Most cocktails come with a balance of bitter, sweet and sour. Some are even salty. But have you tried a cocktail with umami? Yes, a few adventurous bars in the country are whipping up a new wave of savoury drinks with this satisfying fifth category of flavour.
Traditionally, umami has been a preserve of the kitchen. Often referred to as savoury, meaty, or even the sensation of deliciousness or satisfaction, umami is found in foods such as cured meats, tomatoes, mushrooms, shellfish, celery, seaweed and fermented fare such as soy and fish sauce. It’s strange then, that the cocktail world hadn’t discovered this deliciousness. Sure, curious bartenders have been experimenting with umami-rich ingredients such as brined olives in a dirty martini or even a pinch of MSG in a bloody mary. But beyond that, it has taken some time to be accepted as a cocktail ingredient.
But thanks to some adventurous bartenders, this fifth sense of taste has started to migrate from the kitchen to the bar, a partnership that works well as they can be the perfect pairing for food.
What are umami cocktails?
Simply put, umami cocktails are drinks infused with savoury ingredients from the kitchen. Some of the offbeat items that go into umami cocktails are soy, mushrooms, seaweed, tofu, miso, green tea, tomato, cheese, etc. According to Vineet Krishnan, head bartender at KOKO, Mumbai, “A lot of our regular guests like to experiment with their drinks and often ask for new cocktails to try. So, when we introduce them to umami cocktails, most of them are curious and love it, since it’s quite different from the usual cocktails and go amazingly well with the food served here.”
Using ingredients from the kitchen for your drink is also a good way to reduce waste in restaurants, believes Sayyed Mohsin, mixologist, Yazu, Mumbai. “High-protein ingredients such as mushrooms and miso provide a healthy approach to mixology. Also, these savoury cocktails give people a brand new way to experience food and something truly unique in their glasses,” he adds.
Fun with Umami
The Bloody Mary is the perfect starting point for experiencing a great umami cocktail. It’s already got tomatoes, salt, pepper and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. For Krishnan, miso has been the go-to ingredient for extra umami: “It adds a great savoury quality to drinks and is actually much more diverse than you might think. We have a great miso-based cocktail at KOKO called Miso Caliente which has whisky with miso paste and a dash of honey.” Another cocktail from the Chinese New Year menu pairs vodka with soy-glazed shiitake mushrooms. It’s called Faan Sung Sun and is one of the fastest-moving cocktails on the menu. A number of other drinks at KOKO incorporate savory spices such as galangal, Thai chili, matcha tea, fennel, parmesan, etc, which pair surprisingly well with whisky, gin, vodka and even mezcal. The results are complex and compelling.
Another umami fan Mohsin has been challenging the Indian palate with his wasabi-based martini at Yazu. He adds the spicy green condiment to vodka along with triple sec and lime juice to come up with a spicy, earthy and refreshing drink. The wasabi brings balance and a deeper note to the cocktail. Progressively, Umami and savoury flavours are now being integrated into cocktails, as they add a sense of completion and roundness to the drinks.
But not everyone is keen on playing with the fifth taste. “Even though I have dabbled with the umami category, it is not something I put a focus on. I have seen stocks go waste and the feedback when describing cocktails to guests for the most part has not been favourable. I do applaud bartenders for going out and trying new things, but for me, I prefer to stick to fruit and alcohol and find new ways of combining and presenting the drinks,” says John Leese, group beverage manager, Bastian Hospitality Pvt Ltd. However, he does like the idea of melted butter cocktails with Thai food. “It could perhaps help cool down the spice from lemongrass or ginger-based dishes. Melting the butter will add a little caramel sweetness to the experience,” he adds.
Less is more
Unlike with food, where the more umami the better, when it comes to cocktails, less is more. The key to a great umami drink is to not use the umami ingredient in base form or crudely slather it on the rim of the glass but to shake it as part of the ingredient list. It shouldn’t shout wasabi or soy so much as suggest its inclusion through texture, a creamy mouth feel and a subtle whisper of the ingredient at the end of the finish. “The key is creating an intrigue around the drink,” explains Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Sidecar, Delhi and Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy, Gurgaon. “Begin with an umami ingredient that you are familiar with and not something that sounds exotic or is in vogue. Then experiment with the flavour and spirit combinations to see what works best. Nuts go very well with whisky but I would never infuse vodka with the same. Tomatoes and rum is a match made in heaven. Whisky pairs beautifully with chocolate, dairy and mint whereas anything herbaceous goes well with gin,” says the award-winning mixologist who is working on a drink with the umami ingredient okiwana and whisky. As with most things in life, it’s all about balance.
Savoury and earthy characteristics are not often expected in a drink, but they are a welcome change from the sweet flavours that so often dominate the cocktail lexicon. And though perhaps not as popular as spice, it’s likely a flavour trend that will continue to pop up on menus in the future.
If you’re intrigued by the concept, why not try creating an umami cocktail at home? Check out these recipes and treat your tastebuds!
Wasabi Martini from Yazu, Mumbai
15ml triple sec liqueur
2 slices fresh cucumber
1 piece fresh litchi
1 pea-sized dollop wasabi paste
15ml lime juice
20ml sugar syrup
Take a shaker and muddle the fresh cucumber and litchi. Then add the remaining ingredients, some ice and shake well.
Fine strain into a pre-chilled martini glass.
Garnish with a slice of cucumber and litchi.
Sake Verde Mary from Town Hall, Mumbai
90ml green tomato juice
3ml soy sauce
Shake tomato juice, wasabi and jalapeno with ice.
Strain the mixture into a mixing glass then add sake and soy sauce and stir with ice.
Strain and serve over ice in a rock glass.
Garnish with half a cherry tomato.