It might be easy to learn how to make a cocktail, but it’s definitely hard to master the craft. Hardeep Rehal is one of the best bartenders in the world and according to him, balancing all the different tastes is just as important for a mixologist as it is for a chef.
(Photo: Alesya Gulevich)
A Martini. Shaken, not stirred. A sentence first uttered by the ultra suave James Bond in the 1960s. A catchphrase that has gone on to become one of the most memorable catchphrases in movie history and arguably the most well known phrase from the 007-franchise. Ever since, the shaken Martini has become a synonym with James Bond, and been associated with a certain style. The Old Fashioned gained new popularity when Mad Men’s Don Draper introduced it back on everyone’s TV screen, and Carrie Bradshaw singlehandedly made the Cosmopolitan a must-have for every girl’s night out, when Sex & The City debuted in the mid 90’s.
A cocktail is much more than a drink – it’s a lifestyle. Although learning to make one might be easy, mastering the craft is indeed hard. Hardeep Rehal from Copenhagen, Denmark is a one of the world’s top master mixologists, who can boast of five 1st place Nordic Championships and a spot on the list of the world’s top 10 bartenders on his résumé.
For Hardeep it all started 12 years ago when a bartending friend of his asked him to cover a shift at a bar in the center of Copenhagen. From then on the art of bartending caught the interest of Hardeep, who would continue on bartending at nightclubs in Spain and Italy, before the whole cocktail craze started, and Tequila Sunrise and Piña Colada was the go-to drink for the inner city cool cats.
The craft of creating quality cocktails
Around 2006 Hardeep returned back to Copenhagen and quickly landed a job at Bar Rouge at the trendy Skt. Petri Hotel, who was among the first in Denmark to take the art of creating cocktails to the next level.
“Bar Rouge was the one of the very first bars in the north to create cocktails with fresh fruits, syrups and herbs. Before that cocktails was more about dazzling the customers with colorful straws and mini umbrellas, but at Bar Rouge it was all about having knowledge of the different liquors and knowing how to mix a cocktail with them”, says Hardeep Rehal, who would later go on to start the cocktail lounge at Hotel 27 and become the assistant manager at Custom House, before finally becoming the manager at 1105 in 2008. A bar that would go on to firmly put Copenhagen on the international cocktail map.
This is how an award winning cocktail looks like. The Norseman Sour consists of Gin, seabuckthorne, raw ricorice and wood sorrell and earned Hardeep the award for Best Nordic Cocktail in 2014. (Photo: Morten Bonde)
“I was the manager at 1105 and it was the first place where the cocktail card was entirely my vision. I had just won the Danish Championships the previous year, so we already had some hype, when we opened. We were recognized in Denmark as one of the best cocktail places immediately, and after a few years Condé Nast named us one of the 10 best cocktail bars in the world”, Hardeep says, and adds that it was extra hard for a bar in Copenhagen, as normally people would look at bars in New York, Paris, Tokyo and London for the heavy hitters on the cocktail scene.
Finding inspiration in food
But being recognized as one of the very best cocktail bars in the world takes a bit more than just being able to muddle some mint and garnishing some glasses. Just as world-class chefs, you need to have a unique and creative approach to your techniques and constantly be able to evolve. And it’s exactly the mindset of a world-renowned chef that Hardeep uses, when he creates his elaborate, yet simple cocktails.
“My biggest source of inspiration is food and the ingredients used. I often eat out and I use that to gather inspiration for myself. One time I was dining at Restaurant Paustian and for dessert I had a vanilla ice cream with black olives, and I used that to transform into a cocktail. The result was a mix of cognac and vanilla infused vodka with cream and a puree of Kalamata and black olives mixed with licorice. The contrast of the sweet vanilla and the salty qualities of the olives, gives you a really distinctive and unique taste. It’s the same as cooking – you have to balance the different flavors”, says Hardeep and adds that the head chef of Paustian, who also had the honor of naming the cocktail, approved the recipe.
Finding your inspiration in food…. and fashion?? Black Opium is the name of this cocktail that is inspired by the YSL fragrance. Aquavit, coffee, peppercorn, jasmin, orange blossom and lemon, tickles both your sense of smell and your sense of taste. (Photo: Victor Jones)
And balance is the key factor for creating a successful cocktail, if you ask Hardeep.
“You have different flavors. You can have some ingredients that are more on the sour side, more on the sweet side or more on the bitter side. The key factor is to balance it, so that all the flavors work together in harmony, and no flavor overshadows the others, but is still evident in the taste. Then of course you need to have really good quality ingredients. The classic Margarita is a cocktail made of three ingredients – a liquor, a sour and a sweetener, and that’s basically all you need, if the quality is top notch”, says Hardeep and compares it to a nice pasta, where all you need is pasta, olive oil and some herbs of high quality to make a delicious and simple meal.
Mixing household ingredients of high quality with other ingredients to create a perfect balance, was also the winning touch, when Hardeep took home his second gold medal at the National Danish Cocktail Championships in 2009, with his Cucumber Yum Yum.
“That cocktail took the whole country by storm, and it wasn’t because I invented something new. I just put together some ingredients that everyone knew, but hadn’t thought to put together. It turned out to become quite a trailblazing cocktail that expanded the way Denmark perceived cocktails. It opened a lot of doors for me personally, but also for cocktail bars across Denmark. It was featured in newspapers and lifestyle magazines and was even featured on TV. The reason was because it was a perfect addition to the Zeitgeist of the moment – it was a unique cocktail, but something people could comprehend. It’s one of the cocktails I’m most proud of to have created because of the impact it had on the way we looked at cocktails”
The trailblazing Cucumber Yum Yum! 3-5 slices of cucumber, 2-3 raspberries, 4cl gin, 1cl Aquavit, 2cl lime juice and 3cl honey syrup. Muddle the raspberries and cucumber in the shaker and add the rest of the ingredients along with ice cubes. Shake very hard for 15 seconds and strain the drink over a low ball glass with crushed ice. Garnish with a slice of cucumber and a raspberry and prepare to dazzle your guests! (Photo: Alesya Gulevich)
Cocktails in the east versus the west
With his creative approach to creating cocktails, it is no big surprise that members of the international culinary elite have taken notice to the talent of the 32-year-old bartender.
Later this year, Ritz-Carlton are gathering the top tastemakers of the gastronomy world at their Macau Ritz-Carlton Asian-Pacific Food & Wine Festival, Hardeep will be one of three mixologist who will attend to showcase their talent
“I definitely think that it’s my inspiration from the food scene that had something to do with me being chosen. When I arrive I will definitely use the techniques I know from the kitchen. It will be more about using ingredients and spices that are more common in the kitchen than the bar, to create cocktails that will surprise people in a positive way. Cooking is in some ways closer to my heart than bartending, so it’s a great honor for me to able to participate.”
But bartending in the east is a lot more different than bartending in the west, and the cultural differences is something that Hardeep is taking into consideration when visiting Macau for the festival. His narrative of cocktails shows that he’s not only a talented bartender behind the bar, but also clearly knows the origins behind.
“In America they have a long tradition of cocktails, whereas it’s more young in the North. The east also have a long tradition of cocktails, that has evolved differently than the Americans”.
“The Americans claim to have invented the first cocktail and they are partly right. Their DNA is strong and based on relying on the production and ingredients. It’s a continent that especially love their whiskey, and a lot of their cocktails reflect this, whereas the east have a bigger selection of exotic fruits and herbs that reflect their way of creating cocktails. During the prohibition in the 1920s when all production of alcohol was banned, the Americans had to start illegally importing exotic liquors like tequila, which gave them a whole new palette of flavors to work with”, says Hardeep and adds that an early version of the Sazerac is widely considered to be the first original cocktail.
The current cocktail culture
When asked if he would be using a lot of exotic ingredients in his cocktails at the Food & Wine festival, Hardeep also pointed out that the word “exotic” has lost a lot of its original meaning:
“People think that exotic means something that’s from a far place, but that’s not the case. Exotic can easily just be an herb that only grows locally two weeks a year, so when showcasing in Macau it will not be about using “exotic” ingredients, but more taking the simple recipe of mixing ingredients in a way that might surprise someone”.
But what does Hardeep think of the way the “normal people” view their cocktail habits? It’s no surprise that pop culture, such as Sex & The City, sparked a whole new wave of giving some cocktails a second life, but do people normally stick to the safe choice or are people embracing the rise of the more unique cocktails?
“I think we’ve definitely come a long way from the popularity of frozen cocktails or mojitos that have swept the nation earlier. Especially in Copenhagen, where people tend to be more travelled and cultural”, says Hardeep and add that people still come in and ask for mojitos, but mostly because they crave one and not because “it’s the popular thing to do”, and that he will always try to make his very best.
It’s not just about making the cocktails – it’s also about dazzling your guests. Hardeep definitely knows his way around a bar! (Photo: Rasmus Flindt)
There are however 2 factors where Hardeep thinks many guests still need to be schooled.
“First of all people need to start viewing cocktails as an experience rather than just another mean to get drunk. It’s okay to go out on a Monday to have a cocktail after dinner as they do in the biggest cocktail capitals of the world. The other is when guest come in to a cocktail bar with the intention of being open minded and ask for something that is not on the menu. It’s frustrating because I know they mean well and they want to trust their bartender, but they have to remember that I might have spent two weeks creating the cocktails on the menu, so ordering something from that is a way for you to be experimental.”
Bartending at home can be very simple
Infusing vodkas, making your own syrups and spending weeks creating cocktails you can leave to the professionals though. Hardeep points out that creating a successful cocktail at home doesn’t require a top notch bar at home, and refers to the 3-part recipe as the perfect base for any cocktail.
“Using the concept behind all sour-cocktails is a perfect way to create a cocktail at home for a dinner party. Use 2 parts of liquor (of high quality), 1 part sour and 1 part sweeter and you basically have what you need. The sour and the sweetener can be basically anything, but if you always stock good liquor, some lemons and homemade sugar syrup at home you are all set. After that there is really no limit to what you can ad to the mix. Black pepper, herbs, strawberries – everything can work.”
The Ponderosa uses the simplicity of the 3 ingredient recipe. The liquor is vodka, the sweetness are the plum cherry tomatoes and pineapple and the sourness comes from limejuice. Easy, yet incredibly impressive! (Photo: Morten Bonde)
When asked what his favorite cocktail is, Hardeep also points to the classic sours like Daiquiris and Margaritas as some of his, as the trifecta of ingredients mixed in a creative way never goes wrong.
The future of cocktails
Although it might not seem like it, cocktails are evolving. The same way as we see an increase in popularity of microbreweries in beer and biodynamic wines, we also see niche cocktails and liquors becoming more and more popular.
“What’s revolutionizing right now is that more and more cocktail bars are turning into microbreweries of their own. All noteworthy cocktail bars are creating their own signature cocktails with homemade ingredients. Some bars are distilling their own liquors and bitters and almost all are infusing their own liquors and creating their own juices and syrups. This gives each cocktail it’s own personality, so even if you come across two bars with cocktails that seem alike, they are still very different”.
A world class bartender needs a world class bar! And that’s exactly what he gets at his new bar Blume. (Photo: Esben Zellner Olesen)
Hardeep also points out that cities like New York, Paris and London have been the absolute frontrunners when it comes to classic cocktails, but he believes that Northern Europe are leading when it comes to creating the more experimental cocktails, as we push the limits the same way we do with food.
Food is also a big factor when it comes to the way we see cocktails evolving, and Hardeep says that cocktails are piggybacking the food scene, and whatever happens there will most likely transcend into a trend on the cocktail scene as well, saying that local ingredients is the hottest thing at the moment, both when it comes to food and drinks, and uniting the two is a trend we will most likely see in the nearest future.
“In Copenhagen we are just grasping the fact that there are other options than wine menus. We’ve had menus paired with beers in the past, but it’s still quite recent. Now some places are offering homemade juice pairings to your meal – a thing that New York, London and Paris have been doing for a while, and it’s just natural that it’s spreading like rings in the water now. This is the reason I think that cocktail menus will soon become more mainstream in Denmark and the rest of the world. It’s basically using the same techniques as a sommelier and pairing a cocktail with a course and making sure that they are complimenting and contrasting each other.”
And if Hardeep says that this a trend to look out for, then he’s probably right. Renowned as one of the best mixologists in the world, Hardeep is often called upon when the media needs an expert in the cocktail and liquor scene and his opinion is often widely considered to be “the right one”. In 2015 he opened his own cocktail bar and nightclub, Blume, with the help of some investors and is now ready to take his career to the next step
“I’m definitely headed down the right path. I’ve opened Blume with two partners and I’ve started a consulting company where I help develop cocktails for special events and concepts, and I also spend a great time getting booked for liquor and cocktail tastings and by brands to help them find new ways to promote their product, so things are definitely not gonna slow down once I return from Macau.”
BLUME is located in the center of Copenhagen, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Central Station at Studiestraede 14, 1455 Copenhagen K. Opening hours: Thursday: 8pm – late, Friday: 4pm – 5am, Saturday: 8pm – 5am.
Daniel S. Bahrami is a Barcelona based writer with a background in digital communication and journalism in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has been part of the editorial staff of the biggest Danish fashion magazine, Eurowoman, and has worked freelance for several other publications as well as experience in fashion and gastronomy PR.