Sidecar is currently No. 16 on the prestigious list of Asia’s 50 best bars. Makaibari, of course, is the greatest tea estate in Darjeeling. When they come together in a cocktail glass, only magic can happen
My daughter was born on 21st June, the longest day of the year, also known as the Summer Solstice. Little did I know then, 21 years ago, that as we were celebrating her birth in New Delhi, nearly 1,000 miles away pluckers were gathering to set out for the harvest at Makaibari, the world’s oldest tea factory (circa 1859), and one of the most prestigious. Straddling six ridges and adjoining the Kurseong hills in Darjeeling, the Makaibari tea estate sprawls across 1,100 acres with just over 30 per cent of that dedicated to tea, and the rest verdant forest cover.
Tea, like wine, is greatly influenced by its terroir, that unique set of environmental factors that affects the final character of the crop. It’s believed that these factors all come together to perfection on the Summer Solstice, in Kodobari, one of the seven villages that make up Makaibari. This is what warrants the pluckers gathering on that misty morning, so that the tea they harvest has the best flavour as far as the second flush is concerned (the term flush is used in India to denote the tea plucking time of the year). Attaching the Summer Solstice prefix to it, gives it that extra element of pizzazz that marketers crave.
The Luxmi Group acquired Makaibari from the Banerjee family in 2014, and it was a serendipitous moment earlier this year when Rudra Chatterjee, Managing Director of the Kolkata-based group, walked into Sidecar, a cocktail bar in New Delhi. He ran into Yangdup Lama there, a partner and one of India’s ace mixologists. As luck would have it, Yangdup hails from Gayabari in Kurseong, and despite his spirited (and spiritual) leanings is a tea man through and through. I’d visited his home in 2008, and though I’d visited the Selim Hill tea estate then, we weren’t able to enter Makaibari itself and had to satisfy ourselves with a hastily brewed cuppa at the factory shop.
With two tea lovers in conversation, a tea cocktail collaboration was the by-product, also driven by Sidecar’s desire to explore the richness of Indian ingredients in its cocktail menu. The pandemic and its aftermath have definitely accelerated a welcome trend towards collaboration and we are seeing its effects not just in cross-brand collaborations like this but also between bars across the country.
Although of considerably later vintage than Makaibari, Sidecar’s no slouch in the cocktail department, ranked as # 16 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, and # 1 in 30 Best Bars India 2019. Four months of experimentation followed the meeting, including lengthy meetings with the Makaibari tea sommelier. As Lama explains to me, “tea unlike coffee is more delicate in flavour, and especially with the finer teas like those from Darjeeling, the aroma is more subtle and fleeting, and hence it’s important to capture the same in a timely fashion”.
Of late, coffee has been a new-found darling of the cocktail world, and it’s hard to throw a stone without hitting a drinks menu that has the words ‘cold brew’ in it. Given that, there is a curiosity value to sophisticated tea cocktails that are harder to come by apart from the odd Earl Grey Martini. It’s a trend that has also sparked interest in other parts of the world, with Tell Camellia, a tea cocktail bar launching in Hong Kong in 2019, and quickly moving to # 23 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021 list.
The second flush is Lama’s personal favourite, and also a reason why Sidecar chose the Summer Solstice tea, that also gives the menu its name, and is found in two of the cocktails. The first is in my hand, a Martini style drink, named Summer Solstice itself, using tea macerated gin and vermouth infused with hibiscus and rhododendron, gin and vermouth in equal ratios. It’s served delectably in a teacup, with the infused vermouth bringing the flavour of the forest to the drink.
What is smart about the menu, apart from its creativity, is the fact that they’ve taken well known and established drinks, like the Martini, the Highball and the G&T, and reimagined them with tea, thus giving the consumer at least one lifeline to hold on to, while they confront a menu that for many may seem strange and vivid.
In fact, my next cocktail is one called ‘Measure of Substance’, a term used in the tea industry to denote the strength of the tea, via its combination of aroma, body and colour. The name also does justice to the cocktail its derived from, an Old Fashioned, and as Lama explains, “apart from gin, tea also pairs well with lighter blends of Scotch whisky”. In this case, they’ve infused the Scotch with the Makaibari first flush, with eucalyptus honey as a sweetener and a dash of ginger pepper bitters, all served over a big block of ice.
The rum cocktail in the menu uses the Makaibari broken leaf. I’d imagine that its more intense aromas are what earmarked it to take on the aged rum and bourbon that it’s mixed with in this glass.
The menu continues striking a fine balance between cocktail technique, the flavour of tea and the commercial instincts of a savvy bar operator. As Minakshi Singh, a partner in Sidecar, explains to me, creating a menu that will be successful is not just about creativity running riot, but also about having a strong insight about their consumer. And as bars gradually reopen, with guests returning, the average age of their guests has also fallen, so although they may be expected to be more experimentative, they’re also relatively new to a cocktail. It’s clearly worked as they’re selling 40-50 cocktails a day from the menu, and that may lead them to call the promotion to a halt earlier than envisaged, as they may just run out of tea. You’ve been duly warned!
After tea leaves have been harvested and dried, they lie in a curled and shrivelled up state. When hot water is added to brew tea, they unfurl, appearing to convulse, thus lending a poetic term to this called the Agony of the leaves. This term has been appropriated in the name for a G&T (gin and tonic) variation that uses the Makaibari Darjooling (semi-fermented Oolong tea) and my favourite from the menu, particularly as I felt that it was one in which the tea most strongly expressed itself.
I take this last cocktail in my hand and walk to the corner of the bar at Sidecar, looking at the welcome bustle, and wonder for how many people this might be the first time that they’re stepping out for a drink, and if so, what a wondrous experience they’re about to embark on with the Summer Solstice menu.
The Summer Solstice collaboration with Makaibari runs through September at Sidecar, M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-2, New Delhi (Tel: +91-9999407923) and all cocktails are priced at Rs 650 plus tax.
Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.