All about sustainability, foraging and a bottle of gin

The gin-aissance refuses to die down – from being considered a ladies’ drink to becoming the hottest spirit in the bar world in the past few years, there’s no doubt that gin is in. India has emerged as the fifth largest gin consumer in the world so it’s no surprise that the market is moving beyond the mass brands and introducing consumers to artisanal, often small-batch gins from around the world.

One of the newer entrants is The Botanist, a super-premium, artisanal dry gin distilled on the wild Hebridean island of Islay in Scotland. The gin owes its layered complexity to the 22 hand-foraged botanicals that go into it, from typical Scottish ones like gorse and heather to meadowsweet, chamomile, and three different types of mint. “The gin is trickle-distilled in the world’s last surviving Lomond spirit still, modified to slow down the distillation process,” explained Caitlin Hill, award-winning mixologist and South Africa’s “Gin Queen” who is the brand ambassador for Rémy Cointreau (which owns The Botanist brand). Hill was in India recently to judge The Botanist Wild 22 competition, which was held in Goa in August, this year. Twenty-two selected bartenders from across India participated in an immersive three-day experience, which saw them foraging for wild botanicals to create a signature gin cocktail.

Into the wild

Foraging for ingredients was made trendy by Noma in Copenhagen and soon became quite the rage, especially in the world of New Nordic restaurants. It was only a matter of time before it made an appearance on the cocktail scene. “As a bartender or a bar-owner you look for ways in which you can set yourself apart and foraging is a great way of doing exactly that. There’s a lot of effort required for successful foraging, much more than just going to buy botanicals from a store or calling a supplier,” said Hill. Judging the competition was Matt Whiley, an acclaimed bartender who owns several bars, including Scout London (No. 28 on the World’s 50 Best Bars 2018 list) and Scout Sydney. Whiley has won multiple awards and was most recently awarded the European Bartender of the Year at the Mixology Bar Awards 2019. Both Hill and Whiley are enthusiastic proponents of foraging, with Whiley’s London & Sydney bars both focusing on sustainability and using foraged ingredients in their menu of inventive craft cocktails. “Foraging is about celebrating what we have in our backyard, we overlook that all the time,” said Whiley.

The bartenders got a crash course in foraging on day one at Cazulo Feni Distillery in Cansaulim in South Goa. Surrounded by beautiful garrafões (handmade large-bellied glass bottles traditionally used for stocking feni ) in the world’s first feni cellar, Cazulo’s second-generation distiller Hansel Vaz spoke about Goa’s rich wild produce. “Goa was a major port for centuries, and the Portuguese who were keen agriculturists brought with them all sorts of plants, fruits and flowers. Some of them like potatoes, tomatoes, guava, pineapple, etc. reached the rest of India but there are many botanicals that are known only here like different cherries, local limes, etc.,” he said. Vaz’s distillery is surrounded by a wild farmland and we followed him on a trail as he pointed out pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, betel, turmeric, allspice, cashew, breadfruit, and several other plants. “The idea is to open up your eyes and train your senses to figure out how you can use these botanicals, whether it’s the fruits, flowers, or leaves,” shared Vaz.

Wilder still

On day two, we accompanied the bartenders to another, larger and decidedly wilder farm also in South Goa. Here, father-and-son duo Laban and Kevin de Souza split the bartenders into two groups and guided them into the wild. The foraged bounty ranged from citron, passion fruit, star fruit, kokum, and hog plums (locally known as ambade ) to rare findings like soursop and noni fruit (both of which purportedly cure several ailments, from cancer to diabetes). Apart from the fruits, spices like pepper, allspice, fennel, and cinnamon, and leaves like betel, ginger, lemongrass, etc. found their way into the bartenders’ kitty. We also encountered a toddy tapper who effortlessly shimmied up a palm tree and brought down freshly tapped toddy for us to taste. Hill was especially fascinated with it; “If I had to design a cocktail, I would probably carbonate the toddy, add a citrus element, and of course some Botanist gin,” she said.

Cocktail hour

On day three, the bartenders assembled at Firefly, Goa’s hottest new party spot, to battle it out for the title of ‘The Botanist Wild One’. The bar was decked out with bottles of The Botanist Gin and the judges milled about (apart from Hill amd Whiley, the competition was judged by celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani, and Goa-based artisanal bread-maker Sujit Sumitran). The dance floor was set up with tables where the bartenders were hard at work with their prep – blending, sous-viding, shaking, stirring, and tasting – as they perfected their drink. Every table was brimming with foraged ingredients – fruits, leaves, roots, et al. “I’m using allspice leaves infused in choriz fat, star fruit and Goan limes to make my cocktail, B-Town ,” said Rahul Raghav, Bar Manager at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro.

At another table, Bengaluru-based mixologist Karthik Kumar who is the Director of Beverages at Big Brewsky Brewing Company was tenderising octopus with pepper leaves. “I want to bring the connect between the land and the sea with the foraged leaves and this octopus. I’m calling my drink Wild & Sea ,” he explained. Working on adjoining tables, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar’s bar and beverage manager Sarita Sharma and Goa-based mixologist and bar consultant Evgenya Prazdnik were both using passion fruit to produce two rather distinct drinks.

The competition began with the contestants unleashing their creativity not just with the drinks but also by presenting bar snacks with foraged ingredients (like the breadfruit chips with hog plum dip served by Sharma) and even making coasters with pressed leaves & flowers. “I’m interested in the bartenders’ techniques and I’m really looking forward to what stories they have to tell,” said Hill. For Whiley, it was all about the taste; “More than anything else, the cocktail has to taste great; everything else that goes around it is good but if it doesn’t taste great you’re going to be let down,” he said.

The judges declared Evgenya Prazdnik as the winner for her cocktail Jungle Calling , which blended the earthy notes of The Botanist Gin with the tart flavours of passion fruit, star fruit, and local limes, all foraged from the farm the previous day. The chilli oil garnish at the end brought a nice balance and an attractive finish to the cocktail. Prazdnik will now head to Islay in March 2020 for the international competition.

The Botanist is available at leading restaurants in in the city like The Bombay Canteen, Toast & Tonic, Americano, Qualia, etc. and retails at ₹ 6150 (700-ml bottle, ex-Mumbai).

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2022 9:48:49 pm |