Thanks to a few bartenders ever willing to look back in time to add a dash of freshness to their drinks, vinegar cocktails are back in the bars worldwide. In India too, you can sense the trend

This is a beautiful story — of ardour leading to creation. I am pointing to Varun Sharma and Pankaj Balachandran, attached to Rick’s, the well-known bar on its 13th year at The Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi, as head bartender-mixologist and restaurant manager respectively.

Some months ago, the duo gave wings to a thought. Why not concoct in-house some vinegar variety and try out vinegar cocktails. For those not clued into the drinks industry, vinegar cocktails were a rage in the western bars in the 19th Century and are now on their way back thanks to some enterprising mixologists looking back in time for inspiration.

Varun and Pankaj’s experiment at Rick’s spread across nearly two months leading to many a hit-and-miss before they zeroed in on a clasp of 15 cocktails with vinegars as flavouring agents. They sent their concoctions for food testing, also had deliberations on “which ones would catch the customer’s fancy” through in-house tasting sessions.

Finally, when they started a vinegar cocktail promotion at Rick’s (it began mid-December and is still on), they brought on board five blends — The Old Fashioned, The Classic Vinegar Martini, Bloody el tomate Mary, Mint Julep and Sour Mule.

Pankaj says all the five brews have been selected “keeping Indian palate and knowledge in mind.” Meaning, a martini, a mint julep, a bloody Mary are certainly easy to reckon in a country which is yet to mature as a cocktail market. “And Old Fashioned, because it is such a classic with vinegar.”

They though had certain worries. As to “how to explain the goodness of wine vinegar to an Indian customer as it is largely considered a product of wine gone bad and therefore not worth drinking.” They go ahead and wine vinegars they do make. Also make vinegars with freshly cut fruits, like apple, grapefruit, orange and vegetables like tomato. Adds Pankaj, “We also tried to make vinegar from Chamomile tea but it has a very mild flavour.”

Once the vinegars were ready, both found the wine vinegar to be “the mother of all vinegars”, besides of course the flavourful apple vinegar.

Pankaj proudly relates to me that the first batch of vinegars are over now and they are on to the next. Varun gets behind the bar counter for me, pops out a range of serving ware — glasses, goblets, even a bottle with black and gold inlay work done on it. “I picked the bottle from Janpath and got these special glasses made for the cocktails,” he says. Every guest at Rick’s is now offered a warm-up drink for free with wine vinegar and cinnamon as flavouring agents, served in a mini metal wine glass. It tastes awesome!

The first drink Varun offers to make for me is Bloody el tomate Mary. Pankaj calls it Bloody Mary with a twist, also his favourite. “We don’t use the Worcestershire sauce and lemon in it as the souring agent here is the wine vinegar,” he adds.

Bloody el tomate Mary

In a shaker, he pours 60 ml vodka, 90 ml tomato juice plus 45 ml tomato vinegar. Also pours 20 ml wine vinegar, three-four dashes of tobasco sauce, some salt, some pepper and about 15 ml lemon juice plus some ice cubes. The rim of the glass is readied with a line of chilli flakes and black pepper and salt.

Even though Varun pours the stuff in a shaker, he tells you not to shake the ingredients. “The method is of throw, like what one does with filter coffee in the South.”

With care, he shifts the concoction into the readied glass, a Pilsner. The garnish is a twirl of cucumber slice, a slice of mandarin orange and a celery stick thrust into it.

Mint Julep

Varun, a talented bartender who has won many international mixology competitions for Rick’s, thereafter goes on to make the Mint Julep. He takes the smoky Jack Daneils whiskey for this brew as the base spirit. In a shaker, 60 ml whiskey is dropped along with a sachet of sugar, a handful of mint —crushed, 30 ml apple juice, 10 ml apple vinegar and muddle allowing the sugar to dissolve and the flavours to come out. He strains the blend into a metal ornate glass, specially procured for the cocktail. The garnish is a sprig of mint leaves plus green apple sliced fine and bunched together in a toothpick.

Old Fashioned

Varun’s last concoction for me is the Old Fashioned. Here too, he uses Jack Daniels — 50 ml of it. Before picking up the shaker, he drops a cube of brown sugar into the glass and adds wine vinegar to it with the help of a dropper. The glass needs special mention. From a distance, it looks like an old fashioned glass with ice cubes at the bottom — specially designed for the vinegar cocktail promotion by Varun.

In a shaker goes a dash of homemade Indian spices bitters (Varun has made it with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, etc.) plus a dash of rosemary bitters (again homemade about one and a half years ago) and muddle them together.

The whiskey is poured along with a few ice cubes before giving it a stir with a bar spoon. Then goes in a dash of fig puree and is stirred again.

Interestingly, Rick’s makes ice cubes with a whole variety of ingredients, like cinnamon, parsley, orange, dragon fruit, strawberry, et al. Here he picks the cinnamon and mandarin orange ice blobs, drops them as one on top of another into the glass. By now, the brown sugar is well melted.

The concoction is poured around the ice blobs. Varun sprinkles a dash of cinnamon powder on top of the ice cubes. The garnish is a cherry and a slice of orange.

A sip from each and I know what to order next time I am at Rick’s. It would certainly be the Mint Julep, and also the Old Fashioned. To disappoint Pankaj, I would say, the Bloody Mary seems, well, a regular well-made Bloody Mary to me.

The duo is now giving wings to another thought. Why not make vinegars from some more vegetables and tea.

Way to go!

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