Dusted & rimmed

Dusted & rimmed

From dehydrated powders to sugar pops and juice lollies, here’s how bars are planning to create the sweet stir with garnishes in your drink, writes Aman Dua

Garnishes are much more than just the fancy wedge that is perched on the rim of your favourite Cosmopolitan. When used wisely, they can be that thin line — or the twisty wave — between a good cocktail and the one that has been shaken to be your next favourite poison.

If you look at the history of drinks, garnishes have played a huge role in the making of the drink — whether it is cranking up the whiskey sour palate appeal with a citrus peel, giving vibrancy to the dry Martini by dropping two pit-less green olives skewed in a toothpick, or the classic lemon slice in rum and coke. In fact, the Sangria — one of the finest punches to have been innovated by the drink makers of yore — is perhaps the most delectable examples of the role of garnish when it comes to a drink.

Pina de Indes
Pina de Indes

So integral have some of the garnishes been to their drinks that without them the cocktail looks incomplete — even unrecognisable. History has it that even kings and emperors like Nero, Shah Jahan and Henry VIII — in whose era garnishes enjoyed the most limelight — insisted that the drinks shouldn’t only be good in taste but in the smell too. The drink makers back then in India were called Shunris and they dedicated much of their time trying to harvest different nose notes from ingredients that could announce the arrival of their drink much like the food on the table. And in doing this, they drew plenty of inspirations from Kashayam, the drinks that were concocted for health and are our traditional beverages. Yet, by the end of prohibition, bars who had taken to working with fruit and sugar concentrates had almost forgotten about the power of a good garnish and had reduced it to just a showcase — or for some form of aroma. This perhaps explains why most old-time bars in the country still use citrus fruits and peels. These were not only sweet-sour juicy globes which were big on aroma but also had better luck on the rim than an apple or other fruit that could wilt. But what won them the invincible position was the aroma. You can smell a drink whose glass rim has been rubbed with the peel or coated with lime infused salt from a mile, in the manner of saying. And it remained
so every time the rim moved close to your lips creating a memory that would recall that cocktail first.

The zeal to explore garnishes began somewhere around the turn of this decade when ‘sustainability’ became a buzz word, and much like the kitchens, bars too began looking for inspiration in local ingredients and global trends. For bars, that search began and revolved for much time around oranges, watermelons, pineapples and those that were a part of the traditional garnish framework.

While the juices began replacing the sugar syrups, given that fresh juices made for better flavour play in the glass (bars even replaced the simple sugar syrup that is used in almost 70% of cocktails with sugarcane juice) for a select few bartenders, this meant a relook at the garnish canvas once again. Peels, fruits and spices became the centre of more experiments.

Sangria
Sangria

Supported by molecular gastronomy tools and the spice and produce base at large, Indian bartenders began making their own set of drink flavourants beginning with infused salts, bitters, and smoked garnishes. A handful went ahead to work with dehydrated powders as well, which not only gave the peels a longer shelf life but versatility without the fear of turning a drink bitter. 2020 however fast-tracked the bars into finding newer ways to up their game while being truly sustainable. Getting garnishes, juices and powders was cutting the grade, and thus began a search for elevated flavourants that could crank up the experience without taking the fun and quirkiness of a bar. The solution: sugar loops. Made with fruit and vegetable juices dehydrated and then coated with diluted corn syrup and dusted with powdered sugar or salt, as the bar menu demands, these not only ensured that bars truly went fresh, local and sustainable but also worked to create this stunning DIY themed cocktail presentation, where the sweetness of a drink would be decided by the patron himself with these sugar loops. Appearance-wise, depending upon whether they were dusted or simply coated, they looked like these jellies served alongside a drink, but their work was much more intense than that. Each fruit loop — the making of which allowed them to experiment with vegetables as well like beets, black carrot, pumpkin and sweet potatoes — were these little flavour bombs that went about sweetening your drink as well as adding a little burst of flavours. The result, from start to finish you had the same taste, and mouthfeel. On the bar side, these fruit loops ensured a yearlong run of a certain signature cocktail, aided in discovering unique ingredients to play with like Ambula (dried mango) from Odisha, Gondhoraj from West Bengal, Shahtoot from Delhi, star fruit from Kerala but also slashed the cost of garnishes by half (an artisanal bar usually spends up to 20K plus a week) thereby turning effectively sustainable. The bonus being, they made drinks more engaging, as, with the fruit loops, part of a cocktail success passes on to the patron, who gives it that perfect finishing touch.

(The author is a seasoned bartender & consultant.)