In 2016 when I first met Neha Panchal, I was awestruck. She was one of the first lady mixologists that I met. Urban Foundry on then-upcoming Balewadi High street in 2015 had offered us some great food. Neha was on a song that day and presented us with some great concoctions. Later when I spoke with her, with a firm belief she had said – You have to have your heart in the right place. It’s a little tough in the beginning, but the industry grows on you and in no time, you’ll be calling out shots like a pro. It may sound cliche but for most women, the heart in the right place can make unachievable a cakewalk. Here are two such on this Women’s day, who are on their journey to set a high benchmark for everyone, Kasturi Banerjee and Rushdah Humaira.

Kasturi Banerjee

Kasturi Banerjee definitely had her heart in the right place and an iron determination too. Learnings from 14 years of Banking and financial industry background seems like the building blocks for her to respond to her inner calling. One fine day Kasturi quit her job and got enrolled with Drinq. And then she started her journey to become a bartender. Her corporate job made her travel across Kolkata, Mumbai, London and other cities coupled with mandatory social/corporate get-togethers in various restaurants and pubs. The interest in making a drink with complete knowledge of flavours was instilled then.

Till now, this seems like any other story and can be easily pitched as a “discover your passion” or “The mixologist who gave away her ESOPS” rank. Kasturi is special and here is why. Like Simon Ford (Fords Gin, Caña Brava Rum, Aylesbury Duck Vodka and Tequila Cabeza), Stephan Berg (The Butter truth) and Fillipo Previero (VII Hills Italian Gin) she went ahead and during the lockdown, set up her start up in Goa for homegrown craft rum and introduced MakaZai to us. The trigger was to look beyond Old Monk, which for generations has been a much-loved name.

A rum beyond old monk

As Kasturi says, South America, South East Asia and places where there is abundant sugarcane have been producing exotic rums. So why not India?  Makazai  – ‘I want’ in Konkani is as shuddh desi drink as one can think of. The Rum is blended in Indian soil with preservative-free ingredients. It is nourished by the sweet waters of Goa and comes in two flavours. White variant from the sugarcanes from Panchaganga, Maharashtra is an ode to the Bartenders. It is known as Bartender’s edition. The Gold rum is known as Tribute Edition which Kasturi wants to attribute to festivities and celebrations. As we spoke, the issues of Women mixologists surfaced. Long and late working hours with regulations that restrict a woman to stand behind the counter may see fewer superstars in this field but like everywhere else, it is only a matter of time when we break the jinx.

Kasturi is perhaps the only lady in India and amongst very few mixologists in India who own an alcohol brand. However, the journey has just started for her. She wants to spread more awareness about Rum, breaking the winter drink myth. Her brand icon is the Olive Ridley turtle which can travel up to 9000 km but can make its way home to lay eggs. Perhaps the day when Kasturi comes to Kolkata to launch her Rum, it will be her full cycle. For all interested – here is the website Stilldistilling and their Instagram handle – Makazai 

Rushdah Humaira, Rushk Chocolates

I wasn’t aware that Kolkata doesn’t have any Bean to Bar chocolates till I met Rushdah Humaira. Rushdah has launched Rushk Chocolates, the first of its kind in Kolkata a few months ago. The beans are sourced directly from farmers in various parts of South India. The grinder is from Coimbatore and all come together with determined enthusiasm and zeal of Rushdah in Howrah, once called the Manchester of West Bengal. Its hard work all through and like any new product, the work does not end at manufacturing. As Rushdah shares – what takes more than 4 days to make – a  40 gm of the chocolate bar can be finished in less than 4 minutes. In the first lot Rushdah has introduced six flavours – each one a testimony of the 2 year-long study and research that she has put in.

Just like Kasturi, Rushdah wants to become a chocolate activist first. She uses the hashtag #morebittermorebetter for that awareness. For a good period of time, chocolate meant an over the top sweet lingering after taste in the mouth. While Mason and Co, Menakao, LA Folie, Hill wild and many others have been creating enough noise in the Indian market, we didn’t have a Bengal representation. Better late than never. Rushdah feels proud and ecstatic to introduce a real local artisan chocolate brand from ‘Amader Shohor’ as she says. Her extremely supportive husband and in-laws played a major role in the realization of her dreams. Having said that, the challenges are galore ahead of her. It will definitely take time to change the mindset of people to get into a 64 percent cacao or 70 percent chocolate.

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As eco friendly as it gets

Orange and Cinnamon is a new flavour for the local market as is hemp hearts. Both hazelnut and cranberry are ground with the chocolate giving it a unique flavour rather than small bits in your mouth. Selling the chocolates online, each batch handcrafted and made with love and care, Rushdah even made the packets eco-friendly. However, the future has the answer to how many loyalists will change colours from purple to pastel-coloured Rushk Chocolates. You can place the orders here – Rushk Chocolate and get updated with her recent products in 

Why Kasturi Banerjee and Rushdah Humaira are special 

A lot has happened in the lockdown for the FnB industry. Amongst many other examples, Kasturi Banerjee and Rushdah Humaira are two ladies with Kolkata connections who have dared to dream. They took a plunge during this time. On this women’s day, this is a tribute to these ladies who have shown us the simple ways of chasing dreams and breaking the norms. Their stories are worth sharing with the world and not because they are women.

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