Dressed in a deep-red blazer and black overalls, Himanshu Desai smiles as he holds up the Remy Martin VSOP (Very Special Old Pairing) Cognac bottle. “I’m dressed for the bottle,” he smiles, as we realise it is the same colour combination as the bottle. The premium brandy holds a special place in Desai’s life. Late last year, Desai won the second place in the Remy Martin Bartending Talent Academy Competition held in Cognac and Paris, competing against ten other global participants.
Winner takes it all
He offers to make us his winning cocktail, which he calls ‘For the Good Times’. In a shaker, he adds 50 ml of Rémy Martin VSOP cognac, 20 ml aperol sous vide with pandan leaf, fresh apricot purée, lime juice with few drops of sandalwood tincture and gives it a classic shake. He pours it into an old-school brass chalice and passes a sword-shaped cocktail stick through a dry apricot. We take a sip, and the sandalwood followed by pandan hits our palate, enveloped by the cognac that remains the star of the concoction. Desai was selected from a list of 10 contenders, based on industry experts rating. The brief was to create a cognac cocktail and represent India. “It was my first time in Europe and my three days in Cognac, France are memories I will cherish all my life. “We were taken to the wineries to pick grapes, try them, meet and greet winemakers and see the entire process of farm to barrel at the House of Remy Martin. We also went through the entire process of barrel making which was an incredible experience,” recalls Desai.
The first round was a blind tasting where the drink was served to the judges in a plastic cup solely to be judged for taste. The second round was storytelling. “I dedicated the drink to each of the bartenders. The drink had to be inspired by photography and I took pictures of the judges on my Polaroid camera and served it on a travel journal. The last round was judged on our technique behind the bar and presentation,” shares Desai.
Retracing the journey
The 31-year-old Pune boy talks about his journey which started with resistance from his Gujarati family, that wanted to douse his bartender dreams at the age of 18. After college, I took up a course in Goa. I made a conscious effort not to take up a job at the shacks, but came back and waited for a hotel offer,” says Desai who started at JW Marriott in Pune. Next, he landed in Dubai and worked at Fairmont The Palm’s Cigar Room where his passion for cognacs and malts deepened. In Dubai, he also worked at Vikas Khanna’s Michelin starred restaurant, Junoon where they served his signature cocktail called BBC (Brandy, Benedictine and Cinnamon). “Later we replaced brandy with cognac and it had a beautiful, lasting impression,” says Desai, who prefers to have his cognac neat, adds that sky is the limit when it comes to enjoying the French brandy.
Desai’s last stint in Dubai was a jazz bar called The Rouge Trader. In 2017, the bartender came back to Mumbai to join Zorawar Kalra’s Massive Restaurants as beverage manager. “Until I went to Dubai, I could not even pronounce cognac properly. But here, I gained a lot of confidence in working with cognac and single malts,” says Desai, who believes that the French brandy is a versatile base spirit. “They first make a wine out of harvested grapes, distill it and blend it and finally aging it in French oak barrels. It has the flavour of stone fruits like apricots and peaches. I like the fact that it lingers on your palate for a long, long time,” he says in parting.