Mocktail: Liquid Imagination

Blue Lagoon. Tangy Black Beauty. Mississipi Blue. Litchi Colada. Cool Flamingo.Lava Flow. Purple Rain. Across the country, the beverage is being reinvented. The mocktail can be seen pretty much everywhere and in a recent study that examined the changing culture around food, the mocktail featured prominently as a site of a new kind of excitement. So much so that as part of cooking classes that have sprung up across the country, teaching young women (mostly) exotic new dishes, mocktails are now part of the curriculum. In fact, most of the names quoted in the beginning of this article come from the syllabus of a cooking class in Rajkot.

To the drinker of alcohol, the mocktail is, as the name suggests, a sad attempt to mimic the pleasures of drinking. Of course, to the serious male drinker the cocktail itself, unless it is colourless and James Bond-blessed or an occasional diversion when drinking in daytime, is deemed a bit too fruity , colourful and accessorised (by beach umbrellas and the like) to be taken seriously . In the Indian context, particularly in the past, even gin and vodka were considered `ladies’ drinks’ and fruity cocktails were deemed to be decidedly feminine in their appeal.But the mocktail lived on the outskirts of all that was considered worthwhile; one could be excused for not drinking alcohol, but to drink an aquamarine liquid called The Mermaid’s Kiss with a cherry floating in it was to risk considerable damage to one’s reputation. To the non-drinker, the idea of alcohol was itself viewed through a lens of undesirability bordering on the immoral. The mocktail was a shadow version of the real thing and thus held few attractions. Besides it was too unfamiliar and uncomfortably exotic; nimbu pani was safer. Thus, the mocktail was taken seriously by few and lived a life of quiet shame in some forgotten corner of the bar menu.

Things have clearly changed. And in some part, the attraction of mocktail today in India does lie in the fact that it is a vegetarian version of alcohol; it does to alcohol what paneer does to chicken–provide a sense of indulgence without the perceived sin. Given that alcohol itself enjoys much greater legitimacy in the country than it ever did and is much less gendered than it used to be, pretenddrinking is becoming a fashion statement of sorts.The glasses that mocktails are served in, the bar-like atmosphere that many restaurants and cmocktailafes create, all of these are markers of the allure of alcohol, without actually having to partake of it. The umbrella, the wedge of lime, the salt on the rim, are the telltale signs of sin, little markers of how not ordinary all of this is. And yet, the `virginity’ of the mocktail, speaks of how it is in reality only an imposter, the `dhishoom’ sound without the actual punch, the frisson of adultery without the sex. But this view might be only part of the story . For the mocktail is more than a simulation of alcohol; it comes from an entirely original motivation–to lead a life bathed in technicolour and scented with the unfamiliar and exotic. It is a concoction that combines mystery , glamour and invention to create an escape from the ordinary . It uses several registers of meaning–it has a base connected with something fruity , adds a concentrated syrup to create a new and hitherto unimagined combination, it adds soda to motorise the experience, garnishes the concoction with something exotic, serves it in a glass that is a cry for attention and then gives it a name that whispers throaty promises. Having squeezed out the ambrosial goodness of fruits, flowers and fizzed up a whole range of flavours that bear some resemblance to something natural, the mocktail is the equivalent of a space trip that reaches beyond the essential nature of things. Unlike the traditional beverages that were always located in something familiar and natural–lime, orange, fruits, curd, herbs of some kind–the mocktail is more invention than derivation. The mocktail might have its origins in something natural but its eventual destination is always some imagined landscape.

In doing so, it actually pushes past the cocktail as a system of delivering meaning. The cocktail after all has alcohol to play with and in many cases uses an industrial quantity of alcohol to deliver its payload. Looked at this way, the cocktail is actually the simulation; it is the mocktail that is the real thing. It uses the power of combination and imagination to provide transportation to elsewhere.

In India today, there seems to be a need to see hitherto unimagined version of oneself. The mirror must hold out surprises; new costumes are of interest. New experiences are sought, particularly if they allow the self to be imagined in a new way . The pastry or the exotic dessert has a similar structure and effect. The birthday party, with its little learnt set of rituals, too uses a new currency of experience. The desire is to go beyond the currencies of imagination available and to construct a new kind of experience that is not tethered to the past, but to do so with a degree of caution. The experimentation is more at the surface than at the core and great care is taken to de-risk forays into the new, but the urge to travel outside one’s zone of familiarity is an interesting development.

If the first steps towards embracing change happened by the inspired use of the remix, where the familiar and the new were played with, what we see here is a desire to step outside the familiar, albeit with a safety net. Change of a big kind is often heralded by change of a truly trivial kind.Nobody can argue that the presence of a few fizzy , coloured liquids in one’s life is a subject of national importance. And perhaps it isn’t. But small changes add up, and a small change is afoot.