Cocktail 101 - The 'Peel' Effect

Seasoned bartender Aman Dua on what happens when a peel is dropped in your cocktail – and how do you ace the art with flair

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy: Aman Dua & Pinterest

On a lighter day, one would often find seasoned, award-winning bartender and restauranteur Aman Dua at the fruit market of any one of the five food cities of India. Traversing through the narrow lanes of the shops, his early morning jaunts allow him to sample some of the finest fruits and get his loot too. What I look for are two things, says Dua (lovingly called Ammy by industry peers), “one the range of citrus food, especially the local varieties and the new imports that have hit the market.” A pro in making his own bitters, garnished and dehydrated dust, the former Massive Restaurant Bar Star focus today is the citrus peels – one of the oldest garnishes in the book of Cocktail making.

Says Dua, “The trend of using peels is as old as that of drinking itself. If you look at the history of ‘beverages’ across the ancient cultures, peels, rinds and even fruits were used to give flavour to the wine. In fact, there are little drink lores about how peels were used to provide aromas to the grails in which drinks was served to the royalty – a trick that was adopted in the Tudor Court, especially for Henry VIII because of his demand of drinking his copious quantity of ale and wine (his annual intake could easily fill an Olympic size pool, according to historians) from that single, gem-studded chalice. Story goes that since the king refused to let go of his favourite drink vessel that was refilled on demand, the drinkmakers would often rub the rum with pieces of fruit to keep it fragrant – till they discovered peel that is.”

A similar drink lore adds the seasoned bartender, “talks about the wine loving Emperor Nero and Badshah Jahangir. Both the kings loved their drink glasses and drinks, fragrant – and demanded that much like their food, their drinks too would announce their arrival. It was a trick that was achieved by the drink experts using the peel of the fruits. And what made these peels such an integral part of the beverage culture was the oil in them.”

Each fruit, continues Aman, “peel is a rich source of oil and fruit flavonoids, which works like adeodorant for the drinks. You can simply spray it on the drink before serving or just twist the rind and let the spritz of aroma settle on to the rim of the cocktail glass. In fact, the role of the peel in the drink is twofold: one is for aroma, and it is its prime role; and two to add contrast to the drink. Remember peels are bitter and will infuse the drink with the same bitterness if not removed.”

Which brings us to the question how do bartenders use peels in their cocktail? Contrary to their appearance where a bartender may seem to carelessly throw in a peel into a drink, says Aman, “a lot of thought is given as to why use a peel – and what is it that it would add to the drink. Often, peels are for aroma, especially in two-spirit/ingredient drink like the martini, where it is to create a romance with the drink and also masque the spirit smell. But in a few cases like the whiskey sour, it is used to enhance the sourness of the drink through both smell and a contrast in the taste as well. Elsewhere for sweeter cocktails, the role of a peel – citrus fruit especially – is mostly the same way as it is used in food, where the rind adds that aroma and the slight bitterness that can crank up the levels of sweetness and make a drink more palatable.”

Since citrus fruit not only have a thicker peel but are primed for that refreshing aroma, they are often become the preferred variety rather than banana, which is void of any juices/oil and can be outright bitter. Fascinatingly, he continues, “the oil in these peels enables us also do a smoked variation to it when we twist the peel to release the oil and then burn it. The char that rests on the top layer of the peel gives out this smokey aroma thus adding a new dimension to the dish. And the way to use it is to see if there are any citrus element to the drink as it would be more effective in its result.”

Once that is decided, the first and the most essential step is the creation of the peel. The easy way, says Aman, “is to use a peeler and draw your sliver, and don’t worry, a little white pith does help while working with the peel. However, when you have to dunk the peel into the drink, use a pairing knife, lay the peel upside down and carefully remove the white part as possible, remove the excess oil, twist and throw in the drink for a great garnish.”

For the left over peels, says the seasoned bartender, “sun-dry (or dehydrate it) pound it into a coarse powder and store it in a jar. Use sparingly as a garnish, much like how you would use the rind in baking… the result will be just as good.”