When I started writing this column many years ago, the general assumption was that India was on the cusp of a wine boom. After all, China had just become a huge wine market, so surely India was next.
Two decades later it is clear that we were wrong. The wine scene hasn’t grown nearly as much as we expected, the European and American wine companies have stopped visiting to develop the market and only at the top order Indian wines with meals.
Instead, India has embraced a phenomenon that was already spreading in the west when we were talking about the Indian wine market. The cocktail boom had started more than two decades ago. New trendy bars emerged in the major cities of the USA and Europe – and later in the Far East. People who typically drank their spirits neat or with soda or tonic began to look beyond the classic cocktails and try a new generation of more original mixed drinks.
I’ve seen the phenomenon grow in India, but it’s only in the last five years that I’ve seen it up close as a judge at the annual world-class competition.
World Class is an initiative of drinks giant Diageo and focuses on bartenders. Regional finals are held in each country every year. The national winners then enter a global, world-class competition where they compete to become world champions.
The last time I went to a world class global final was just before the pandemic when it was in Glasgow. This year, after some pandemic-related delays, it was held in Sydney, Australia, a city that (before the pandemic, at least) had a reputation for great restaurants and bars.
Every time I attend a world-class event, I get some insight into the global cocktail boom. Here are some of the things I’ve collected this year.
Bartender vs Mixologist: In the early stages of the cocktail boom, a new generation of bartenders balked at being called “bartenders.” They associated the term with submissive men with bow ties standing behind bars making martinis. What they did, they suggested, was far more creative. So they wanted to be called “mixologists”.
I’ve always hated the term. (What, then, is a chef? A “cookologist”?) So I’m happy to see that it’s quickly disappearing from the vocabulary of the cocktail world. Today’s cocktail experts have reclaimed the term “bartender” and believe it is no longer associated with the type of bartenders they wished to be different from.
The bartender’s dilemma: When it comes to restaurants, the differences have always been clear. The manager takes care of the dining room, the chef takes care of the kitchen. The manager has to be nice to the guests, the chef doesn’t even see them most of the time. When the star chef cult began and chefs began to frequent the dining rooms, they made sure to establish themselves as stars.
In the bar world, however, there is no such distinction. A bartender creates (the equivalent of what the chef does) and he or she deals directly with the guest (which the restaurant manager does). This has always put pressure on 21st century bartenders who are unsure of their role to play. Do you see it as your job to get into conversation with the guests and to make them feel comfortable? Or do they just create the drinks and leave the guests to entertain themselves?
In the last two world-class competitions, I had a distinct feeling that bartenders had finally struck the right balance. They don’t want the PR skills of restaurant managers. But they also want to connect with guests and discuss what they are creating.
The premiumization of cocktails: There was a time, until not too long ago, when people saved the best spirits for themselves and used cheaper spirits for cocktails. For example, if you had a good malt whisky, you would drink it neat with a few friends who (or so you thought) knew enough to appreciate it. You wouldn’t dream of putting it in a cocktail.
That has changed. People now want cocktails made with the finest spirits. I’ve noticed how many bartenders use Singleton, a high quality malt whiskey. That goes for all spirits, according to Shweta Jain, who oversees Diageo’s imported spirits portfolio. For example, Tanqueray 10 has botanicals and flavors so distinctive that people once said nothing goes better with it than some ice and tonic. No longer. At World Class, bartenders created Tanqueray 10 cocktails that took advantage of its unique flavor and built upon it with other flavors.
End of the gin boom: As you may have noticed, almost everyone and their dog makes gin these days. That’s because gin is easy to make and doesn’t need to be aged: you can make it in your bathroom.
The consensus at World Class was that the gin trend was waning. Yes, gin would remain popular. But quality would shine. People were tired of launching a new gin brand every week.
Hello Meskal: When I went to Glasgow World Class, they told me that tequila and mescal were the future. They were right, although it’s hard to say how right they were because the pandemic kicked in, but the consensus is the tequila boom will continue. Tequila drinkers can switch to mescal next.
What about rum?: There have always been rumors that rum will replace tequila as the next big thing. There was no consensus at World Class on this. All conceded it was a possibility but said it was by no means certain. In any case, I’m not sure how big the rum boom could be in India because a) there is a lack of very good rums on the market and b) we tend to treat Old Monk as a reference rum.
Other trends: Evonne Eady, an Australian who lives in Mumbai and oversees World Class in India, reckons there are many global trends soon to hit India. For example, she says, it’s common in India to treat each cocktail as a separate drink in its own right. But in many other countries (including Australia), people often order a pitcher of cocktails for the table for everyone to share.
A second trend is drinking cocktails at home. Even as acclaimed world-class bartenders, the cocktail scene seemed to stretch beyond them. More and more people are not only preparing cocktails at home, but are also becoming more professional: the right glasses, different types of ice cream, etc. Bar accessories are a huge growth area in India.
Where do they get their ideas from? Social media, mostly. According to Shweta Jain, over 60 million Indians watch beverage-related content on forums like Instagram. They know global trends and are eager to taste premium spirits and make cocktails at home. Certainly, most world-class bartenders had huge fan bases in their own countries; Fans trying to make the drinks they created.
And finally: So yes, the cocktail scene is big and growing. In India, as in the West, it could well be the future of drinking.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022
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