan and lychee for the cocktail programme.

“It’s very serious behind the scenes," says Yash Bhanage, partner at O Pedro, the Goa-inspired bar and restaurant in Mumbai. The smallest things matter. Bhanage visited Ashok Bar, an institution behind the post office in Panaji, Goa, and noticed that the owner had put up photographs of his wedding, his wife, his family, his favourite football players, and the flag of the Portugal team, all on the thatched roof of the bar. At O Pedro, the ceiling has been decorated by bartenders and visiting bartenders, including a Russian who stuck some currency.

When guests approach the bar, O Pedro’s bartenders are encouraged to share what they are working on, to give an opinion about a cocktail rather than a fact (“It’s my favourite...it’s a twist on a sour") to help the guest decide. They offer tastes of the in-house tirphal (Sichuan pepper) tincture, or cashew- or kokum-infused spirits. The bar’s glassware was made by a Goan potter, the wine is a young, light and fresh Vinho Verde from Portugal. Because Goa and Vietnam both have strong beer- drinking cultures, O Pedro and Miss T both offer an in-house beer brewed specifically for the restaurant. Miss T has a “bia hoi" (a draught beer popular in Vietnam), and O Pedro has a coconut ale for this season, both collaborations with Great State Aleworks, the Pune-based craft brewery.

Well-built beverage programmes and craft beers and spirits are growing somewhat symbiotically in India. In the last few years, we have witnessed the popularity of Nao Spirits’ Greater Than and Hapusa gins, Desmondji’s agave and mahua liqueur, and Stranger & Sons’ gin.

“We are already 10 years ahead of where we were two years ago in our cocktail culture," says Rahul Mehra, who, along with his wife Sakshi Saigal and brother-in-law Vidur Gupta, launched Stranger in Goa last year. Mehra is also a co-founder of Svami tonic water. “Tonic was until recently a bar commodity," says Mehra. “Now people are realizing the mixer is as important as the drink." Mehra is in the process of launching a distilling university in Goa, bringing faculty in from Amsterdam to train bartenders, both aspiring and established, on making spirits from scratch.

A cocktail made with Greater Than gin
A cocktail made with Greater Than gin

He’s one of the many people in the industry who believes that an adventurous, experimental generation has come of age in India. Certified wine and spirit commentator Karina Aggarwal says social behaviour has changed, in that the Tinder generation would rather meet someone who is somewhat unfamiliar over a good drink and small bites than commit to a longer dinner. Bhanage notes that the death of club culture and the drinks associated with it has made guests move away from high-volume drinks—pitchers of shoddy sangria, for example—and they are now recognizing beverage programmes. Social media helps. He has guests who point to an Instagram post of a drink at O Pedro and say, “I want to have this."

Bars with beautiful beverage programmes showed up in New York and London 15 years ago, and Asia—Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo—caught up with them five years ago. In India, we have been constrained by the lack of access to a variety of spirits—it’s a struggle to obtain even Campari and Angostura bitters. Lately, however, our beverage directors and bartenders have been overcoming these limitations, employing ingenuity to compensate for the lack of availability by making their own Campari, Suze (a French liqueur made from the gentian root), liqueurs, and much, much more.

This inventiveness has led to recognition: Indian bartenders have been regularly participating, and winning, competitions organized by global spirit companies that are willing to invest in them and train them. “When Ellipsis (the erstwhile Colaba restaurant known for its excellent bar programme) opened in Mumbai, we had four cocktail competitions in India, and now we have at least 20," Aggarwal says, echoing the idea that cocktail culture in India is slowly becoming as important as eating out. “If we want to eat those dishes, then we want to drink those drinks."

SETTING THE BAR HIGH

DELHI & GURUGRAM

PERCH WINE & COFFEE BAR

In 2015, Perch in Khan Market introduced Delhi, and perhaps India, to shrubs—fruit syrups preserved with vinegar and sugar. With its second outlet in Vasant Vihar, Perch continues to raise the bar with drinks such as the QED, with brandy, red wine, orange and cold brew. It is no surprise that Perch owner Vaibhav Singh is also part of the Bar Back Collective with Arijit Bose, and one of the founders of Greater Than and Hapusa craft gins.

THE HONG KONG CLUB

To really understand the attention given to the cocktails here, avoid the clubby crowd and go early on a weekday. Settle for a quiet cocktail at the large island bar at the centre of this 242-seater restaurant. The 12 drinks are each inspired by an animal in the Chinese zodiac (and Hong Kong’s cocktail culture) and they come on glowing cut-out coasters representing them, but they are seriously crafted by very approachable bartenders who tweak them to suit guest tastes. There’s acorn scotch and ginseng liqueur, and smoke and pu-erh tea.

SIDECAR

This two-level bar’s eponymous classic cocktail is available in five renditions in addition to the original. The cognac is replaced with bourbon, tequila and Old Monk, and house-made add-ins include roasted almond cordial, corn purée, smoked pineapple purée and tamarind juice. A longer list of signature cocktails in unexpected flavour combinations comes with moody notes about how they were conceived.

SAZERAC

A Sidecar cocktail made with oleo saccharum syrup
A Sidecar cocktail made with oleo saccharum syrup

Named after the official cocktail of New Orleans, Sazerac, like Sidecar, offers several versions of the cocktail it is named after. To go with their modern American diner fare, there are also versions of the Ramos Fizz; a spin on the Paloma; and the Cuban Telegram with house grog, house apricot brandy and honey water with sparkling wine.

COMORIN

This six-month-old all-day restaurant, café and cocktail bar features a beverage menu that complements chef Manish Mehrotra’s eclectic take such as bacon bread pakoda and arbi galawat with strawberry and green chilli chutney. Expect similar twists at the bar, with a lemongrass piña colada, a negroni with in-house vermouth, and a neer more (south Indian spiced buttermilk) made with green chilli-infused tequila, yogurt whip, Velvet Falernum and caraway liqueur.

MUMBAI

THIRSTY CITY 127

Each cocktail is represented with a diagram to show guests how it is constructed. In-house concoctions include gravity-filtered white chocolate, bird-chilli India Pale Ale cordial, and home-made jamun wine.

MISS T

Consider the Polyglot Soda: shochu meets tea—and mint-infused Stranger & Sons as well as house-made dry vermouth rose. Or the Bloody Paw Paw: celery-infused vodka stirred with fresh papaya and yellow bell pepper mix, and citrus.

AMERICANO

Beverage director and San Francisco native Darren Crawford (pictured) spins the lack of ingredients available locally to his advantage.The vast repertoire of house bitters includes clove, grapefruit and celery.

KOKO

Every drink has at least two-three in-house elements. The Doucai has KOKO’s heady chrysanthemum liqueur; Cuju has the deep vanilla of anantmool (Indian sarsaparilla) liqueur with pomegranate molasses and cherry bitters.

MASQUE

The bar menu betrays a penchant for using familiar locally sourced ingredients in new ways. One section of the cocktail menu is inspired by the elements, with drinks named Petrichor, Gravity and Blazed featuring tulsi, raw turmeric, and bael and port wine syrup.

O PEDRO

The bar’s latest menu features eight cocktails, each celebrating Indian sea creatures, encouraging tipplers to drink like fish. Kokum Stings has kokum-infused rum, curry leaves and ginger; Not A Bloody Mary has pickle juice, tomato water and chorizo in gin; Muggsy’s Magic mixes smoked pineapple and egg white in whisky.

QUALIA

Qualia’s menu celebrates the local and the seasonal in fresh combinations. Refreshing, highly quaffable drinks feature fermented tomatoes (in the Q Mary), frankincense (in the Red Smoke), and smoked pineapple and Bhavnagri chillies (in Over The Wall).

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