Kenya has been referred as a drinking nation by many people. This is because of Kenyans’ love for Tusker beer, which has won numerous awards abroad for its excellent quality.
Cocktails, however, have only become popular in the recent past. Blame it on the popular Sex and the City TV show that shows four women only drinking cocktails, or globalisation that makes trends appear on our shores as soon as they are conceived. Whatever it is, many a barkeep in Nairobi is serving up a “cosmopolitan” these days.
While many bars claim to sell good cocktails, most lack originality or overdo it with the grenadine syrup. This may explain why many men view cocktails as a woman’s drink. To many here, cocktails are sweet, feminine and lack the refinement of say, a 12-year CaolIla whisky. But I recently learned that this is not true.
Bartender Alex Kavita is a bit of a Nairobi legend. He tends bar at CinCin at the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel.
The winner of best mixologist at the 2013 Taste Awards, Kavita has even posted a video on Youtube showcasing his skills. His boss, Priyan Kolapara, tells me he believes Alex will be one of the most sought after bartenders in Africa in the next two years.
That is a vote of confidence from a trained sommelier who has worked all over the world. I was keen to meet Alex, and try his award winning cocktails.
I got my chance soon enough. Alex first makes me a Bloody Mary. The usual recipe is simple enough: Tomato juice, vodka, salt, pepper and some celery to garnish it. Alex’s version includes garlic and onion. I am not a fan of anything tomato- based, but appreciate the unique flavour profile.
We moves to the next drink, the Kiwi Sapphire tonic. The ordinary gin and tonic gets an upgrade with kiwi, agave nectar and some passion juice. I am starting to see how he earned his reputation. The drink is marvellous. The kiwi and passion takes you to a tropical paradise while the texture makes it really interesting to drink.
The next drink is a cranberry cucumber mojito. Whole cranberries, normally used in baking Christmas, cake are added to the traditional rum and mint drink.
“I let the cranberries sit and absorb some liquid, which makes the drink much tastier. The freshness of the cucumber mixed with the slight tangy taste of the cranberries really mesh well with the rum,” he says. I notice a bit of a pattern with the drinks. It is not just about alcohol, but about flavours that complement each other.
This was confirmed to me by the Fairmont’s head chef, Karan Suri, who told me that Alex sometimes defers to him on whether a drink tastes right or if the flavours are competing instead of complementing each other.
The CinCin bar has also experimented with molecular gastronomy at the bar, having once paired the Bloody Mary with a Bloody Mary jelly to eat before you have your drink.
I meet Alex again at Skyy Vodka’s Best Bartender Competition at Brew Bistro on the first Saturday of August. The crowd is shouting his name, like a rock star, as he mixed the drinks.
Skyy Vodka has 10 new infusions and is hosting the contest, where the prize is a course at Shakers Mixology School in Johannesburg and the bragging rights to being Kenya’s best bartender.
I have seen a few bartenders break bottles as they attempt to show their flair, but Alex makes it look easy, child’s play really.
His final cocktail is called Absurdity in the Sky and has lychee, basil and cucumber. He wins this round and becomes the first bartender to make it to the finals.
I grab him to congratulate him and his first words to me are: “I remember you; you are the one who did not like my Bloody Mary.” Guilty as charged. I ask him how it feels to be popular in Nairobi and satisfy fans in what is mostly a thankless job.
He tells me that his manager, Priyan, is the main reason for his achievements.
“He believes in me and pushes me. I would not be where I am without his encouragement.” Indeed, Priyan brought a few people from the Fairmont to cheer Alex on at the competition.
Although I went out to have a taste of award-winning cocktails, I was struck to see a manager believe in and support his staff so whole heartedly. It ended up being a great lesson in leadership, too. Inspire, support and have high expectations of your staff and they will more than rise to the occasion.