Mumbai based mixologists talk about the story behind a cocktail

Nov 11, 2018, 16:28 IST | Anju Maskeri

Mumbai mixologists talk about how they translate an idea into a cocktail, without it appearing to be gimmicky

Mumbai based mixologists talk about the story behind a cocktail

Earlier this year, Yash Bhanage, co-founder of The Bombay Canteen (TBC), and his research team found themselves meandering the alleys of South Mumbai soaking in the history of iconic single screen theatres. At Lamington Road, they learnt about Imperial Cinema, which in 1936 screened Miss Frontier Mail, an action crime thriller starring Fearless Nadia.

Guided by local history enthusiast Simin Patel, this walk was in fact, a cocktail-making lesson under a garb. As outrageous as it sounds, unearthing hidden gems in the city and narrating its history through a drink is a mantra that the folks at TBC swear by; one they've been doing for over two years.

Their new cocktail menu in the form of a guidebook, takes you through a curated journey of Bombay's talkies, with Miss Frontier Mail and Imperial inspiring the white lady cocktail. "A cocktail is more than a sum of its ingredients. It needs to tell a story," says Bhanage, in a phone call interview from Sri Lanka, where he is hosting a pop-up.

From seeking inspiration in an edifice to capturing the earthy fragrance of the first rain in a cup, mixologists are trying to tell a story through each sip. But it all begins with an idea.

Ami Shroff pours Sherlock in a pickle, inspired by the alcoholic, women-despising sleuth. Pic/Aashish Raje
Ami Shroff pours Sherlock in a pickle, inspired by the alcoholic, women-despising sleuth. Pic/Aashish Raje

Why follow a road map?
"Ideating a drink is the backbone of menu creation. If you don't have an idea, you will be drawing a blank when it comes to what the end result should be," says Pankaj Balachandran of Bar Collective, who has curated the cocktails at BKC's latest Spanish restaurant Uno Más - Tapas Bar and Kitchen. His latest creation, The Frenchie, is inspired by Cuban bartender Constantine Ribalaigua Verte, who was nicknamed the King of Cocktails. "What sealed the deal for us was that Constantine learned to tend bars from his father. The story of Constantine junior came naturally as a story," he says.

It's the desire to capture an experience that also prompted Jiaan Kris J Lam, bar manager at House of Nomad, Taj Land's End, to think up Chanel No. 6 last year. It is an ode to the luxury French perfumery brand. Through the drink, designed to excite the senses like a fine scent, he wanted to capture the ethos of Chanel, which was to offer something aspirational yet achievable. But before diving into the process, Lam makes it a point to classify his creation - smokey, fruity, fresh or tarty. "Once that is in place, you go about creating the concoction."

But to create an experience, it's important to also pick the right ingredients, believes Bhanage. To deconstruct the thought, he gives us the example of the white lady which comprises rosemary-infused London dry gin, triple sec, lime, egg white and orange, all of which represent Bhanage's perception of Fearless Nadia. "It's essentially a classic gin sour cocktail, which is balanced, rich and impossibly sophisticated, just like the actor herself."

King of Cocktails

Selling an idea
Having said that, sometimes, when the inspiration falls into a conflicted territory, it makes the mixologist's task doubly difficult. Ami Shroff, mixologist at Kamala Mills bar London Taxi, recalls the time she was asked to make a cocktail inspired by Sherlock Holmes. In the past, she had created drinks inspired by superheroes, but this one wasn't going to be simple. "He was a chivalrous misogynist who casually expressed his dislike for women, so he certainly wasn't a favourite for me," she says. But it was her job to ensure Holmes could be marketed as a convincing cocktail. "I wanted to create a mess of a cocktail that still tasted awesome," she laughs.

The Frenchie, at Uno Más, is inspired by Cuban bartender Constantine Ribalaigua Verte, who was nicknamed the King of Cocktails. Pics/Atul Kamble
The Frenchie, at Uno Más, is inspired by Cuban bartender Constantine Ribalaigua Verte, who was nicknamed the King of Cocktails. Pics/Atul Kamble

For this, she used lime and brine to create a sour "confused flavour". "He was an alcoholic who loved his wine and all other spirits, so we used red wine and beetroot reduction with vodka, infused with earl grey tea. He also liked his tea, just like the Brits," she says. The result: A sour, slightly savoury drink with prominent notes of gherkin, tea and rose. No wonder then, that Shroff chose to label it Sherlock in a pickle.

According to her, the cardinal rule while ideating for a cocktail, is to understand what you are trying to say through the drink. Abhishek Bindal, AVP operations for Hakkasan, Bandra, says he normally starts with an idea and builds on it. So, when he set about creating red monsoon, a cocktail inspired by the Mumbai monsoon, he wanted to capture the scent of wet earth while offering the freshness of the experience. "We took into consideration local sensibilities as well as lifestyle.

TBC's SoBo single screen guidebook, Canteen Cocktail Book, tells you the inspiration behind the cocktail you ordered while also serving as a souvenir for vacations and locals
TBC's SoBo single screen guidebook, Canteen Cocktail Book, tells you the inspiration behind the cocktail you ordered while also serving as a souvenir for vacations and locals

The whiff of the first rains is a very special time for Indians, and we dearly await it," he says. It was the first time that Hakkasan was creating a cocktail rooted in the local. For two months, the team scoured through market research, visiting spice markets and local street vendors. "Then it's a case of piecing these together through story-based local memories or connecting elements or tales." Launched in September, it is a sweet and citrusy drink, with the sweetness lent by raspberry and guava juice. There's watermelon to balance the sweet, and ginger beer to give it a warm spicy note as well as the fizz. The final touch of a spritz of geeli mitti works as the cherry on the cake.

Yash Bhanage
Yash Bhanage

But there is a thin line between innovation and gimmicks, and the mixologists are careful to not cross the line. As Shroff explains, "As a rule, I don't go ahead it if feels repulsive or too obvious. Or if something has been done way too often, I wouldn't want to do it."

Also Read: Mumbai Food: Resurrecting The Cocktail Culture

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