If you’re a drinker visiting the Eastern European country of Georgia, chances are you’ve thrown back a shot of chacha, the country's clear pomace brandy. The spirit is ubiquitous, a fundamental piece of the country's hospitality, celebrations and culinary traditions. Bartenders are now deploying chacha in a wide range of cocktails, too, and one of the bars at the forefront of the movement, a bar that's helping to elevate the cocktail scene in the capital city of Tbilisi, is 41 Gradus.
The Bar as a Community Project
Also known as 41° Art of Drinks, 41 Gradus is a basement bar with room for up to 25 guests, with seating at its counter as well as a few small tables and cozy nooks. While not a speakeasy per se, 41 Gradus is semi-hidden in a dark alley, located behind a closed door and down a flight of stairs, with dimly lit moody environs.
The bar is headed by owner Roman Milostivy. In 2017, he moved with his wife and family to Tbilisi from Moscow, where he had been running a bar called Chainaya Tea & Cocktails. 41 Gradus takes its name, according to Milostivy, from a group of futurist artists from Tbilisi a century ago, along with Tbilisi's proximity to the 41st parallel north and other influences.
The bar’s concept stretches far beyond merely serving well-made cocktails; 41 Gradus is a bar-cum-community project. Prior to opening the space, Milostivy launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the construction and early operational costs. "I always felt that a bar belongs not only to its owner and to the team who run it but mainly to its guests who create the unique environment of the place," he says in his bar's mission statement.
Crowdfunding contributors receive continuing discounts at the bar, and beyond that, Milostivy donates a hefty portion of his proceeds each month to charity. In particular, he backs charitable efforts to help young talents in artistic fields.
Using Chacha in Cocktails
41 Gradus welcomes a mix of locals and tourists, and both crowds have latched onto chacha cocktails. "For people visiting Georgia, drinking chacha is kind of like a big tourist attraction and a lot of fun, and therefore a lot of our guests are tourists asking for chacha in their cocktails," says Milostivy. "On the other hand, locals are so bored and tired of chacha, which they've had since childhood, so it's a great challenge for us to offer them chacha in the form of a cocktail they will actually like."
Milostivy and his team often riff on classics by replacing one of the spirituous elements with chacha. That's the case with the Nino, a riff on the Ninotchka from “The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks” by David A. Embury. Milostivy subs in chacha in place of vodka, and evens its ratio with white creme de cacao and lemon juice for an equal-parts cocktail that's shaken and served up.
"We like to highlight chacha in our cocktails rather than hiding this bold spirit," Milostivy says. "While the modern trend for production is a light-bodied distillate with less flavor, we like to use powerful and full-bodied brands."
With 41 Gradus riffing on classics, they certainly have a take on the Negroni, as well. It’s dubbed the Bagrationi and named for Pyotr Bagration, a Russian general and native Georgian who fought against Napoleon in 1812 and was mortally wounded for his efforts. Milostivy again takes an equal-parts approach and simply subs in the chacha in place of gin.
"We like to link our cocktails with some of the characters, places and events of the country, so each drink has a story to accompany it," Milostivy says. In a Manhattan-ish vein is the Rustaveli, named for famed Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, who's also the namesake of one of Tbilisi's central thoroughfares. Milostivy goes equal parts chacha and sweet vermouth, with a small pour of Cynar and a few drops of absinthe.
Beyond chacha, 41 Gradus also deploys other local ingredients such as matsoni, or sour yogurt; tkemali, a local sour plum; and local honey distillates. In the Golden Fleece, both matsoni and tkemali appear alongside gin, curaçao, lemon and soda, while in the Gamlet, gin is matched with a tkemali cordial instead of the lime or lime cordial of the standard Gimlet. In the Tsotne, honey distillate is paired with Dolin Blanc, Campari and Strega in a stirred sipper.
The bar menu at 41 Gradus is handwritten across a two-page spread in a composition-style notebook. Each new menu is written on subsequent pages, so drinkers can quickly flip back through the bar's history to chart its evolution and which entrants have risen to become cult classics.
A handful of drinks remain in place with each menu, while new ideas continue to pop up as well. "We have a constant desire to search and experiment, working with seasonal ingredients, cocktails for different situations and tastes, and inspiration from just about anything we come across in life," says Milostivy. The fresh takes are rotated in and out twice per month.
Growing the Scene in Tbilisi
41 Gradus is continuing to put down roots in its community, and as it does, it gains the acceptance of locals, who may have been slow to come around to the idea of a high-end bar serving chacha cocktails. It also is helping to attract a growing number of talented bartenders. This includes those who move from cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg—it's comparatively easy to open a bar in Tbilisi, for one thing—as well as those who have been trained at existing hubs such as Milostivy's before branching out to open their own businesses.
"It's just a matter of a time before the scene in Tbilisi gets international attention,” says Milostivy. “The goal is to grow the whole industry with bartenders, competitions and training, and all of this will educate customers, too."
It all goes back to the idea of the bar as part and parcel of the community. Or in the (paraphrased) words of the aforementioned Shota Rustaveli, "Everything you give away remains yours and everything you keep is lost forever."