Spicy Tipples | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
September 21, 2014

Spicy Tipples

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Ryan Martis

Fruit-and-spice-laden cocktails! And laced with ginger too, for that extra zing! Mixologists Rahul Raghav and Abhishek Bhalerao create a fuzzy buzz with their fiery drinks that are guaranteed to set your taste buds aflame, discovers Verve

  • Spicy Mandarin
    Golden delicious: Spicy Mandarin
  • Mumbai Monsoon
    Aromatic sip: Mumbai Monsoon
  • Abhishek Bhalerao
    Abhishek Bhalerao
  • Rahul Raghav
    Rahul Raghav
  • food05
  • food06

This is akin to a rite of passage. With his jodhpurs firmly planted on the plush carpeting, he cleans the fluorescent green chopping board and already-sparkling counter with a white cloth. The spices are ranged in bottles on the table top; the liquor bottles are lined up in the cabinet below. The star anise, with its distinctive shape and flavour is thrown into the glass, weighed down later by wedges of mandarin oranges and a golden drizzle of honey. He muddles it all with pounding strokes releasing the natural flavours, bringing them together in perfect tandem. Fresh orange juice and a good measure of whisky follow. He shakes it all up in a cocktail shaker, fills a deliciously frosted glass with loads of ice, pours it in and voila, Abhishek Bhalerao, mixologist with the Palladium Hotel’s newly-opened The Sahib Room & Kipling Bar has his Spicy Mandarin ready with flair. “Whisky is matured in oak and has a woody flavour,” he says, “and therefore goes well with spices like cinnamon. And it always pairs well with orange as well.”

The décor and feel of this new Indian cuisine restaurant and bar hark back to colonial India. The Sahib Room with its enormous glass window with fabulous Mumbai-view and walls lined with lithographs and original sketches and paintings of the time has been inspired by the lives and times of the ‘sahibs’ in the colonial  era when they enjoyed the flavours of rich food and traditional Indian hospitality. Leading into The Sahib Room is the Kipling Bar, also colonial-inspired. At the bar, a special table and chair are reserved for the erstwhile novelist Kipling sahib and here I discover a solar topee, a quill pen and inkpot, a magnifying glass among other antiquated accoutrements. A special list of cocktails features spices in various combinations – cloves, cardamoms, star anise – and we add, to tickle the taste buds further, slivers of startling ginger toned down by slices of fresh fruit and juices. Litchees and kokum. A pinch of cumin powder. A sprinkle of rose petals or a splash of rose water.  Our two mixologists, Bhalerao and Rahul Raghav, the latter from the hotel’s Li Bai Social Bar and Lounge, juggle flavours pungent and sweet with aromatic liquors to create masterpieces especially for Verve.

So while Bhalerao who started as a server in an Indian cuisine restaurant and began experimenting with spices and later learnt the art of molecular mixology, juggles colonial flavours, Raghav tosses up Asian combinations at Li Bai named after one of the celebrated poets of the Tsang Dynasty in China. With over eight years of experience in the field of mixology, Raghav worked for an Italian cruise liner for two years. He has been a crucial part of the  pre-opening team of Li Bai where he passionately innovates new mixes. He trains staff to ensure that they are keeping up with international beverage service standards and has represented Li Bai in several cocktail making competitions, recently winning second place at the Diageo World Class Cocktail Competition 2014, Mumbai.

“From the pre-opening of Li Bai, most of the cocktails have been mine,” he says, pointing out with pride that “We make our own syrups like star anise, pomegranate or passion fruit syrups and never use tinned or packaged juices.” He is particularly proud of his award-winning cocktail Bombay Monsoon that is ever so appropriate for the rains and works particularly well against Li Bai’s large foggy windows. It includes a cranberry and ginger reduction, some brewed Assam tea, lime juice and a good drop of Singleton 12 year, amongst other ingredients including a healthy dose of Reisling. He flames a handful of spices in Cointreau and the aroma is heady as he pours this into his mix. The presentation with smoke surrounding the bottom of the glass and the refreshing bouquet of piquant orange, wake up the senses to high alert. “This reminds me of the monsoon fog,” he says. You can tell that the creator is extremely proud of his creation and holds it aloft with justifiable glory. It tastes amazing too and is one of those elixirs where tastes blend in harmony, none pushing or nudging for dominance.

So, I ask Bhalerao, did the colonials indulge in drinks laced with spices? Yes, they did, it would seem. “Hot toddy is such a drink that traditionally comes from that era,” he says, “and there were other recipes too.” His very special and personal contribution to the bar’s cocktail listing, however, is the paan martini. “This is something that you would have after you finish your meal,” he says. It features paan leaves blended with golkhund and vodka. Great for the digestion too, I would imagine. His own favourite drink though is the one that is dedicated to Kipling sahib who everyone here discusses with such fondness that you expect him to make an appearance at any moment. This is a gin-based cocktail that features ginger and coriander and one wonders if these were in fact amongst the Jungle Book novelist’s favourite flavours.

Raghav changes the drinks menu every six months at Li Bai and is constantly experimenting like an alchemist looking to create the proverbial gold. Besides tossing around his homemade syrups and potions, he smokes whisky with hickory smoke chips with a smoking gun to create further depth of taste. “The poet Li Bai would only write in a totally inebriated state and what beautiful poetry he wrote!” he exclaims, maintaining that his favourite drink is the popular The Poet, featuring fresh green apple, star anise syrup and vodka. Good enough reason then to create the finest cocktails…. “I have been in the bartending industry for seven years,” he says. “I have been with big properties and cruises as well. I know what people like….” That of course includes the poet Li Bai and Kipling sahib, one hopes!

Spicy Mandarin
Blended scotch whisky, 60 ml; Honey, 10 ml; Ginger juice, 15 ml; Cinnamon, 2 gms; Star anise, 4; Cloves, 4; Mandarin orange, 1; Ginger ale, to top up.

Muddle clove and cinnamon in a shaker tin. Add chopped orange and honey, muddle to extract juices. Add ginger juice. Add whisky and shake well. Double strain the contents in a tall beer glass filled with ice. Top up the glass with ginger ale. Garnish with slice of orange, star anise and ginger juliennes.

Mumbai Monsoon
Single malt whisky, 45 ml; Orange liqueur, 30 ml; Cranberry and ginger reduction, 60 ml; Assam tea liqueur, 30 ml; Lime juice, 1 tbsp; Simple syrup, 20 ml; Cardamom and cloves, 5-6 pieces.

In a brandy balloon glass flame the orange liqueur, cardamom and cloves. In a Boston glass add cranberry juice, single malt whisky, tea liqueur, lime juice and syrup. Add the flamed spiced orange liqueur to this mix. Top it up with ice, shake well and double strain the contents into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange zest.

Place a flat bowl besides the cocktail glass and put some dry ice in it. Pour orange syrup on top of dry ice to allow the smoky flavour to evoke the orange aroma around the glass.

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