By Madhulika Dash
“Love was never pink, but malty dark” - Seasonal mixologist Chetan Kaushal on the vintage affair of drinks and love – and why Valentine’s Day was always about full-bodied spirits.
Ever wondered why every Valentine’s day, one sees a barrage of cocktails that work more on the eye than the palate. Each cocktail or drink is made with the quintessential pink or red hue and sold as the perfect poison of love? Well some may call it commercial manipulations (how else does one explain that for the past five decades, this day is marked with food and drinks made with the colour red only?!) or even convince you that pink or red is indeed the colour of love. I, for one, disagree, at least when it comes to spirits and the spirit of love.
Red colour drink unless it refers to the spiced Indian soma, King Henry’s Gruit or the century old Rose that Cleopatra served while welcoming Anthony was never been the idea of love – not at least in the ancient world. Spirits however were an important part, and since most of it was made by fermenting local produce and molasses, honey and later rock sugar, it was full bodied and usually on the darker shade. What in today’s parlance is called malty.
According to legend, when Romans senators decided to give their single soldiers a day off to be with a woman, the food that was served was spiced wine – made in toddy style – and was more rum like in taste. In China, beer was the common drink to socialize. In fact, it was nothing like the beer you find today but a mix of malt beer and wine made of grapes, hawthorn fruit, rice and honey. Barley beer was a beverage of choice when socializing with the ladies in erstwhile Iran too, and in Turkey it was an interesting concoction named after King Midas father, Gordius. The drink was made with grape wine, barley beer and honey mead – and was resurrected in 2000, as Midas Touch.
For Mayans and Aztec and the natives of Honduras, it was fermented cocoa wine made with Honey, chilis, scented flowers and spices, with an occasional addition of wild mushroom for special occasion. Close home, the famous Jahangir enjoyed an interesting concoction. Curiously, it wasn’t till the latter medieval period that drinks changed and became more sophisticated. And yet, spirits remained the beverage of choice. The only change was perhaps the inclusion of some interesting ingredients that were prized. But by and large, spirit that featured heavily during evening get togethers remained more of a good quality single spirit. Cocktails though existed but were more about creating experiences by mixing two interesting spirits like a Martini.
The advent of pretty-looking cocktails came in two ways: First with the mining community that led to the birth to classics like the Cuba Libre and Gin and tonic, and the second time with the Prohibition, which ensured bartenders worked doubly hard to bring in drinks that tasted as divine with not-so-good spirits. This was where most Cosmopolitan, Martinis and others took birth.
Fascinatingly, it was prohibition that changed the way cocktails were made and with that began the array of Cupid Cocktails. The first of which was martini served with two cherries. The second one made with rum and spices, and the third (popular) with cognac and a dash of absinthe.
In fact, if you ever ask a bartender today to make something that could warm the heart, pamper the soul and haze the mind, there is a good chance you would get one of those oldies – with a twist. After all, nothing warms up like a full-bodied drink.
(Inputs from Chetan Kaushal: The Master Mixologist and Co-owner, Karma Kismet)