This is the story of a cocktail. Once upon a time in Mumbai, two girlfriends visited the Harbor Bar at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It was a Friday afternoon and barring a few men, the bar was mostly empty. “May be it’s too early for a drink”, they thought. A cute, middle-aged man, named T. Mistry greeted them with a cheerful smile and made them sit next to a window overlooking the Gateway of India. “They should’ve built the bar on the first floor”, the girls discussed. After all, who would want their lovely view of the rain and the ocean blocked by Mumbai Police and the atrocious traffic?
Anyhow. Soon, Mr. T. Mistry came back and instead of taking their order, suggested they try the Bar’s signature cocktail. “It’s called ‘From the Harbor Since 1933’ and we flambé it right at the table”, he said. He asked them not to be shy in telling him if they dislike the drink. In which case, he would be more than happy to replace it. “Do we look that silly?”, the girls wondered. It was an expensive drink. Seven hundred and fifty rupees to be precise. But having lived in the US, they took comfort in the oft-abused-trick of converting the rupee-price into dollars. Of course, it didn’t seem that expensive then. “Alright, Mr. Mistry. We’ll both have your signature cocktail!”.
Next came a cart with two wine glasses, both filled with sliced fruits and gin and perched at an angle over tiny tea-lamps. Another glass contained some freshly squeezed fruit juice mixed with ice. Mr. Mistry shook the juice in a cocktail-shaker and poured it into yet another glass. Then, very carefully, he set the alcohol in the wine glass on fire and gently poured that burning liquid into the frothy fruit juice. A last stir and the drink was ready.
The first sip was wonderfully light, frothy and peachy with a hint of bitterness. It was the perfect-first-sip for a summer cocktail. Mr. Mistry waited to see their reaction. Upon hearing that a replacement would not be necessary, he said, “I am so glad you like it, dear”, and left the girls alone with their drink.
All great bartenders are excellent performers. They mix, shake and stir a cocktail with such panache, giving it a character that’s not captured by taste alone. Mr. Mistry, besides flambéing the drink gracefully, also recounted the story behind it in an equally mesmerizing way. In 1933, an American fellow was traveling via the Indian Ocean and his yacht was docked at the Bombay harbor. He received a phone-call from his wife who told him about the end of Prohibition in America. He badly wanted a celebratory drink, but there were no glasses in his yacht. Disappointed, he looked outside the window and caught a glimpse of the palatial Taj Mahal Hotel. He entered the Harbor Bar and asked the bartender to make a drink that would “quench his thirst from the last thirteen years”. The first sip of the cocktail blew him away and he wanted to know its name. The bartender smiled and said, “Sir, since it’s such a happy day for you, why don’t you name it?” The American stood up on a bar stool, raised his glass and shouted out, “From the Harbor Since 1933!”
The girls were lost in a quiet conversation. Like a teenage crush, the cocktail lost a bit of its initial charm once the foam subsided. But the story behind it, told so beautifully by Mr. Mistry, along with the increasingly less-crowded view because of the rain, made it much more than worthwhile.