The great thing about Mumbai is, if you’re feeling adventurous, you never know what kind of event you can end up at. Earlier this week, after a fairly long day at work, we found ourselves at a speakeasy-style bar attending the launch of the Hipcask Cocktail Fest, a 9 day multi-venue festival dedicated to the art of the cocktail. We were unsure of what to expect at the event but Hipcask’s Aneesh Bhasin and Johnnie Walker Brand Ambassador Nicholas Ord set up what can best be described as a “lively atmosphere” – conversation, Whisky tasting, a brief history of Johnnie Walker and the making of a few cocktails with enthusiastic volunteers being called on to assist.
Before the festivities kicked off, we had a quick chat with Aneesh and Nicholas.
Tell us about the Cocktail Fest and Hipcask for folks who aren’t familiar with it.
Aneesh: Hipcask is an app and a platform about discovering good drinks, whether it’s wines, beers, whiskys or cocktails. We just realised that the food space in Bombay has picked up so much, people are focussing so much more on flavours and quality, and cocktails are a natural part of it. This is our attempt to get people off sugary, sweet cocktails and into more discerning cocktails, more flavours, being aware of what you’re drinking…
It’s also high time we talk about the bartenders in Mumbai. We talk about chefs now, they are becoming celebrities. It’s really high time that bartenders get their due as well. You’ve got some really good bartenders and cocktails going on in Mumbai so we really want to promote that. With the Cocktail Fest the idea is to make it more accessible as well, so the price points are cheaper. What you would pay Rs. 450 for, you’re paying about Rs. 250 now, what would cost Rs. 700, you’re paying Rs. 500. So it’s an overall attempt by everyone coming together. I don’t think 30 bars have ever come together in Mumbai for one event. Everyone is coming together to promote good cocktails.
If you had to scientifically break down a really good cocktail what would it be?
Aneesh: I think a really good cocktail, like any good dish, has to be balanced. You can’t have any one thing overpowering something else. For example, it can’t be too tart. If there’s lime, there will have to be some sugar to balance it out. So things like that. I think what’s happened in India is, traditionally, a lot of the alcohol used was cheap alcohol, so people wanted to add a lot more things [to the cocktail] so you don’t get the taste of the alcohol whereas in the good cocktails the alcohol taste is very important because you’re using good brands, right? You’re using premium brands and alcohol is about flavour. So I think balance is really key to a good cocktail.
Nicholas: The original definition of a cocktail was that it’s a stimulating beverage comprising alcohol, water, sugars and bitters. Most cocktails have got some element of that. Not all of them, but most of them have got that. You can look at different historical variations of the same thing, for example a punch – you know the Indian word ‘paanch’ [which means] ‘five’. A punch comprises “two of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak – with spice”. That’s five ingredients.
They all follow the same sort of scientific idea of – think of a flavour pyramid. Just like when you’re making food, you start out with your base ingredients which is what your core flavour is. Today we’ve got Johnnie Walker Red Label, the whisky. Then you modify that, add the next tier to the pyramid. Imagine adding the walls to the house. You add the lemon juice or orange juice, whatever your secondary flavour is. Then you’re going to add the enhancing flavours which is like the roof on the house. So all cocktails are built the same way. Even something like a Dry Martini starts with gin or vodka, then you modify it with vermouth, then you add a twist of citrus or olive. Something like a Manhattan or a Rob Roy – start with Johnnie Walker whisky, add sweet vermouth, and then a cherry or an orange twist. They all follow the same kind of pattern.
So with a bit of instruction anyone could make a good cocktail?
Nicholas:Having been doing this for so long, and now I know so many drinks I suppose, every drink can be compared to a different drink. When you first start doing this job it’s really hard to remember the recipes. The more recipes you learn – for example, someone just made for me a Penicillin behind the bar – it’s basically a Whisky Sour but you’re using Islay Scotch whisky and some ginger in there. If you know what a Whisky Sour is, you can remember a Penicillin, that kind of thing.
What is the worst thing you can do when making a cocktail?
Nicholas: Well, anything to do with hygiene I suppose. Put your fingers in it, lick it, cough in it, spit in it, breathe in it…Nothing like that goes down well. [Laughs]
That’s a revenge cocktail right there.
Nicholas: [Laughs] Oh I can think of far worse revenge cocktails.
If you had to pick just one favourite cocktail, what would it be?
Aneesh: My favourite cocktail hands down is an Old Fashioned. Such a simple thing to make. It traditionally used rye whisky but you can perhaps make it with any whisky you like. A cube of sugar and bitters and that is it. The simplest cocktail to do, it’s beautiful.
Nicholas: My favourite cocktail is called the Sazarac. It was invented a long time ago. Depending on which story you believe, it was either invented during Napoleon’s time when he was visiting Canada and he ran out of his French cognac that he used to carry around the world with him, he started cutting cognacs with rye whiskys, using French absinthe to clean the glass with. That’s one version of the story. The more popular version is that a pharmacist called Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans was trying to push a brand of bitters that he’d invented called Peychaud Bitters, good for your stomach. He started mixing it with cognac and rye whisky. As cognac became too expensive he started mixing it with absinthe, originally to clean the glass and the absinthe then adds loads of star anise, botanical notes. Later on absinthe became unavailable because of prohibition so he started cutting it with other anise and pastis products. I love it partly because as you can tell it’s got a big history behind it, and I also love that it was invented at least 200 years ago and it’s more complicated than 90 percent of the cocktails out there. I love how finely balanced it is considering that cocktails hardly even existed when this guy invented this trick.
Communities are built around many things in this city. How do you go about building one around alcohol?
Aneesh: I’ll give you the example of Cocktail Fest. It all started at the house of one of the Diageo brand ambassadors where we started making cocktails at home to learn more about cocktails. That grew and then we realised that we couldn’t keep calling people home so we decided to do it at a few restaurants and today this is actually a scaled up version of that. I think once you start making good cocktails at home, your friends will taste it, other friends will want to try it and it can be word of mouth in a very big way.
Nicholas: Yeah, that’s the key focus of what I’m doing in my role is creating a community. We’re making big strides to create an online community, working with people like Hipcask and this Cocktail Fest, we’re trying to push firstly the message of ‘Drink less, but drink better’. So we’re trying to make a drinking choice the same way that people make a restaurant choice. What tends to happen in India today that we’ve noticed is that if you want to go to a restaurant you’ll choose to go to a Punjabi restaurant, or an Italian restaurant or Mexican or whatever – you’ll choose what food you want to eat. Then the drink is kind of an afterthought. What happens in Europe or back in England, in London or Manchester where I come from, you’ll decide which cocktail you want to drink and that chooses your destination for you. So we’re trying to introduce that in India, trying to introduce destination drinking as opposed to it being an afterthought to a food choice.