by Ashleigh VanHouten
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Indian culture—colorful, rich, and vibrant— is, essentially, responsible for the modern day cocktail. Or at least a version of it: punch, the term for a mixed drink (with or without alcohol, although we all know the way it should be made), was introduced by India to the UK in the early 17 teenth century.
The word punch comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “five,” as the drink was originally made with five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and tea or spices. The drink was brought to England from India by sailors and employees of the British East India Company, and the rest is delicious, boozy history.
In New York, where you can find any cuisine and any drink imaginable at almost any time and in any neighborhood, Indian-inspired cocktails can be tough to come by.
While Tiki bars and underground mezcal dens and hipsters drinking IPA abound, you may be inclined to miss some of the more exotic drinks on offer—and most of us don’t go to Indian restaurants with cocktails on the brain (which is our fault). But there is a slow-burning, spicy current of Indian-inspired cocktails on offer in New York that, if you’re adventurous and curious enough, can open up a whole new world of tipsy tipples.
Just think about all the spicy-sweet delights Indian cuisine has to offer: tamarind, curry, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel, nutmeg, red chili and fenugreek, among others, are just some of the most notable Indian flavours and spices, and there are innumerable ways to mix them into your poison of choice.
Take Mace in the East Village, where Experimental Cocktail Club vet Nico de Soto makes their namesake drink with aperol, aquavit, beet juice, orange acid and young thai coconut cordial. And that’s just one in a list of truly unique, bordering-on-odd-if-they-weren’t-so-delicious, sips: Cinnamon is made with with cinnamon-infused pisco and brown butter, while Cardamom is made with vodka, fat-washed with pistachio oil, coffee, and cardamom syrup.
At the uber-sophisticated Junoon (which has its own spice room, no big deal), their cocktail program is an extension of the restaurant menu, meaning spicy drinks buzzing with cumin, curry, sage, and other infusions. Sweet drinks complement the spicier fare, like their Tandoori Tequila with lime, muddle tandoori pineapple, curry leaf, and pippali pepper. They also offer a Masala Rye with Junoon masala syrup and orange essence, and a sparkling wine cocktail with saffron aromatics.
At the Drunken Monkey, they combine Indian flavors with a British Colonial feel – one of their drinks is an Indian Spiced Old Fashioned with Old Overbolt rye, spiced gomme, Angostura and Regan’s orange bitters. Their menu also includes modern interpretations of classic Colonial Indian cocktails, such as the East India, which combines Cognac, pineapple juice and Peychaud’s Bitters, as well as the Singapore Sling, made with Bombay East gin and Cherry Heering.
Brick Lane Curry house goes less subtle on its interpretations: there’s the Tamarind Margarita, the Madras Pepper Martini with garam masala paneer olives, and something called the Patiala Kick (Patiala is apparently a place in Northern India where lots of whiskey drinking gets done) with Chivas Regal, Baileys Irish Cream, Drambuie, and crystalized ice. And, for those of you wishing to prove your toughness (or drunkenness) the Ghost is an evil-sounding vodka cocktail with ghost pepper.
And of course there’s Devi restaurant’s cilantro tonic, and at Gramercy’s Pippali restaurant (named after a long black pepper that combines spicy, tangy, and sweet flavors), their menu boasts names like Kinky Dehradun, The Bombay Connection, and The Old Ginger Gymkhana. The list goes on if you’re willing to look, willing to taste something out of the ordinary.
So you see, with just a little searching, you really can get drunk any way you want in New York. Indian food is one of life’s great pleasures: spicy, sumptuous, textural to the point of being sexual – rich and full of flavor. Why not incorporate this into our drinking, too? I may not be speaking for everyone here, but I know I never regretted an opportunity to, ahem, spice things up.