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The Secret Life Of Cocktails

The Secret Life Of Cocktails

March 19, 2011

The cocktail has come full circle, what makes it so cosmopolitan?

On a recent visit to Copenhagen, I made what appeared to be a life changing decision. From now on - I would only partake in the drinking of cocktails - not only for their swanky sophistication, but more for their rich historical, political and cultural importance. These days, we all eat and drink almost anything as it’s all largely available, though there would have been a time when what you sipped would have had important ramifications.

Part of my visit to Copenhagen involved a small seminar held at cocktail bar 1105, part of a wider WonderCOOL festival. A small group of us sat around the bar - where Gromit Edvardsen introduced us to the history and make-up of eight key cocktails. Not happy with calling himself a Mixologist - I’ll refer to him as the host of the evening.

Naturally, I couldn’t tell you all there was to know about every single cocktail, but we started off with Punch. Which funnily enough, both myself and my friend (the only two Britons and Asians present) failed to answer a question about. Typically - we’d associated Punch as a group drink - made for large numbers. I think of grand parties across America and Jamaica - as it turns out - the word comes from the Indian Panch (logic began to kick in). It would originally have been a cocktail of five different flavours, until the British arrived on the scene and quickly adapted it to their own means.

The idea of British and foreign invasion soon came up as a common theme in the development of drinks and drinking habits. Gin and Tonic, now regarded as a typical Highball drink, was in part, regarded as a British invention. Traditional Indian uses of tonic water to cure malaria and nimboo pani to quench ones thirst were quickly adopted and played with to create Gin and Tonic and the first Nimboo cocktails. The former would have been created to make tonic water a little more tolerable; the latter, I’m guessing would have been a good old party drink.

Keeping ingredients fresh was always a tricky business and exporting new and fresh discoveries was difficult. Certain things became expensive, and it was only the rich that were able to drink certain types of cocktails. It is perhaps this that set them apart from regular drinks such as beer and wine - which relied directly on immediately available produce. Moreover the cocktail required a sort of scientific artistry - there was always a blend or temperature that served to best promote a drink’s ultimate flavour. Liquors, whiskies, cordials and fruits - could all be combined from various parts of the world and their essence captured between high seas, rough winters and political unrest.

In the west, this resulted in the evolution of the cocktail which eventually became the reserve of the elite until after the war, when more women began to be allowed into bars and the laws of foreign export became more relaxed. The roaring twenties had set a precedent for a strong party culture, which now continues to adapt to political and cultural change throughout the twentieth century. Cobblers are more popular today than they were ten years ago for example. Certain drinks and ways of drinking came in and out of fashion. Occasionally slings, at other times Juleps and most often in summer – cobblers like Mojitos.

While the above set the pattern for what was happening in the west – Indian drinks still remained unchanged throughout this period. Naturally, we continued to utilise different fruit and herbal ingredients – but the incentive had always remained a little different (more medicinal). For me, the ultimate Indian cocktail – is quite simply Chai – or Guava juice as it’s made on the streets – mixed in with vodka. The former is not what you’d usually think of as a cocktail – though it does exemplify our ability to take the herbal infusion of tea, milk and spices to a new level. Just think of a Chai based Amaretto and the wonderful possibilities that could present.

While we’ve made the most of native berries, plants and herbs – other cultures have explored skills better known to them. The distillation and fermentation process for example works best in cultures where the climate is better. The Japanese for example, have become well known for Shochu and Sake, when the truth is the that the north of India, Eastern Europe and a lot of South East Asia – continue to produce good quality rice and barley – yet I’ve never really had any Punjabi rice wine.

Today, I know that I can go to any reputable bar or hotel and get an internationally recognised drink, or on the same token, ask for a bespoke twist on a well-known favourite. What’s more impressive is that Indian restaurants and bars the world-over are now creating their own twists on well known favourites. London’s Zenna bar, for example, is an all-out Indian cocktail bar – a truly unique experience. In its creation it exemplifies how the life of the cocktail has come full circle. Of course the above is just scratching the surface of the wonderful world of cocktails – I’m sure there’ll be a lot more to sip, learn and share. 

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