Many years ago when I started writing this column, it was generally believed that India was on the cusp of a wine boom. After all, China had just become a huge wine market, so India was certain to be next.
Two decades later, it is clear that we were wrong. The wine scene has not grown at anywhere near the rate we expected, the European and American wine companies have stopped visiting in an effort to develop the market and only at the very top end do Indians order wines with meals.
Instead, India has embraced a phenomenon that was already spreading through the West when we were talking about the Indian wine market. Over two decades ago, the cocktail boom had started. New trendy bars sprang up in the great cities of the US and Europe—and later, in the Far East. People who had usually drunk their spirits neat or with soda or tonic began to look beyond the classic cocktails and try a new generation of more inventive mixed drinks.
I’ve seen the phenomenon grow in India, but it is only over the last five years or so that I have watched it close-up as a judge at the annual World Class competition.
World Class is an initiative by drinks giant Diageo and its focus is on bartenders. Every year, there are regional finals in each country. The national winners then go to a World Class global competition where they compete to be the world champion.
The last time I went to a global World Class final was just before the pandemic when it was held in Glasgow. This year, after some pandemic-related delays, it was held in Sydney, Australia, a city that (at least, before the pandemic hit) had a reputation for great restaurants and bars.
Each time I attend a World Class event, I come away with some insights into the global cocktail boom. Here are some of the things I gathered this year.
Bartender vs. Mixologist: In the early stages of the cocktail boom, a new generation of bartenders flinched at being called, well, ‘bartenders’. They associated the term with servile men in bow ties who stood behind bars and made Martinis. What they were doing, they suggested, was much more creative. So they wanted to be called “Mixologists’.
I always hated the term. (What is a chef, then? A “cookologist”?) So, I am glad to see that it is fast disappearing from the vocabulary of the cocktail world. Today’s cocktail experts have reclaimed “bartender” and believe that it is no longer associated with the kind of bar-men they wanted to be different from.
The Bartender’s Dilemma: When it comes to restaurants, the distinctions have always been clear. The manager looks after the dining room, the chef looks after the kitchen. The manager has to be nice to guests, the chef usually doesn’t even see them. When the cult of the celebrity chef began and chefs began visiting the dining room, they took care to establish that they were stars.
In the bar world however, there is no such distinction. A bartender does the creating (the equivalent of what the chef does) and he or she deals directly with the guest (what the restaurant manager does). This has always put pressure on 21st Century bartenders who are not sure which role to play. Do they see it as their job to engage the guests in conversation and make them feel comfortable? Or do they just create the drinks and leave it to the guests to entertain themselves?
At the last two World Class competitions, I got the distinct sense that bartenders have finally got the balance right. They don’t want the PR skills of restaurant managers. But equally, they want to engage with guests and discuss what they are creating.
The Premiumisation of Cocktails: There was a time, till not so long ago, that you saved the best spirits for drinking by themselves and used cheaper spirits for cocktails. If you had a good malt whisky for example, you would drink it neat with a few friends who (or so you believed) knew enough to appreciate it. You wouldn’t dream of putting it into a cocktail.
That’s changed. People now want cocktails made with the best spirits. I noticed how many bartenders were using Singleton, a high quality malt whisky.According to Shweta Jain, who looks after the imported spirits portfolio for Diageo, that’s true across spirits. For instance, Tanqueray 10 has such distinctive botanicals and aromatics that people once said that nothing went better with it than a little ice and tonic. No longer. At World Class, bartenders created Tanqueray 10 cocktails that took advantage of its unique taste and built on it with other flavours.
End of the Gin boom: As you may have noticed, nearly everybody and his dog makes gin these days. This is because gin is easy to make and does not require aging: you can make it in your bathroom.
The consensus at World Class was that the gin trend was winding down. Yes, gin would remain popular. But quality would shine. People were getting tired of seeing a new gin brand launch every week.
Hello Mescal: When I went to the Glasgow World Class, they told me that Tequila and Mescal were the future. They were right though it is hard to tell exactly how right they were because the pandemic intervened but the consensus is that the Tequila boom is here to stay. Tequila drinkers may graduate to Mescal next.
What about Rum?: There have always been whispers that rum will replace Tequila as the next big thing. There was no unanimity on this at World Class. Everyone conceded that it was a possibility but said that it was by no means certain. In any case, I am not sure how great the rum boom could be in India because of a) the absence of very good rums in the market and b) our tendency to treat Old Monk as the reference rum.
More Trends: Evonne Eady, an Australian who lives in Mumbai and looks after World Class in India, reckons that there are many global trends that will hit India soon. For instance, she says, it is common in India to treat each cocktail as a single drink in itself. But in many other countries (including Australia) people will often order a pitcher of cocktails for the table that everyone can share.
A second trend is home cocktail drinking. Even as World Class celebrated bartenders, the cocktail scene seemed to be going beyond them. Not only are more and more people making cocktails at home, but they are getting more professional in their approach: the right glasses, different kinds of ice etc. In India, bar accessories are a huge growth area.
Where are they getting their ideas from? Social media, mostly. According to Shweta Jain, over 60 million Indians look at drink-related content on such forums as Instagram. They are fully aware of global trends, eager to try premium spirits and to make cocktails at home. Certainly, most of the World Class bartenders had huge followings in their own countries; fans who tried to make the drinks they had created.
And finally: So yes, the cocktail scene is big and getting bigger. In India, as in the West, it may well be the future of drinking.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022
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