“I remember the days back in 2006, when I had to travel from Chandigarh to New Delhi, just to buy cocktails books from which I would learn how to make cocktails. Today, you can find everything on the internet and social media is a key platform where bartenders share ideas, experiment with techniques such as sous-vide, clarified cocktails and the rotary evaporator,” says India’s top mixologist Varun Sharma who heads the bar at Comorin, one of THE places in Delhi, if not India, to get drinks and dinner. Varun also heads the bars for Indian Accent Mumbai, Hosa and Fireback in Goa.
In the city recently for a bar takeover at UNO Izakaya, JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru, Varun had a blast. “It was amazing. We put together a special menu featuring Comorin Cocktails with a Japanese twist. We created seven different cocktails, using four different brands of gin - Malfy Limone, Beefeater, Monkey 47 & KI NO BI. We were sold out even before the night was over,” he says.
Cocktails are coming of age
Not really surprising, cocktails in India are adulting big time with everything, from your garnish to the kind of ice, not to mention the main players such as the spirit and the mixer, undergoing serious improvements. From mid to upscale bars across the country, bartenders are emerging as the new heroes in the F&B space. Of course, it does have a lot to do with the range of spirits that India has access to lately – from domestic brands that are winning hearts to foreign brands finding their way into the country. Varun does agree. “The cocktail culture in India is booming quickly. People are getting more adventurous, and trying new flavours instead of sticking to the regular options. For example, gin came into vogue after being an outcast for a long time and now tequila and mezcal are in fashion not just as choices for shots but cocktails as well. And so is Sake. After Covid too, there have been many changes, bartenders are traveling more and international bartenders are coming to India. India now has a place among the top 100 bars in the world and top 50 in Asia, which is very exciting,” he adds.
Comorin, which is one of India's most celebrated bars, is not only taking advantage of the cocktail high, but doing it in style, by not only developing new flavours but also ensuring they source locally. Comorin also aims to give each guest a perfectly balanced cocktail, which is perhaps also why they love a guest who values mixology, enjoys exploring new drinks, drinks responsibly and contributes to a welcoming atmosphere at the bar. “An ideal guest would treat bartenders with respect, fostering a positive and pleasant environment for all. Also, they would refrain from requesting modifications such as a virgin mojito without ice or a Long Island Iced Tea without ice, and when they are served their requested drink, they do not complain about the portion size being less than expected,” Varun opines.
Vocal for local
The other practice that Comorin takes quite seriously is knowing where their ingredients come from. “We make our beverages using local ingredients and fruits that are in season. It can be tricky to find the right ingredients because spices and fruits aren't always consistent, but we make sure everything we use is natural and made without using any artificial ingredients. For example, we've noticed that khus syrup which is available in the market is green in colour but the actual dry khus root is brown. When we infuse khus into alcohol, it doesn't turn green because we use the actual product,” says Varun.
“We always support local vendors and we optimise the use of ingredients. We use ingredients like pineapple in multiple ways - its juice is used in cocktails, the pulp is turned into pineapple leather for garnishes, and Oleo Saccharum is made from the fruit skins. We do the same with oranges, grapefruits, plums, and many other fruits. We make our own cordials, syrups, vermouths, and bitters from scratch, so we don't need to rely on anything synthetic. Also, using the Sous Vide technique helps us capture the natural and fresh flavours of ingredients,” he further says.
To be inspired
From the bar to the man behind it, Varun talks about his early days when he had just begun and how taken in he was by bartenders such as Jerry Thomas and Donn Beach. Now Jerry Thomas, who thrived in the 19th century (1830 –1885) used to run about four saloons (now bars) in New York City. Considered to be the ‘father of mixology’ Thomas completed one of the first cocktail books, ‘Bar-Tender's Guide’, also called ‘How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion, which went on to become the guide for many aspiring and famous bartenders across the world. Needless to say, Varun was one of them. “Even Donn Beach, he was known for his Tiki cocktails. And then there’s Henry C Ramos, one of my favourites, who invented the Ramos Gin Fizz at a bar in New Orleans. This cocktail is a twist on the traditional fizz, with added orange flower water, egg white, and cream, giving it a creamy texture and a frothy top. In fact, at Comorin, we've created our own version called Ramos & Roses Gin Fizz, with Blue Pea flower infused Gin, Rose and Bergamot syrup, citrus, egg white, orange blossom, cream, and Carbonated Water. We shake it vigorously for an extended period to achieve the perfect frothy consistency and for that purpose, we have a special customised imperial shaker that is used specifically for this cocktail,” Varun says.
The collab party
Talking about collabs and bar takeovers that have suddenly ‘taken over’, Varun says that he’s always had a good time with them. “It's all about exchanging ideas and being open to learning something new. Just recently, I had an exhilarating trip from Delhi to Bangkok then Sydney and finally Singapore, where I took part in four bar takeovers and explored the top 50 best bars in Asia and the world,” he shares.
So, we simply had to ask about the bars he’s been to lately and how he felt about them. And this is what the master mixologist had to say:
- At Mahaniyom Cocktail Bar in Bangkok, their menu boasts a dozen signature drinks, each named after its star ingredient, such as rice, squid and duck etc.
- Cantina OK! Sydney isn't just known for serving the best margarita in town. It is also a micro mezcal mecca. Tucked away in a small garage along a hidden laneway. This bar boasts shelves filled with carefully sourced imported and handmade agave spirits. Their world-renowned margaritas and cocktails are crafted with hand-shaven ice and freshly pressed limes and there are no seats inside the bar, adding to its unique charm and atmosphere.
- In Sydney again, there's a remarkable bar RE- known for its efforts in sustainability. Everything from the tables, chairs, coasters, lamps, countertops, glasses and crockery are all made from recycled materials, making it one of the most eco-friendly bars in the world.
- I had heard a lot about the cocktail, Singapore Sling and read about it in books. I finally got to taste one at the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. It was just as good as I had hoped and as tasty. I enjoyed watching the bartenders use their special imperial shaker to make this iconic cocktail. Another traditional feature of the Long Bar, is the peanut shells that cover the floor. I found small sacks of nuts on tables and guests were encouraged to drop peanut shells on the ground and when you walk on them it makes a satisfactory crunch sound beneath your feet. That was amazing.
But ask him to pick his three favourite cocktails and he throws the Gimlet, Paloma and Negroni into the circle. “I always like my cocktails to be well-balanced and made with natural ingredients though,” he concludes.