Monday, November 02, 2009

An evening with Toby Cecchini

 Rohan Jelkie wth Toby Cecchini

Working in the beverage industry sure has its own perks (and specially when in a city like Delhi). The endless invitations to seminars, workshops, wine & dinner evenings, cocktail dinners, product launches and the likes! (Though we don’t mind them!) And it’s a closed group that you see every time. The same faces, the same conversations on the exorbitantly high taxes or the some amazing plonk they had a fancy restaurant last week AND all of this over the same pass around snacks on the oft gaudily done food platters!

Last Wednesday, 29th October, was quite different though. The venue was at the Allure Hall at the imposing Le Meridien, Delhi (which has just come out of a long renovation work and is looking super!). The invitation read DISCUS when we first saw it. No I didn’t spell it wrong. DISCUS stands for the Distilled Spirits Council of United States (Of America…in case you didn’t know) which is the body that regulates the spirits industry in the US and as a part of their activities engages in promoting the fantastic whiskies they produce. My first reaction to the evening when I was asked to fill in for a certain somebody’s absence - “Yeah …yeah…it’s the same thing…what’s new…do a few tastings…grab a bite”…and the rest you know!

Well the evening turned out to be quite different in fact.

My colleague, Aneesh and I walked into a room almost full that evening. Well for one it was done up tastefully and the buzz around the room was quite reflective of the anticipative mood. Oh! I forgot! Did I tell you that we were to be treated to the skills of one of the world’s greatest mixologists? I should have! Cutting back a few days ago, when I was told by a certain somebody that, Toby Cecchini would be in town, I clarified twice before an emphatic confirmation signaling my availability for the evening (so you see I was lying when I wrote the lines above!). For the ones in the bar circuit, Toby is a well known name. As the guy who’s made the Cosmopolitan one of the most loved cocktails in the world and has penned his experience into a series of highly successful diaries in Slate that later on was published as an equally successful book: “Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life” , Toby Cecchini is regarded as one of the best in the business, the world over. He’s a regular contributor to GQ, Food and Wine and The New York Times and if you ever happen to be in New York city you’d realize his immense reputation if you happen to be at Odeon, where it all began!

Now, just wait! I have been harping about someone whom I haven’t even met! Getting back to “the evening” , it didn’t take us much time finding our “Reserved for the Media” seats at the hall (I guess you have “arrived” when you are seen at such do’s more than once a week!) The tables were neatly laid with samples of six different American whiskies all laid on a tasting mat with some salted nuts and crackers by the side. Taking us through the first half the evening was Frank Coleman, the Senior Vice President for Public Affairs & Communications at DISCUS. Frank took us through a brief and interesting presentation on America and its whiskies and how almost all of the major historical events that have taken place in America over the past century or so was closely linked to the country’s distilling traditions! For the ones who don’t know, (and I quote this was NOT stated by Frank !) the city of Chicago which was home to America’s biggest gangster, Al Capone, held his most prized business – illegal distilling - during the prohibition which at its height earned him US$ 105 Million per year in the early part of last century!

Getting to the better half of the evening, Frank took us through a guided tasting of the 6 different whiskies placed neatly in front of us in small tasting cups – Jack Daniels Old no.7, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam Black and Jack Daniel’s Silver Select. He explained how to judge the whiskies for their colour, appearance and taste. Without doubt the whiskies were excellent and my personal favourite was the Woodford Reserve, a small batch whiskey that is made at the heart of Bourbon County in Kentucky, with its creamy vanilla, sweet caramel and buttery notes and with a faint underlying fruitiness that was suggestive of oranges. Once done, Frank very quickly handed the evening over to the star behind the bar – Toby.

Now sitting on that table, Aneesh and I had our hopes running high! We were eagerly anticipating some flamboyant cocktails using these fine whiskies and after all you had the right person behind the bar, didn’t you? Well the cocktail list was not quite what we had expected – Manhattan, Ginger & Mint Cooler and Tamarind Sour. The first one, The Manhattan, turned out to be quite unexpected – I mean we have had Manhattan’s or so we thought – It was brilliantly balanced and the flavor of the red vermouth and the bitters with a slight zesty zing from the citrus peel did us in completely! It was by far the best Manhattan that I had had till date. The Ginger & Lime Cooler followed and was gulped down with equal pleasure while the Tamarind sour was Ok. What mesmerized us about the drinks were the way they were balanced – all the ingredients came right through, none of them dominating the others.

That over, the session closed and evening was open for a round of discussions while the people debated over some super drinks and food. We did what was most obvious – headed straight to the bar. There we caught up with Toby and over the next half an hour “held him at knife point” (as he would like to point out!) talking to him about what he did best. In the course of our conversation Toby prepared an Old fashioned – arguably the oldest cocktail around ever since the days of the prohibition -   a la Cecchini style. What followed was a simple lesson in mixology focusing on what it mattered most – flavours! Fresh oranges muddled together with some whiskey and simple syrup and orange bitters and garnished with sour American cherries soaked in Maraschino Cherry liqueur for a year – that drink was a delight! As we sipped appreciatively on the old fashioned, Toby went to describe how mixology trends in NY and the world over were becoming complicated with the advent of molecular mixology, infusions, use of several flavours so on…but to the soft spoken guru nothing was more important than adhering to basics, no matter what the mix was. And it was quite evident in the drinks that he had created – simple yet so defined, a few flavours yet so complex. No wonder people, the world over, pay to hear him speak.

We realized that sticking around too much would reduce us to being “a pain in …you know where” so we got on to meeting other known faces in the gathering while proudly displaying our drink for the evening and inadvertently we landed up sending scores of people to the bar who kept the master mixologist from NYC busy for the next half an hour. And seeing the people lining up and getting all their drinks from that one person, we realized that we not only had a master at work but probably one of the most humble “stars of the bars” at work – and we wonder how many people, gathered that evening, actually realized who he was…

Later on as we were leaving, we held Toby at “knife point” again and clicked a few snaps with him (We weren’t letting such a fantastic photo op pass by!) and he happily obliged. As Aneesh & I walked out of the Le Meridien into the night outside that was beginning to get cold, tingling with Delhi’s trademark autumnal chillness - we actually felt quite warm – thanks to the food and booze and the experience of meeting a humble luminary who’s greatest claim to fame was a trade mark style of sticking to basics while creating the most amazing of concoctions loved the world over and a fine sense of humor sprinkled with utmost professionalism. For the past 23 years. That was Toby Cecchini.

From l-r : Aneesh, Toby, Rohan


- by Rohan Jelkie

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