Whiskey cocktails, their interpretations, their new avatars and other incarnations truly signify that the liquor has the capacity to reinvent itself every year. The way one perceives a whiskey has undergone a sea change. It is no longer seen as the kind of drink associated with connoisseurs, but with rookies as well. There is a keen interest in exploring the spirit. Those who are new to the liquor, have chosen quieter ways to drink whiskey: in a cocktail or in a concoction in which it is usually teamed with other ingredients that bring out its woodiness, its oakiness and its warmth. It’s also easier to be introduced to a liquor that up until now felt slightly intimidating, in a cocktail.
Cocktails based on the spirit have boomed in recent times, what with the entry of newer selections into the market, and the market having exploded with new entrants, new distillers. We no longer know whiskey only as Black Label, but as a series of names that are donned by menus in almost every hip bar that wants to cater to a crowd which wants the power to choose. The power to acquire.
Guests are spoilt for choice. There are Japanese whiskies to choose from, Goan whiskies to admire, and other whiskies from unconventional countries that don’t have Scotland’s history in the production of the alcohol. As a result consumers can jump continents from one whiskey to the next in one evening.
Bartenders have tried to change the palate, by talking about cocktails that perhaps weren’t that popular. For instance, Bar Manager Latesh Kotian of London Taxi in Mumbai will often suggest to his guests to try whiskey in a cocktail instead of the usual vodka and rum based cocktails. In his experience, guests base their choice of cocktails on the mood. It is usually on Friday and Saturday evenings that they tend to choose cocktails that can help kick start the evening, and some bartenders have tried to break the mental barriers against liquors that may seem too stiff and serious for a party night. Whiskey is one of them. “We have a Smokey Old Fashioned on our menu. We make it using a bourbon, angostura bitters and replace the sugar cubes that are used in the classic version with cinnamon syrup we make in house,” shares Kotian. Kotian adds that the liquor market today is at its peak, with a sizeable number of whiskies on the scene. Ingredients like bitters, absinthe, spices, vermouth and orange are what bartenders use to make stuffy drinks look, taste and feel swell. It helps when dehydrated garnishes that look like an animated version of the real thing, are clipped on to glasses, adding to the sensibility of the cocktail, and making consumers feel happy about how they spent their money that night.
Going into details about whiskey and how it gives drinks character, Beverage Manager at O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen Rahul Raghav talks about how one of his favourite cocktails today is a very recent addition to the O Pedro menu – Muggsy’s Magic. A blend of Irish whiskey, muddled basil leaves and smoked pineapple juice, the cocktail is an ode to a combination that he believes reigns supreme – one that marries citrusy tastes with whiskey. “I think whiskeys can be had any time of the year, any season. Whiskey in cocktails is quite in, and constitutes a major portion of our cocktail sales today at our restaurants. I like using whiskeys that are naturally sweet in my cocktails, such as American whiskies. The naturally sweet corn from which these whiskies are made is what makes them ideal for all kinds of cocktails. Thereafter by adding other rudiments like honey, vanilla, and citrus, one can create all kinds of twists in classic combinations and cocktails.”
\The curiosity for the golden brown liquid has grown everywhere. Everyone wants at some point to hold a Whiskey Sour in their hands and feel like a member of an exclusive members-only club – someone who appreciates the water of life, and thinks of it as such. Strict vegetarians and Jain guests don’t want to be left out of the process of appreciating and drinking whiskies, even if it’s in the form of a cocktail. Bars like Lord of the Drinks have found a way to cater to their vegetarian guests by making the Sour with aquafaba – the frothy liquid in which chickpeas have been soaked which when whipped by an electric beater starts to look like whipped cream or whipped egg whites. However, the trick lies in being able to dish out great cocktails. Lack of experience and amateurish expertise is a dampener on India’s cocktail market. A cocktail made poorly can put off clientele and even lead them to write off a particular liquor or brew. Mumbai resident Vishal Sampat likes to drink cocktails because he discerns they are the difference between drinking something “crassly” and drinking something to enjoy its taste. He likes to go to different bars in the city, trying the Whiskey Sour at different drinkeries to understand how the taste varies and how different bartenders interpret it. “Cocktails are like twists to how liquor is normally had. It feels nice to hold; it tickles one’s taste buds and when you are meeting someone for the first time, is a nice ice breaker,” says Sampat.
Bartending is quickly becoming an art. A number of bartending competitions are held today in the country to help the bartending community grow, for it to build networks and for every bartender within the community to be able to find mentors and people to have a dialogue with in order to understand industry trends. Who will benefit from this will be the consumer, the prestigious guest who chooses a restaurant to dine at, looking for a knock-out experience, looking to be floored. Since badly executed stuff only leaves a bad taste in the mouth. “There are a lot of factors that influence a guest’s choice of restaurant – subconscious factors like the lighting, the music, how comfortable he or she feels there and of course the kind of cocktails it serves. Whether they are quality or not. For example, the Artesian bar in London had a ‘colour coded’ cocktail menu where assorted colours meant different kinds of drinks with different qualities. So bars can come up with a lot of cool concepts like these,” says Jamie Rhind, Operations Manager at The Bamboo Bar in Bangkok, who was also a guest judge at Monkey Shoulder’s Ultimate Bartender Championship that took place in Ooty last month.