The Glass Therapy

Leading bartender Shatbhi Basu on what makes Indian drinks such a fascinating subject and what made her select ‘mocktails’ as the subject of her maiden voyage as an author.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Shatbhi Basu

“If there is one thing India is and will always be known for is the array of some fascinating drinks that it has, made not just of fruits but flowers, barks and even grains. And each of them serves the dual purpose of not just playing the palate but also of wellness,” says seasoned bartender Shatbhi Basu as we sit for a conversation that even though on social media is replete with her trademark exuberance. Shatbhi, one of the leading ladies of the world of mixologist – in fact, the first to have a grooming schools for bartenders – and the author of The Can't go Wrong Book of Mocktails, is perhaps among the handful few who are bonafide drink specialist, not only for the kind of understanding they have of the spirit world, but of the drink world in general, which, says the mentor, “has more of mocktails and juices than there are cocktails.”

And yet, ruse Shatbhi, for the longest period known, nothing peeved a bartender more than than an order of mocktail or a fantastic juice blend. “Shaking up a great juice or a fantastic mocktail wasn’t (and sadly still isn’t) part of a bartender’s scheme of great drinks. They don’t hold the fascination like say Gin & tonic or a mojito, even the good old, Old Fashioned or working with an array of whiskey.” All that changed in the wintery morning of January last year, when Shatbhi, who has written many a column and even ran her own blog for quite a few years now, decided to do her first expansive book and choose “mocktails.” Why not, admits an avid cuisine researcher, “we are a culture that has one of the oldest drinking heritages and have an envious array of juices, kanji and sherbets to speak of. Even if I put together one drink per region, I would have the complete book and some more.”

 Basu was right. India has over 100 different recipes with each of those having at least a quarter of a dozen variation through the country. Take for instance the Nimbu Pani, says Shatbhi, “what is explained as a simple lemonade across the world has over 30-odd version in the country with a variety of spices, herbs and even lemons and limes being used. Another example is of course the Dahi Sherbet, which is prepared in a multiple of ways and is very different from the Lassi made in the North or the buttermilk or matta made pan India. Even our Sikanjvi is served in a variety of ways, says the leading mixologist, “with the soda and water version just adding to the list along with the Indore one is made with milk.” But this is just the tip of the great Indian drink iceberg. Adding to the list is a slew of juices that are made with fruits starting from watermelon to orange, lime, mangoes, grapes, apples, bael – all of which have a spiced version and a region speciality. Then there are novelty juices made of wood apple, and those that are made of grains like sattu, barley and others. Joining in the parade are kanjis – fermented drinks that use even vegetables, palm and even rice water. In fact, admits Shatbhi, “such fascinating is the world of drinks that zeroing on which one to write on is like pointing to the brightest star in the sky.” It took the mentor about a month of just searching, researching, and reading on the subject to figure how she wanted her the book to look like, which is a “slice of our beverage heritage.” 

For a drink culture that began in ancient times and even evolved into a specialised segment thanks to our acute understanding of food and their wellness properties, the Indian Drink Book is full of a fascinating array of concoctions that added to the life in the yore, when drinking was an acceptable part of existence. And drink-makers – a tribe more famous as Sunhri – were revered for their skills of creating drinks that were both for pleasure as well as for wellness. Thanks to them, ancient India revelled in a wide array of drinks (Sura) and spirits (Soma) that would help them intoxicate, socialise, and often even worked at rejuvenating the body from an ailment. Known by various names like Madya , Madira , Asava , Madhu , Surasava , Gaudasava , Madhasava , Kailavat Madhu , Phaljam Madhu , Madhumadhavi , Madhavika , Sauviraka , Suviraka , Sidhu , Maireya , Varuni , Madhuparka and Kadambari, each of the drink served a particular purpose and was made with utmost care that allowed a person to relax while the ingredients helped revitalise the body for another day at work. Some of these drinks were also part of the Samhita that used these herbal mixes often called Kashayams as antidote to treat a certain issue or to help gain the strength. Most of the mocktails that we know today along with refreshing treats like the Kanji, Rasam, Kokum Juice, Sikanjvi or even the buttermilk, says Shatbhi, “have their origin in the Samhitas that found mocktails or juice mixes a much effective medium to administer certain herbs in a quantity that otherwise the body may react to. A good example of this is kokum juice. While the souring agent is a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, zinc, folic acid, magnesium among others, having it in concentrated form isn’t a good idea courtesy partly the extreme sour, slight bitter taste this fruit has. But when mixed with water or coconut milk (sol kadi), this acidic nature of kokum is pared down to a level that a sizeable quantity wouldn’t have the adverse effect. Plus, the pairing of ingredients ensures that each of them can add to the wellness quotient thus turning both the kokum drink and the sherbet one of the finest drinks to have along or post a hearty meal, especially one that is high on animal protein which kokum helps break down.”

Another example of this is the bael panna. Known to be an instant summer coolant, adds Shatbhi, “the beauty of this drink is that with addition of spices and even fresh cheese it can take on the nature of a nourishing drink or a laxative that helps detox the body minus any chemical residue.” Clearly, when it comes to functional food, Indian drinks – non-aerated and non-alcoholic specially – are still up the grade. And it is these nuggets of wisdom that Shatbhi tries to cover in what is today considered as one of the first book on mocktails. Or as the leading bartender corrects me, “on our Wellness Drink Heritage.”

We concur.