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Belvedere: About Relearning Natural, Arjun Kapoor & Cocktail Culture

Recently in India, Alice Farquhar, Global Brand Education and Training Manager at Belvedere, explored the vodka’s natural roots, “unprocessed cocktails” – which she considers the emerging focus in spirit production – and her thoughts on the global cocktail culture

Belvedere Grapefruit and Dragonfruit cocktailWith more than three-quarter of India’s bars selling a diverse variety of cocktails, vodka has now moved into the mainstream market in India. Hence the paradoxical shift towards healthier and more natural options was inevitable, and Belvedere has been at the forefront of this change.

With an enviable lineage of 600 years of Polish Vodka-making tradition, the brand is known for using only three perfect ingredients: rye, reverse osmosis water and character. Made entirely from Polish Dankowskie Gold Rye and blended with water from its own natural source, the spirit’s taste profile is what sets it apart. While we understand how a healthy cocktail may sound like an oxymoron, several brands are developing outreach programs to enhance their nutrition value and cut down on damaging properties in an endeavour to make the entire experience more sustainable, healthy and as organic as possible.

The Belvedere Relearn Natural program is the result of this changing dynamic in the industry. An homage to the brand’s natural roots, it was launched globally in 2016 as an endeavour to re-orient vodka-lovers to a lifestyle that celebrates conscious choices while savouring taste.  Alice Farquhar, the Global Brand Education and Training Manager of Belvedere, has been instrumental in setting up this naturalness philosophy in India.

When Ms. Farquhar was in town, combining her love for travel with work, we arranged for a special tête-à-tête to navigate the diversifying cocktail culture, the new era of “Drinkstagrammers” and how bar tenders have transformed the cocktail market, paving way for a more conscious consumption pattern.

Alice Farquhar Global Brand Education Manager Belvedere

Niyoshi Shah: Do you think social media has impacted the cocktail culture globally?
Alice Farquhar: My answer to that would be Yes and No. There is definitely a focus on creating something that can be viewed as “instagramable” and the creation of a destination cocktail to encourage more vodka aficionados to try it out. However, there were always unique and beautiful looking drinks being prepared, but now we are privy to those images thanks to the social media. So it has impacted the cocktail culture in terms of increasing the visibility of drinks and experiences that potentially already existed.

NS: What are the top flavours in cocktails in 2019?
AF: This year, there is going to be a rapid return to classic cocktails with traditional ingredients in terms of flavour profiles. People are going to use spices and natural flavours. I have already started seeing experimentation with spices and condiments globally. Cherry, Port and unfortified wines have made a comeback, which is very exciting because they had been long forgotten and relegated to the older generation or viewed as a post-dinner drink. These liquids are now interestingly used in cocktails in a big way. And from a sustainability perspective, people are using whole and natural ingredients in their drinks which is positive progress.

NS: Please tell us more about unusual natural ingredients, their taste profiles and how they make for interesting cocktails.
AF: The use of spice is the most interesting addition. It’s challenging to work with spices but they can be used well as infusions, like the flavour trends of tea and coffee that have become huge this year – earl grey martini or an espresso martini. People are using these flavours in unique ways.

Belvedere Lemon Yellow cocktailNS: Are cocktails becoming ‘healthier’ with cold pressed juices and more natural ingredients being used?
AF: Well, no cocktail is ever completely healthy. As a brand we have a responsibility to the trade and to the consumer to ensure that it is consumed responsibly. However, people are far more aware and conscious of the ingredients they are using in their drinks. We are seeing a turn towards better options like cold pressed juices which are lower in sugar and a lot less sweetening of cocktails. Which really just leads to a great understanding of the trade and keeping up with the consumer’s choices and preferences.

NS: Are bartenders increasingly becoming the centre of a dining/cocktail experience?
AF: Yes, more and more so. Earlier you would only see a mention of the head chef or sommelier on a menu, but now the head bartender or bar manager are becoming permanent fixtures there. They are blurring the lines at various restaurants where the drinks experience is just as important as eating. Cocktails are being included in a tasting menus alongside food. For the longest time I have considered bartenders as chefs in their own right, because their understanding of ingredients and flavour is no different to a chef’s. A lot of them are trained chefs and its slightly more scientific than what most people would imagine.

NS: How has Belvedere impacted the cocktail culture in India?
AF: We have done so primarily by helping people think differently through our Relearn Natural program. It is an opportunity to talk to the consumer honestly and authentically. It is not only about Belvedere being a one hundred percent natural, sugar-free and additive free brand, but how we bring that to life through the cocktails that we create. It creates an atmosphere of conscious consumption and a better understanding of key ingredients. We help bartenders source local, fresh and natural ingredients instead of anything artificial like syrups and sour mixes, and that enables consumers experience cocktails differently.

Belvedere Pineapple cocktailNS: What are the global trends and innovations in bartending?
AF: There is a strong trend of combining the dining and drinking experience globally. Sustainability and zero waste programs in terms of sourcing local ingredients and using it entirely with no wastage is another innovative change we can see. For a wider environmental impact the bartending community must be credited for the adaption of single use plastic. At Belvedere, we don’t use any straws in our drinks and have incorporated the use of biodegradable alternatives.

NS: Can you tell us about the Pan-India trade competitions that led to the formation of the first ever Belvedere India Bartender Collective?
This was an amazing initiative based on the Relearn Natural program. It was a countrywide competition with 120 participants, all of whom were creating their interpretation of the Relearn Natural cocktail using Belvedere. This really gave them an opportunity to learn more about the brand and its philosophy and bring it to life through their own expression. Our team was in Delhi scouting local, farm-fresh ingredients to include them in the program. And the winner was a woman – which is great! I understand that she was one of the first woman to win a bartending competition in India. We were able to create this collective of bartenders who are now well-versed in the program and that really feeds into the global DNA of Belvedere which is the idea of community.

NS: Conscious choices and savouring taste: Would this endeavour extend to locally sourced ingredients, region-specific recipes and natural sugar or reduced sugar?
Yes, this again brings me to the competition where the bartenders were asked to look for locally-sourced ingredients. From a sustainability perspective, it is important for them to support local produce because they are feeding a local economy. You also have traceability in your ingredients and you know where they have come from, hence you can determine its quality. Conscious choices are being made and the trend is definitely bent towards a reduced sugar concept – everyone is far more aware of that.

Belvedere Pomegranate CocktailWith an influx of cocktails using natural ingredients like the “Green Garden” or “Lime Lyte”,  healthy options are increasingly becoming popular among millennials. Mixologists and bartenders are also working with immune-boosting vitamins and nutrients. All of which can be attributed to Belvedere’s Relearn Natural program.

Since its inception, 25 years ago, Belvedere has been a commercially savvy and a socially relevant brand, and has a veritable kaleidoscope of ideas up its sleeve, each with its own loyal following that embraces evolving trends. Making themselves more relevant to India, they have recently announced the second edition of their annual India specific platform – Belvedere Studio B  championed by Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor.

This year the event will see an artistic collaboration uniting popular talents from the worlds of fashion – Kunal Rawal, gastronomy – Prateek Sadhu of Masque and design – Shilo Shiv Suleman. The three masterminds will conceptualize and create a never-before-seen expression inspired by Belvedere which will be unveiled in avant-garde style in Mumbai on May 2019.

Belvedere has been at the forefront of artistic fusion and the celebration of the most prolific creative minds like John Legend, Usher and Janelle Monae amongst many others. It has become an essential component to building a communal spirit and distinct cocktail-culture where individual expression and collaboration can lead to a beautiful, raw, sensory experience!