By Madhulika Dash
Not so long ago, famed barman Brian Van Flandern had said: "Great mixologists will emulate the great chefs." Little did the author of 'Craft Cocktails' knew then that in two short years, one of the best culinary minds of India will actually design one of the trendsetting cocktail menu – inspired by Indian spirits - that will have drink-makers emulating in India.
Meet Sabysachi Gorai: chef par excellence (award-winning too just to add) by the day and a clever mixo-artist by night, who is much, much, much better at pouring history through drinks than most. Where else would you find a cocktail made of the indigenous tribal rice beer called Handia… madi, made and served in the quintessential beaten aluminum pot, the iconic Mahua Mehul, an ode to the oldest drink of India, presented with gummy bears (who had help find the intoxicating flower); and the Gang wars favourite LG Shakti (the first branded country liquor and mix)?
Interestingly, what separates these 'perfect downers' from the other 'popular classic with theatrics' is the spirits play but the legacy that each comes with. The base for most of the drinks, for instance, is gin, rum and whiskey – the most preferred white spirit back in the late 19 th century India – instead of the now common vodka. And second, it chronicles the journey from Asansol to Calcutta (and the chef's life from a curious tweenager to even a curiousier adult). Example My Yellow Canary. Dedicated to the bird who served as lifeguards to coal miners against the deadly methane gas when they went exploring, it is served to re-tell the story: in a cage with the drink garnished with marigold petals representing the bird.
Or The Park Street Mojito, which is a spirited take on the traditional remedy of honey and holy basil (tulsi) that was given to kids to ward off cold and cough during winters (and still is). It was one cool cocktail, but my virgin palate back then had little appreciation for it, recalls Gorai, who grows his own tulsi (two kinds: black and green) to get that taste perfected while grinding it on a small stone pestle, which in his own words "does a great job at muddling."
CURIOUS CASE OF BAR - TENDING
"I've always found the art of mixing drinks extremely fascinating. I loved to watch them muddle, crush and smoothen different spices, fruits and vegetable and then add it to spirits to create something wonderful – and heady. It was what I called the original 3D experience of the senses," confesses Chef Gorai, whose interest with the bar began during one of his trip abroad where he saw a barman use the Swissknife laser to bruise a vanilla pod and smoke the goblet before serving a whiskey mix.
That little trick left an indelible mark on Chef Gorai, who began experimenting while setting up Guppy By Ai, one of capital's foremost contemporary Japanese restaurant. Back then, recalls the culinary wizard, "it was more of mocktails that I would design in my kitchen and give it to those special bar hands who would oblige (first reluctantly and then willingly) and replicate it with alcohol."
Curiously, some did work and found its place among the 'specials', others were drowned for the sake of "training my palate" purpose only. Encouraged, the slow food maestro continued exploring an experimenting "with I playing the scapegoat mostly", and Sodabottleopenerwala, yet another of his brainchild, he was designing bars – not just approving the wine list. "It was the first time that a sugarcane juice extracting machine was actually put inside a bar," says the seasoned bar designer, whose travel abroad became 'cocktail discovery stints'."
Finding the roots became the number uno factor as the chef turned quarter mixologist (I still need a skilled bar hand to do the mixing) began researching on his own restaurant, Armenian cuisine – based Lavaash By Saby's food. And while it was purely food, confesses Chef Gorai, "the cocktail was never too far."
Soon, adds the culinary designer, "I found the base of great, memorable cocktails – the spirits. You have to got to taste not only the mix but also the base spirit."
BACK TO HIS YARD
Hailing from a family where bottling county liquor was the business and narrating stories of drinks and drunkards an evening pastime, Chef Gorai's research on traditional, era-wise drinks was more of a walk back into childhood. "I was born in the era of the Carew Company (the famous blue riband Gin was born in Asansol) boomers, when breaking the age seal (time you would be considered as Man as you Dad) was celebrated over a peg of the strong blue riband gin and a glass of Black Diamond."
Inquisitively it wasn't while piecing the story of his Armenian childhood for his opening note of the restaurant that the chef-owner fell on the anchor of his cocktail menu, but at a bar in the Park Street. "A group of men in their 70s came to the bar and ordered, Bloody Mary, old style. When the barhand nodded in affirmation, the gentleman tapped at his shoulder, smiled and said, 'good you know, else I had to knock my knees to the next."
"And just like that sitting in the bar stool with Bob Marley singing Stir Me Up, I stirred the cocktail menu," smiles the self confessed rooky mixter, who gleefully took again to creating mixes, this time however with "spirits." The result: a cocktail menu that chronicles three decades of the Chef's (and in a way Asansol's) life. Among the first to come was the robust Gregory Peck… peg! – a heady concoction of vodka, gin, dill, cucumber, tonic water and olives, dedicated more to Gregory, owner of the last Armenian bakery, than the Hollywood star; and the luscious Evelyn, a spicy drink made with tomato juice, coconut cream, green chilli, tobassco, black salt, drumstick on vodka. "A very Bengali-style ode to classic Bloody Mary!"
Or the Godfather of all cocktails called हॉ जॉ बो रो लॉ……all mixed up. Inspired from the lines of Bengali movie song of legendary actor Uttam Kumar, the crazy drink has Gin, Sherry, Champagne, Rum and palm jaggery. "It's our potent best, two drinks and you can see angels jig with you,".
But ask him what would be a good pick for a date, and the founder of Fabrica by Saby humours, "Anything that keeps you soberly intoxicated to ask for one more. Like the Suar e bacha. Slang for pigs and piglets chasing ethnic tribe, the drink is truly an ode to the two famous loves of drunkards: jaggery glazed bacon and cinnamon infused whiskey!"