To be frank, I didn’t have high expectations for cocktails in Hyderabad. And I certainly didn’t expect to find world-class mixology in the predominantly Muslim area of Old Town, a neighborhood that unlike the rest of Hyderabad seems to have been lost in time. (The opposite side of town is a modern high-tech hub.)
But here we are at dusk. The sun is setting over the old Muslim quarter, and as the call to prayer reverberates up the dusty hillside, the third-floor bar inside Falaknuma Palace is coming to life. Hookahs are being stoked with apricot, pistachio and cherry shisha. Ceiling fans are whirling. Billiard balls are clacking. And bartender Gautam Shah is studiously chopping oranges, clipping mint and making a homemade syrup steeped with freshly picked jasmine flowers. Shah’s cocktails are all based on seasonal fruits and fresh herbs harvested on the estate: jasmine flowers, pomegranates, wild mint, oranges, strawberries and more.
Falaknuma Palace, which opened as a Taj hotel last year, was built in the late 19th century by Hyderabad’s second-to-last ruling royal, Viqar al Omra, aka the 6th Nizam, a Muslim who had a penchant for Western-style entertaining. He already owned plenty of lavish palaces, but built this one, his most elaborate, for more or less the sole purpose of hosting some of the poshest parties India had ever witnessed.
On the top floor, where the veranda offers sweeping views of Hyderabad, the Nizam built a men’s saloon. It was originally off-limits to women, a playground for visiting dukes, governors and princes. That very saloon, now dubbed the Hookah Lounge, and virtually unchanged from 100 years ago—the same antique billiards table, marble chess boards, Italian chandeliers, lavish textiles, elaborately carved furniture and hand-blown hookahs–is once again the coolest bar in town.
Afternoon temperatures in Hyderabad routinely surge well above 100 degrees, and in this sort of heat, I can’t think of anything more refreshing than Shah’s orange-cilantro mojito and the ice-cooled smoke of a hookah. As night begins to fall and the breeze turns cool, though, I might want to switch to a jasmine sour martini. Below the photos, find recipes for the Pomegranate & Mint Margarita and the Jasmine Sour Martini so you can make these refreshing cocktails at home. Hookah not included.
Pomegranate & Mint Margarita
4 oz Additional pomegranate juice
10 sprigs mint
2 oz Tequila
1 oz Lemon
1/2 oz Simple syrup
1. Hand squeeze the pomegranates into a tall shaker glass, allowing the seeds and pulp to collect along with the juice.
2. Twist and lightly bruise the mint and add it to the juice.
3. Add a shot of tequila, a couple shots of additional pomegranate juice, a squeeze of lemon and a half shot of simple syrup. Shake well with ice.
4. Pour into a tall glass, unstrained with ice. Garnish with additional mint.
Jasmine Sour Martini
1 oz Simple syrup
Fresh jasmine flowers, small handful
1/2 oz Freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 oz Vodka
1. Steep the jasmine flowers in the syrup until very fragrant. Allow to cool.
2. In a shaker filled with ice, combine 1 part lemon juice, 2 parts jasmine syrup and 3 parts vodka. Shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a jasmine flower.
1 oz Lemon
2 oz Rum
1/2 oz Simple syrup
Sprite, to taste
1. Dice an orange with the skin on.
2. In a tall shaker glass, muddle the diced orange with the cilantro, extracting all the oil from the peel. Add the juice of another orange (about 4 oz.), a squeeze of lemon, two shots of rum and a shot of simple syrup. Add ice and shake well.
3. Strain into a tall glass. Fill halfway with crushed ice. Top it off with sprite, and garnish with a small bunch of cilantro.