Those who think India is all rural villages, think again! It has a sophisticated cosmopolitan culinary scene, with flourishing restaurants and bars. We invited Vinod Mishra to join us for the third in our NamaStay series to talk about martinis and other cocktails infused with the flavors of India.
Born and bred in Mumbai, Vinod Mishra is the former owner of The Pepper Mill and now general manager of Gymkhana 91 (91 is India’s phone country code). After an internship and exams, he began his career at the Ambassador Hotel, where he worked at the bar for six years, followed by another six-year stint on cruise liners.
Q: Why do you enjoy bartending?
A: We do not have medical degrees but we call ourselves doctors who can make you smile, can change people’s moods. A bartender can be a good friend, and respect and entertain you. A good bartender can pick out what drink he should make you, introducing a new one or going ahead with a favorite. A bartender is like a chef in a kitchen, both creative and innovative. I still remember the names of many of my guests even from 30 years ago.
Q: Why are cocktails especially popular now?
A: People want to do something innovative at home. The visual appeal of food is very important. You eat and drink with your eyes first; then with your nose, then you gulp it. People are making their own syrups. The freshness of making it on your own makes a lot of difference. They are also using edible flowers, fresh fruits and herbs.
Today guests know a lot! Previously they would say, Give me a martini, or a gimlet, or a Bloody Mary. Nowadays they ask, “What’s your specialty?” A bartender will ask, “What’s your favorite spirit?” and will make you a drink freshly and instantly.
Q: Gymkhana is still closed because of the lockdown. Do you mix drinks at home?
A: I don’t consume alcohol at home. My wife says, “Let the world drink, but not you!”
Q: The Masala Martini is mixed with cumin. What does the cumin add?
A: Distinctive warm, earthy flavor, but also lots of healing properties. It grows in the Western Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Jal jeera, or jeera water, has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiseptic, and detox properties; it’s good for the digestive tract, relieves nausea and other tummy woes. It’s best if you roast and grind the cumin seed, but you can also use prepared ground cumin.
Q: Tell us about the Turmeric Whiskey Sour.
A: Turmeric enhances the taste and is good for immunity. Its dark-yellow color is rare and eye-appealing. Turmeric comes from the root of a flowering plant. It gives curry that yellow color. It’s grown all over India, from Andhra Pradesh to Assam. All over India, families add turmeric powder to hot milk and get golden milk, a traditional remedy for colds.
Q: There are some other drinks that have healing properties, too. Can you tell us about Kadha?
A: Kadha, or toddy, has a base of brandy. You muddle together star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange peel and lemon zest; pour boiling water over it and add brandy and honey. Kadha is an ancient remedy for colds in India—but without the brandy!
Q: What about mocktails?
A: I suggest a mocktail called Dusk to Dawn. It has orange juice, fresh watermelon and fresh cucumber. Mix it together in a juicer, strain, and add water. Shake with ice, lime juice, sugar syrup because the cucumber is slightly bitter, and an optional dash of mint syrup. It’s a soothing drink in the early morning or late evening—that’s why it’s called Dusk to Dawn!. If you want to add vodka, you can remove the sugar syrup.
Q: You also created a signature cocktail for your restaurant.
A: It’s called Peppery Black, made with pepper, which is native to India, and imported blackcurrant syrup. Pepper is grown in Kerala, in south India, and at one time it was more valuable than gold. India is the #1 producer, consumer and exporter of black pepper. It’s something we take for granted in our food every day, but again it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, can act as a diuretic because it promotes sweating, and improves digestion.
Thanks to Nataly Blumberg, professional publicist and amateur mixologist, for doing an amazing job mixing the drinks!
Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.