Renowned Mixologist on Local Asian Tastes

by September 14, 2018 0 comments

Renowned Mixologist on Local Asian TastesCelebrated mixologist James Estes talks about the potential contribution of local Asian ingredients to cocktails.

The West has been an influence for the East in food and beverage but the latter is now gearing up to use local ingredients for indigenous palates. James Estes, director of mixology, Huckleberry Hospitality Group, had recently taken over Delhi’s Ek Bar for two nights and along with head bartender of Skullduggery Abel Sukau, used ingredients like Himalayan pink salt, tropical pepper, chickpea to shake up the cocktail scene here. The Malaysia-based duo brought their twist to Asian and Western traditional alcohol like bourbon, sake and rice wine.

Estes said he wanted to showcase some Southeast Asian flavours in the menu, especially the rice wine known in Malaysia as “Tuak.”  It is generally home-brewed in remote towns and villages (much like mezcal). There are many variants of Tuak but the one he liked was InanRawai Tuak because it adds an imperceptible complexity to a cocktail.

Regarding the future of cocktails in Southeast Asia and Asian palates, he found it similar to the global market; people are opting for premium spirits, in some cases low abv cocktails, and most importantly, natural ingredients. “Southeast Asia is definitely a place that is full of healthy and interesting ingredients that can be incorporated into cocktails,” he said. A pinch of salt added to a cocktail has a great way of lifting the overall flavours of the drink and the Himalayan pink salt is “especially great” to achieve this effect. Other ingredients like tropical pepper, which is a mixture of peppercorns and spices that is blended and used lightly (like the salt) to add a bit of a spice to the finish of the drink, and chickpea brine, which has its own saltiness to it, raise the flavours of the cocktail. They also emulsify like an egg white does. “This adds a nice foamy texture and is a great substitute for our vegan guests, or guests who may perhaps have allergies,” Estes said. If he had to use Indian ingredients, he would use tamarind. “And I think it would be fun to make a chicken tikka masala inspired cocktail. But really, I would love to spend some more time here to explore and familiarise myself with all India has to offer,” he said.

Estes lists some of the most innovative drinks being made in Asia which are giving stiff competition to the West’s cocktail scene. In Kuala Lumpur, Four Season has a bar called Trigona, which uses a kind of honey that comes from a specific, stingless bee indigenous to the region. Another great bar in Singapore called Native has a masterful menu full of locally/regionally sourced ingredients, many of which would be extremely difficult or impossible to find in the West. “And I can tell you from experience, both bars execute their cocktails with expert precision,” he said.

The Asian bar culture is already at par with the West, with more of them appearing in the prestigious 50 best bar awards. In Asia, Singapore is leading the scene but he hopes that with time  more Asian countries will be added to the list and keep the West on its toes.

The industry is also being bombarded with “craft” gin and tequila though he personally believes  in the Greek term “Meraki” which means “to do something with love.” Explained he, “There are a lot of great small batch gins that have already achieved global renown. But tequila is one of the fastest growing categories to date and bartenders around the  globe are finding that it mixes incredibly well in cocktails, though it is best savoured on its own, and without salt and lime,” he said.

Estes is also the brand ambassador of his family business, Ocho Tequila, which, he says, is the only tequila on the market that produces single estate vintages of tequila, meaning that every year the agaves (the raw material used to make tequila) are sourced from one field only. Every bottle is then labelled with the field (or ranch) and the year of production, and every year the flavour and character of the finished product is different. Asked if flair bartending is past its prime, he said, “probably yes but having a bit of working flair is always a great way to entertain guests.”

The next big thing in bartending is sustainability coupled with zero waste campaigns. The “ban the straw” movement has had a lot of traction globally but that is only tip of the iceberg. Most bars are doing their part to come up with new and inventive ways to reduce waste and minimise their carbon footprint.

Writer: Asmita Sarkar

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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