Craft Cocktails By Way of Goa, India

Bartender carefully stirring in a mixing glass

On the west coast of India, Goa lures tourists with promises of long stretches of beaches and abundant beer. Its cuisine is heavily influenced by 456 years of colonial rule – Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961. These days, hundreds of bars and restaurants across this tiny state serve everything from Belgian to Burmese fare, all accompanied by a standard drinks menu featuring classic cocktails and locally brewed alcohol like the potent cashew feni. There’s one place, though, that’s offering something different – cocktails with a local twist.

The Black Sheep Bistro (BSB), in Panjim, Goa’s capital, lives up to its name. Their food and drinks menu and indeed, their entire philosophy, is strikingly different from the usual Goan fare. BSB operates a farm-to-table policy sourcing their ever-changing menu, as much as possible, from within 100 miles of the restaurant. This not only ensures fresh, seasonal food but also allows them to experiment with local fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, which end up in the most intriguing combinations (chorizo and chocolate, anyone?).

Owners Prahlad Sukhtankar and Sabreen Shariff studied at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management, Switzerland, which led to stints at various hotels in North America and Canada including the Four Seasons Vancouver and the Shangri-la respectively. On their return to Goa, they started BSB to be a kind of place that they would have liked to frequent: a place that was welcoming, cozy, and also safe for women.

“We get a lot of locals coming in throughout the year. Women, especially, come in by themselves or with their girlfriends to sit at the bar, chat with our staff, have a drink or two. We wanted to create this kind of environment that was safe and welcoming,” says Sabreen.

Bartender pouring a drink through a strainer into a champagne fluteBlack Sheep Bistro's bartenders experiment with adding locally available ingredients to their cocktails, such as cashew feni and betelnut leaf. All photos courtesy of Prahlad Sukhtankar.

Prahlad is a certified sommelier and comes up with many of the cocktails or “hand-crafted beverages,” as he prefers to call them. Many are classics, but with a twist. The bartenders are also encouraged to innovate and experiment with ingredients. “One thing you don’t find in India is people making cocktails out of fresh ingredients,” says Prahlad. “The era of blue-yellow-red-purple drinks is very clichéd. We try to follow the latest trends, read a lot about the industry and our travel usually has a food and beverage angle to it.”

The philosophy of Prahlad’s cocktails goes right up to the garnish. “In India, garnishes often don’t match the drinks (unless they’re there for texture) and you end up throwing them out. The garnish has to make sense; it should be edible. This is something all good chefs look at – everything in a dish should be edible, including the garnish.”

The sourcing of traditional cocktail components has its challenges in India. “The cocktail industry in other places has developed so much that you get a range of liqueurs. One can get hundreds of different varieties with perfect pricing that allows you to make drinks out of them. These are not widely available in India, and to buy them costs as much as a bottle of good scotch. This makes it unviable to use in a drink. What we do instead, is focus on what is cheaply and easily available, is fresh, and will add to your experience. We use fresh ingredients like fruits, vegetables, spices, infusions of spices, rinds and herbs.”

Close-up of a cocktail being lit on fireIn a city where most bars offer little more than standard cocktail menus, Black Sheep Bistro's creativity and use of fresh ingredients stand out.

The Paan Cocktail, for example, has betelnut leaf, anise, gin, vodka, sugar and lime and is garnished with a betelnut leaf. Popular favorites like the Dill Fling (dill, cucumber, gin, lime, egg white) and the Cinnamon Whiskey Sour (with an in-house sour mix) are balanced with classics like the Old Fashioned. One of Prahlad’s new offerings is the Lemon Meringue, a cocktail version of the classic dessert. “Prahlad used to make the Lemon Meringue for me in Canada; I love it and used to pester him to make it for me,” says Sabreen.

Prahlad also tinkers with locally brewed alcohol like cashew feni, a potent drink made from cashew apples (listed in Time magazine’s round-up of ‘Top 10 ridiculously strong drinks’). He shows me a bottle of Cazulo Feni that is infused with orange rind. “This has all the goodness of a good feni minus the harsh aroma, and it doesn’t hit you as hard.”

Good quality feni, however, is not easy to find. “The trouble with local suppliers is the lack of consistency between batches. You cannot be certain about the quality each time. There are some good backyard producers that make good products. Cazulo, for instance, uses copper pots for distillation, are fairly consistent with their product and importantly, are passionate about their work.”

This respect for passion comes from Prahlad’s and Sabreen’s own work ethic and evident pleasure in conjuring global flavors with a local influence. In a tourist’s paradise brimming with culinary options, the simplicity and elegance of the Black Sheep Bistro is as refreshing as their cocktails.

Indian man and woman in a barPrahlad Sukhtankar and Sabreen Shariff, co-owners of the Black Sheep Bistro, wanted to bring a welcoming, cozy, forward-thinking cocktail bar to Goa.