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Calling the shots

I wrote here, some months ago, that I believed that (in India at least), bartenders were the celebrity chefs of the future.

Young people today, I argued, were less interested in food than in drinks – especially cocktails and funky spirits. When they went out in the evenings, they wanted an experience; and drinks are always an integral part of that experience. Food comes second.


I made this observation after judging the regional rounds and the finals of the World Class Bartender of the Year competition. The winner of World Class in India goes off to a global World Class Bartender of the Year competition, a sort of Miss Universe, for bartenders. This year Devi Singh from Goa was chosen to represent India.


   All the Indianudges (we  jwere a motley bunch, ranging from restaurateurs Sameer Seth and Ashish Kapoor, to top bartenders Yangdup Lama and Arijit Bose, chef Kelvin Cheung and a few others) were invited to the World Class Bartender of the Year competition final. Most of us made it though some had prior commitments.


   Last year, the Final was in Berlin. Next year it will be in Sydney. But this year alas, it was in the decidedly less glamorous city of Glasgow. I love Scotland and like the Scots so this was fine with me. But some of other guests may have been a little put out by our bad timing.


   But it hardly mattered where we were. We spent most of our time at the venue itself. It was, as I forecast, a bit of a beauty pageant. But when the contest was not on (actually, there were many different contests and many different titles – the booze world equivalent of the swimsuit round and such prizes as Miss Congeniality), World Class Bartender of the Year competition took on a different character.


   At any given time, there were four or five sessions running simultaneously. Some were demonstrations but many were chats, talks, discussions, etc. So, apart from the Miss Universe aspect, this was also the Davos of Drink.


   I am not an expert on cocktails but here, for what it’s worth, are my takeaways from the experience.


Whisky: The big one. There was a time when the conventional wisdom was that white spirits would take over the world because young people did not believe that whisky was the right drink for their generation. Those young people have now grown up and are happily drinking whisky anyway.


"Copper Dog is a blend of eight Speyside malt whiskies with very little tongue-burn, which makes it perfect for knocking back in a bar and its smoothness is fast making it popular with bartenders."

   But ever since whisky made a huge comeback a decade or so ago, whisky companies have been paranoid about losing out on the youth demographic. So each year, there are new innovations and new variants.


   In Glasgow the focus was on Johnnie Walker. I grew up believing that Black Label was too good a whisky to waste on cocktails so you used Red Label instead. All that’s changed now. Johnnie Walker was treated, at World Class Bartender of the Year competition, as a whisky for the young and trendy that would lend itself to a variety of uses. Not only did it turn up in state of the art cocktails but there were surprisingly successful innovations like cans of Jonnie Walker Black cocktails with funky packaging.


   It was hard to believe that this was the whisky my father would drink; the brand had been regenerated so successfully that the legacy associations were being forgotten. Bartenders would talk about the smokey flavour of Black Label and how that made it a perfect base for cocktails.


   But there were also newer whiskies on display. I attended a talk by Piers Adam, the owner of the fashionable London nightclub Mahiki (he was best man at the wedding of Guy Ritchie and Madonna if that sort of thing interests you).


   Adam launched Copper Dog, a whisky directed at a younger demographic (as you would expect from the owner of Mahiki), which has been a recent success. Copper Dog is a blend of eight Speyside malt whiskies (a blended malt is a category that differs from normal blended Scotch, apparently) with very little tongue-burn, which makes it perfect for knocking back in a bar and its smoothness is fast making it popular with bartenders.


   This is whisky without legacy issues and Adam said that his ambition was to get to a situation where people would ask for it by name. They would not say “what whisky are you serving?” Instead, they would say “can I have a Dog?”


   It wasn’t all Scotch at World Class Bartender of the Year competition. Much in evidence was Bulleit, a Kentucky bourbon that claims an ancient history but only came to attention in 1987. It was bought by Seagram’s in 1997 and now Diageo is taking the brand global. Doubts about its actual provenance don’t matter to a younger demographic.


Vodka: I guess it was bound to happen. After the global craze for vodka began to abate bartenders have begun looking beyond vodka and nobody I spoke to at World Class Bartender of the Year competition predicted a bright future for vodka. Of course, these things are cyclical so vodka may well fall back in fashion one of these days.


Gin: It is the new vodka. Gin has made an astonishing comeback largely because of the efforts of bartenders. It is the trendiest spirit of the moment. Part of the reason is that the new generation of cocktails differs from the old ones in that they don’t use liqueurs and bottled ingredients that may mask the flavour of the spirit. The emphasis now is on fresh ingredients and aromatics.


   A good gin (say Tanqueray 10 which is my personal favourite) will be perfumed by botanicals and will shine through in a well-made cocktail. Also, gin has a distinct taste of its own unlike vodka whose neutral taste used to be seen as an advantage by bartenders when they were making old-style cocktails.


   For instance, there is a whole generation that does not know the taste of a real martini because bartenders have made largely tasteless alcohol bombs (including the martini) with vodka. Contrary to what James Bond likes, a martini is supposed to be a classic gin cocktail.


   It also helps, I guess, that gin is a remarkably easy spirit to make, which is why there are so many ‘artisanal’ gins around. (When there was Prohibition in the US, people made gin in their bathtubs. Some would argue that history is repeating itself.)


   Cynics will say that the current gin boom is a lot like the boom in flavoured vodkas in the era of Sex and The City. But for the moment it is all about gin.


Tequila: Is this the next big thing?


   For people of my generation, the question seems silly. There was a time in the 1970s, when tequila was everywhere. Once again, there was a demographic at work. A new generation of rock stars thought tequila shots were virility tests and their groupies all drank sweet cocktails made with tequila, such as the Margarita. The Eagles even wrote a hit song called Tequila Sunrise, which popularised the cocktail of the same name.


   But now, as the wheel turns, tequila is set to make a big comeback. We got a hint of what was to come when George Clooney and his friend Rande Gerber were among the partners who launched Casamigos tequila in 2013. By 2017, they had sold it for $ 700 million with another $ 300 million to come over the years.


   Clooney and his friends claimed that the tequila was better than the competition because it did not cause much of a hangover.


   I don’t know if that is true but bar-owners all over the world expect tequila to take off again. Priyank Sukhija, the king of Delhi’s bar/restaurant scene, was in Glasgow with us and I asked him if he thought tequila would boom in India. He was upbeat and argued that not only was tequila the spirit of the future but that mescal, a sort of relative of tequila, would be also be the next big thing globally.


Cocktails: It would be wrong to say that the future belongs to cocktails. A lot of people like their Black Label on the rocks and their gin with just a little tonic. But what is true is that bartenders set the cocktail trends and call the shots. If you have ever wondered how one spirit (vodka, for instance) becomes less trendy and another (say, gin), becomes fashionable, look at the bartenders.


   See what they put into their cocktails. And you will know which spirit is on the rise.



Posted On: 19 Oct 2019 02:34 PM
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