It’s been infused, marinated, flamed, given a sous vide treatment. There’s an egg white foam, pomegranate seeds pounded in a mortar and pestle. Japanese ceramics, chilli, obscure herb garnish, maybe some edible flowers. The chef tests for balance. Sour? Sweet? Heat? Sufficient umami? Aye, it’s ready to eat.
…Oh. Hang on, it’s not…. It’s ready to drink.
Mixology has come a long way since Fuzzy Navels and Manhattans. For a start, the word itself has become one of those slinky over-used terms like ‘gastro-pub’, ‘bespoke’ and ‘artisinal’. It’s been around since the 18-something-or-others, but failed to excite anyone for quite a period, then dropped into obscurity like many archaic words that eventually encounter a Renaissance. that’s not bad saturation of the English language, considering in the 1980s we may have assumed ‘mixology‘ was probably a musical university degree that one needed to take if they wanted to be a disc jockey. (It’s rise and re-use is often attributed to Dale De Groff, who called himself a ‘master mixologist‘, apparently before anyone else did that century)
And, watching these three young guys go to work at Okku, I can also say that the bar has come a long way since I was bahind it about 10-15 years ago.
They’re doing the things I wish I had done when I was making drinks – and in the main, it’s because they’re bringing the kitchen in. Let’s not use words like ‘bar-chef’, because apparently that term is already on hit the list of unusable triteness in terms of publishing. Let’s just call them bar-tenders with palates. They, like the pros on the other side of the slush trays in many other venues in this city, have realised that their customers want a little more than a spirit, a liqueur and a mixer thrown in a shaker and served up in a pretty glass. Bye bye Cosmopolitan – go back to the 90s where you belong. No more universal, crowd pleasing drinks. Let’s go micropolitan, and have a little look at what’s really going on in our mouth when we take a sip.
Anyone who has studied food or wine will know that the palate is not a simple thing. There are several components that usually exist in a complete taste that most people will find balanced and pleasurable. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami flavours (explanation linked for those who haven’t heard of the last word, which is incidentally becoming one of those over-used terms as described above) are required in different proportions to make you want to come back for more.
We also need to remember that around 70% of what we perceive as ‘taste’ does not actually come anywhere near our taste-buds (just try doing a wine exam with a sinus infection), and comes through the most direct contact to the olfactory nerve, the nose. Next, we bring sight into the equation – we all know that we think something tastes better just when it looks prettier. Studies also now show that simply the discussion or suggestion of wonderful tastes is enough to get gastric juices flowing, and if you’ve been keeping up with the culinary Joneses like Blumenthal or the Roca brothers, you’ll realise sound comes in too. Given we are probably drinking to more doomph-doomph than wave-break and wail, and we can’t hear ourselves think when we are drinking our Molecular Mixology however, we might just have to discount these latter components. But all this does help us realise that we can now make a perfect drink, so long as we think on different levels.
On the night, the boys (who I secretly named Sweetie, Cheeky and Smarty) showed us their moves. Smarty (Bar Manager Tomas Dundulis), explained the basics, went through the most popular cocktails and then went on to explain some of their unique ingredients. We’re talking specially imported bitters in various flavours, and one of their sous vide liqueurs – a home-made infusion of Japanese shochu with fresh lemongrass and palm sugar, vacuum packed and then cooked at 50 degrees or so to bring all the flavours in quickly (vacuum packing stops evaporation and keeps the flavours clean). Cheeky (pictured above) moved fast, dished out several naughty lines, and then while shaking a drink around very hard, told us that the look on a bartender’s face while shaking a cocktail is exactly the same as it is during sex… He looked pretty relaxed, almost like he was born to do it. (I refused to have photographs taken while I did mine later)
Sweetie then took over and asked us around the back (of the bar) for a bit of fun. We tried making some of their own signature cocktails, and then were given free reign to play with the potions on the shelves. I chose some 7 year old dark rum, peche de vigne, pear puree, pomegranite seeds and lemon juice. Not bad – could have dome with some bitters to make it a little more three dimensional, and maybe a whiskey instead of the rum for a little hint of smoke. Some of my companions (my custard pie, eaternal zest and dubai bites) had some fun with some more Asian ingredients, particularly Sally, whom I believe used some Yuzu juice and some obscure but incredibly tasty Japanese plum brandy.
A little info on the bar at Okku:
- Most popular drink: Fuji apple martini, a green apple sour cocktail, it is served with a beautiful apple fan on top (usually served on the rocks in a tumbler for easy dancing-with-drink-in-hand) It has been on the OKKU menu from the beginning.
- Busiest night: Not Thursday or Friday, as you would expect, but they do come close. L.O.V.E on Sundays takes this honour. Each week is themed (recent nights have seen a 1920s Gatsbyesque do and the promotion of artist Nik Nejad and his Japan themed collection) and they will make over 1000 cocktails on the night.
- Secret ingredients: As mentioned above, there are some sous vide treatments, also including a fiery yet sweet organic pepperdew vodka. Then there’s an array of Sake and Shochu of course, plus other Japanese spirits and liqueurs you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, infused brandies and vodkas, an array of bitters shipped in especially. Tomas is searching to find a date bitters (perhaps he will need to figure out how to make it himself, as ‘Bob’, a barman in London does?), and intends on using more raw spices in the future.
- Bartenders’ favourites: “For my personal taste would like to sell more classic drinks like Old Fashioned, Negroni, Manhatan. These drinks are global classics, bartenders always compete who can pull off the best tasting old school cocktail. Sometimes the old way is the best way…” (Tomas)
- Choice of bars in the rest of Dubai: 360 on a Friday for the music. At.Mosphere for a quiet drink
- Personal favourite tipple: beer, excellent dark rum (Havana 7 or Zacapa) or a good whiskey on the rocks (Suntory Hibiki 17, Glenmorangie, Chivas 18), and Amaretto for dessert – with a cigar.
And why is Okku the best bar in their opinion?
“OKKU is a way of life, work hard play hard. We are a group of skilled bartenders who are social and always opened to new ideas. We actually completely enjoy what we do, and I’m sure people can feel it at our bar. We always give quality and attention to details with every drink we make. We also work very closely with the chefs to make sure that the drink combinations we come up with are designed specifically to be paired with certain dishes, thinking beyond the bar so that front of house know what to recommend to guests when ordering certain foods.”OKKU Dubai H Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Rd www.okku.com Phone: +971 4 501 8777 (booking recommended for dinner, walk-in for drinks)
Finding your bar in Dubai:
There is no end-all international guide to bars like there is for restaurants. No stars, hats or even olives on toothpicks in a guide that reliably and without commercial bias tells us what the best bars are in the major cities in the world. Nothing that gives us a grading. I’d like to see 3-martini glasses for gourmet extravagance, maybe a 1-glass for a worthwhile stop, a bottle of beer for a great value option, a pair of suitably hip spectacles for a fantastic view, you know the kind of thing. (Now whoever takes this idea and runs with it, remember where you got the idea and share the profits).
The World’s Best Bars is always an option, and as close to an international graded listing I could find, but considering iKandy is the only one in Dubai that gets “rated” by readers, I’d suggest there are a few gaps. (The Dubai page is linked here.)
My picks for Dubai are: Mahiki, 360, People by Crystal, Music Hall, Armani Prive, Cavalli Club and Trilogy for the big club style bars, and for smaller venues with cocktails and food, try Okku of course, Caramel, Jetty Lounge, Zuma, Embassy, The Living Room, Bahri Bar, 101 and Toro Toro
And finally, some interesting links if you’re still reading:
- Some insanely time consuming molecular mixology here
- And someone who’s had it up to here with mixology moronity