Stirring Stories

Cocktails in Colombo

Colonial era buildings have been converted into stunning boutique restaurants and arcades - this is a former Mental Hospital at Independence Square

Neglected colonial era buildings have been converted into stunning boutique restaurants and arcades – this is a former mental hospital at Independence Square

My most enduring memory of the recently concluded civil war in Sri Lanka is of the checkpoints which dotted the roads. Armed soldiers stood behind piles of sandbags designed to mitigate the impact of suicide bombs, while others checked vehicles and the identities of its occupants. It’s not the sort of thing that encouraged tourism! This being Sri Lanka incongruities abounded. The military checkpoints around Colombo were all sponsored by hotel chains and manufacturers of consumer products. I must have missed the business school marketing class on military checkpoints and brand association! The drivers are notoriously bad in Sri Lanka so the fully camouflaged personnel checking vehicles wore day-glo safety vests. It must be tough choosing between guerrilla sniper fire and being run over by a crazy motorist…

It’s been a full year since I’ve been back in Colombo and the world has changed in Sri Lanka. A year ago the country was getting back on its feet after three decades of war, feeling it’s way into a new peace. The roads sans military checkpoints, were still empty at night. The habits of decades takes more than a few years to unwind.

The pool and bar at ON 14 at the Ozo Hotel

The pool and bar at ON 14 at the Ozo Hotel

Economists used to speak of an “Indian pace of development” with reference to the one step forwards two steps back form of progress found in South Asia. Somebody forgot to tell the Sri Lankans. This place is busting loose. In the space of a year, new highways, ports, airports, hotels, commercial buildings and more have sprouted – with generous help from the Chinese. The pavements are clean, the public spaces are spruced up and attractive. The tuk tuk drivers only overcharge tourists about three times the going rate. This is development!

The Chinese don’t like a free press and some worry that’s it’s rubbing off on the Sri Lankan government. I called an old classmate of mine, now in the government to check. He explained that the independent newspaper sector makes frequent accusations about the freedom of the press being suppressed. It was such an obvious lie that the government couldn’t possibly let them publish it.

I tried to reach the US embassy to find out what they were doing to counteract the growing Chinese influence in the region; but they were too busy pivoting somewhere else…

The Sky Louge at the Kingsbury Hotel

The Sky Lounge at the Kingsbury Hotel

In Colombo old hotels abandoned by international chains during the war have been refurbished under new ownership. The Sky Bar atop the Kingsbury Hotel (formerly the Inter-Continental) is one of the nicest places to enjoy a cocktail – affording a truly spectacular view of the Indian Ocean and the Colombo coastline. Down the road ON 14 astride the Ozo hotel offers a similar rooftop drinking experience – the addition of a swimming pool giving it a Soho House New York / Shoreditch House London ambiance…

Cocktails in Sri Lanka can be disappointing. The local bartenders rarely drink cocktails themselves. They’ll follow recipes, but have no idea of what the finished product is supposed to taste like. It’s best to stick to something straightforward – arrack, or whisky with soda or perhaps a gin and tonic. Unfortunately, the hipper bars tend not to stock the local spirits – a shame given the excellent local gin and the superb base Arrack provides in a cocktail.

A little experimentation led to a successful recipe for a Curry Leaf and Black Pepper Martini.  Watch the video for a spot of Sri Lankan cocktail colour!

Old timers will mourn the passing of the genteel Sri Lanka of yore, where time stood still and nothing much ever happened; “where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”. Man has wrought his villainy over three brutal decades. It is time for the sun to shine on this island again.


2017-04-12T12:17:38+00:00August 17th, 2014|