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Shaken and stirred
London-based bartender Luca Chinalli spoke to Kritika Dua about the use of new ingredients, guests challenging bartenders and creating cocktails which can’t be replicated at home
The art of cocktail-making is getting innovative with each passing day. Unusual ingredients like curry leaves, coriander, cardamom, cumin, mushroom, tea, smoke from palm tree and teak wood, mogra, rasgulla, gulab jamun and even chaach have popped up to give some kicks and lifts. Even the glassware is changing with the use of leather bags. But vegetarians need not despair, there is even a synthetic variety made out of mushrooms to serve drinks in! But not just the ingredients, even bartending has evolved with time with coming in of new concepts, techniques and styles. “We experiment with local ingredients, something which the guests will not get in other countries. Thus we collaborate with local suppliers and sometimes it’s quite difficult to source them. In that case, we bring in technology like dry freezer, vacuum process, disintegrators and rotor evaporators. This enables us to maintain consistency through our preparation and give the right flavours. Thus, every bartender is digging as much as they can on the new things that they can offer to the customers. They are coming to see us as we have few elements which they can’t find anywhere else — it can be glassware, service, taste or everything,” mentioned the London-based bartender Luca Chinalli who curated the cocktail menu with Gabriele Manfredi at Shangri-La Hotel’s newly launched cocktail bar Novelé which promises a luxe experience.
The cocktails at the bar have been designed after months of research, after which each type of liquor used in the recipes has been specially aged to enhance the taste. There are many firsts — table-side cocktails; a variety of vessels and personalised glassware to name a few innovative experiences they are providing. There were cocktails like Khoisan, Bacalar, Tamil, Loomi Fizz and Clepsydra.
Chinalli is also set to introduce coconut wine based on Muscat wine and sweet-bitter wine infused with local herbs to the menu. Novelé has also reintroduced Indian elements like galangal, gulab jamun (which is called bubba in Napoli) and rasgulla. Said he, “We tried to accommodate all the taste profiles so that the guests know that we can offer an entire range. The full menu will have 30 to 40 drinks including 16 signature ones, a large variety of mocktails, classics with a twist as well as bigger vessels so that a group of people can enjoy them. Khoisan is a refreshing Havana rum-based cocktail with a twist of kaffir aperitivo, assam tea and gulab jamun which is refreshing. We created a cocktail using chaach and also introduced coffee-based drinks which looks like coffee milk. Tamil has a silky-sweet taste. It also has single malt talisker and grey goose la poire. We introduced galangal in Baclar which is a soda-style tequila-based cocktail with sapota puree, morada lemon and sugar. The sweet and sour drink is served in a traditional Chilean copper glass and is garnished with dry flowers, blueberry, blue corn and micro herbs. We also designed an hour glass vessel in which Clepsydra (infused with smoke from wooden log) was served. It gives us a chance to deliver theatre of the bar to the table.”
Another interesting drink is the Loomi Fizz which is champagne-based with cognac irani and dehydrated lime infused in the drink for 36 hours to give a darker hue to it. It is garnished with marigold, lavender and rose petals. Chinalli feels that guests are challenging bartenders. “The most evident innovation has been seen in our guests. They’re coming often (three to five nights per week), following us a little bit more. They are coming to see us (bartenders), they’re thinking like us and understand what we do or say. If they understand it, they are able to feel it in the glass. This is a big innovation for us as they are challenging us — guests have knowledge of what we do and if we do something wrong, they will see it. Thus we have to put in extra effort.” He said that once a guest comes often, he or she tries the drinks menu, knows the bartender very well, tastes the classics and that’s when they have to show your creativity.
Chinalli said that in his bars in London which operate from 8 to 11, they run live music so 70 per cent of guests also come in to enjoy the music, drinks and food. Sometimes he even takes inspiration from what they are eating, if the guest ask for suggestions for a drink that would compliment it. “If they are having something fried then I suggest Champagne and 80 per cent of the people go for it.” On the difference in the drinking culture in India and Europe, he said, “Needless to say, there has been many years of drinking in Europe as compared to India. While in British culture, it is acceptable to conduct business over drinks, for Indians its all about switching off. They go out after work when the week is done and they’re like ‘let’s get the stress out of our chest’. The bars are louder, there is little bit more music and people here enjoy that. They spend huge amount of time drinking outdoors and the vibe is more enjoyable as people are happy — dancing, chatting and drinking. Here guests sometimes seem like a big family as people know each other and it seems that everyone is partying together. In London, New York and other big capitals there are small independent groups.” There are many professional bartenders in the city now who focus on creativity, hygiene and hospitality.
The trick of the trade when building a menu, he said, is to prepare potential questions a customers may ask and their replies. He tries to keep up with competition — trying innovative cocktails along the way by incorporating new ingredients and techniques to entice their tastebuds. And this, he feels is essential as the guests are well-travelled now.
The guests usually ask bartenders about their suggestions after the first or the second drink. And by this time, the bartender would have observed their first preference. “If they were having wine it can be followed up with classic Daiquiri, Margarita or Manhattan. Based on the observation, I can decide if they are ready for something new or classic. Then I propose one or two options for them to choose. My options are questions, they will answer and it will lead to the final drink.”
Chinalli gave an example, if the guest had Daiquiri and wants something similar but more sour, then he takes the sugar out and makes a Straight Up with no ice which is a refreshing drink. He can change the style, work with different combinations, introduce a different sour agent, change rum to gin or change the base to whisky and add mushrooms to it which is famous in European bars. Bartenders experiment with different flavours be it citrus, bitters, sweet and spirits like Absinthe and Bénédictine.
He emphasised, “I should be able to make cocktails which guests will not be able to produce at home. If they can make the same drink at their house then I am not doing my job right. I should give them the drink to which they would say ‘it is impossible to recreate or is complex’. To create such cocktails, it takes years of experience and improvisations along the way. When we use techniques like smoking or infusing, people don’t have time or the skills to do that as one only learns it if they do it everyday.” His concluding thoughts were that his staff is confident and skilled and the response he got at the launch was quite positive.
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