Interview + Photography by Rikesh Chauhan, using Sony Alpha’s a7iii.
“I was never going to set up a mixology business and have a generic menu. You can buy a gin and tonic anywhere, but can you get the elderflower and lemon G&T that I make with the nitrous foam, the elderflower that I’ve foraged, the botanicals I’ve spent months growing? These are the things that are unique about my business and the drinks I make. It’s what I’m passionate about!”
Soral Chavda has a tendency to light up whenever it comes to talking about the science behind her drinks. Having set up Soralina Cocktails somewhat unexpectedly in 2019, the company designs theatrical, science-based cocktails for events as well as for the home. As a South Asian woman in an incredibly male-dominated industry, it’s taken a combination of unrelenting determination, an unrivalled flair for creativity as well as scientific know-how to overcome the obstacles faced from seemingly every corner—even her own. We spoke about it all, at her local cafe, Rhubarb.
Rikesh Chauhan: Mixology is a relatively niche path to take. How did you end up there?
Soral Chavda: “It was almost by accident, but I always knew I was going to have a business in food and drink industry. I guess I didn’t necessarily know what path I was going to take. My first job was in sales and marketing and I didn’t like it, so I started creating special occasion cakes as a baker and got involved in the wedding industry, due to the nature of what I was making. It was going quite well and at the time, my friend had reached out to someone on Masterchef who looked at my [Instagram] page. The chef had a cafe and needed someone to bake cakes. I brought her a selection of homemade items like sweets and marshmallows, and also these spherification bubble shots, because it was something I liked to do and I wanted to showcase my skills, you know? She loved them and said, “I’ve got a private dining event coming up with Joe Wicks, would you like to make the cocktails to pair the dishes with?”
RC: That’s a pretty cool way to get into it!
SC: “She sent me a seven-course menu for the evening, I went back and sat down to think about the drinks to complement them, and that’s basically how the mixology started!”
RC: Surely that’s not an easy transition though, the whole baking and then going straight into proper mixology?
SC: “Yeah, it was a very weird transition because obviously I had two weeks’ notice for the event. In those two weeks, I had to redo my website, get business cards, and create content that was more drinks-related. I had to buy in all this equipment and glassware at an expense I never really considered. But I knew that, because I was collaborating with this lady, it was going to be a great way to get exposure. My thought point at that stage was that drinks required less prep, and less time, and could be just as creative. The amount of skill would be something I’d keep learning, but I knew that there weren’t many female mixologists out there doing what I was doing, or planning to do, at least.”
RC: And even less so in terms of South Asian women.
RC: I’d go as far as saying you’re quite possibly the first South Asian female mixologist I’ve come across…
SC: “I haven’t come across another one either, literally until an event I did yesterday when I met two others who set up their own business also. It was refreshing. It was so nice to work with other women! Not that I have any issue working with men…” RC: But it’s another very male-dominated industry.
SC: “Exactly. And you cannot get away from that. We’re quite rare. Working with men, the experiences when I meet males is that they just want to take from me, because they see me as a female mixologist [rather than a mixologist]. It is like, ‘oh why don’t you come and do this for us, and this for us!’ and it’s like, but I do that for myself! So unless you’re going to pay me as a respective brand, as an equal, I can’t come and work for you, because I’m me. This is my name. I’ve experienced that with every single male person I’ve worked with in this industry.”
RC: You’re breaking the mould with what you’re doing, and it’s important to ensure it stands on its own accord…
SC: “I was doing this sort of stuff with my girls at home and thought, if I can do something that isn’t out there and is really cool, and my friends like it, and I like it, it’ll work. I’m gonna run with it!”
RC: Your cocktails are the talking points of the events you attend. They’re not things you’ll generally see…
SC: “Guests will see them across the room and come over. The whole reason I wanted to push forward with this is because it was something I love to have clients ask about. I don’t expect them to ask about the scientific elements, but, you know. We’ve got some really great bars, but to find the theatrics of my drinks evoking all the senses, that you can also have at your home as well as events.. it’s just good fun. I want people to walk away and think, ‘oh my God that tasted so nice.’”
RC: All of your family are doctors, or so I heard…
SC: “Mum’s a nurse, Dad’s a consultant psychiatrist, brother’s a radiologist, his wife’s an oncologist…” RC: And you’re a mixologist!
SC: “And I’m a mixologist!”
RC: We have to touch on it just because it is very unconventional. How did that go? Telling your family that you wanted to pursue such a different career… SC: “Still to date, my Dad doesn’t really understand. It’s that Indian mentality where you should be a doctor, dentist, have a certain amount of money coming in every month. It’s been very hard. It’s why I went to university twice—to try and please him. But then it got to a point where I realised nothing I could ever do would. We have a very different idea of life, and being a woman setting up a business has its own hurdles anyway.”
RC: You have the normal hurdles of being an entrepreneur, let alone the fact you’re in a male-dominated industry, and the conventional South Asian family expectations…
SC: “You have to try and block all of that out, as much as you can, sometimes. Forgetting what people think. And I just have to focus on what I want to achieve. It’s not been easy, especially through Covid. People don’t see that, but just what’s on social media. The stresses of breaking the mould of that Asian stereotypical culture of we should do this and that, it’s still hard and something I face everyday. My mum is a bit more understanding about it now and has come to an event with me and left with that feeling of understanding why I love what I do. When people are so grateful for the moments—it’s not got anything to do with the money, but that we’ve left and I made those people so happy. Mum seemed to get that.”
RC: That’s progressive.
SC: “It’s something I need to do to help the younger generation. My nephew loves to cook, he turned up at my house one day wearing a Soralina apron and was like, ‘I’m ready!’ and I thought this is exactly how it should be—let your child think that they can do anything in life, because they can.”
RC: You see it so often, especially with Asian kids that are inherently creative types, that they’re often forced into doing a degree they don’t enjoy and subsequently don’t do well in, or drop out. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole.
SC: “Exactly! There’s progress, like they [my parents] now say I’m a mixologist when asked what I do for a living, but even then it’s like, yeah but what does being a mixologist mean? Do you know what I am actually doing?”
RC: What would the Oxford Dictionary description of your job be? There are a lot of people that would see the word mixologist and just imagine someone behind a bar mixing drinks…
SC: “I always use the word scientific to incorporate what I do because there’s so much more to the things I create. And when you say scientist it gives it a lot more credibility. I know the science behind how things work and that’s what’s important, and what people love. They’ll say, ‘oh, you’re actually a scientist?’ Yeah. There’s a lot of science behind the mixology, for ease I’ll say I’m a scientific mixologist. I forage for a lot of the ingredients, and as much as it’s about the chemistry, it’s also the biology of it all. Growing the herbs…” RC: I mean, I’ve visited the garden in your home, and it’s ridiculous. I heard that you describe it as something akin to Willy Wonka, and going into your garden you definitely understand that. Okay, so there’s this, there’s this, there’s this…
SC: “And you can eat things! You walk past the rosebed when it’s in bloom and you can literally smell the roses. Shut your eyes and you’re transported to wherever you want to go. ‘Oh my god, let me touch that, that feels weird’. Like when I told you to rub the leaves of that plant and then to smell your hands!”
RC: That was the lemon verbena; it smelt like sherbert! It was so bizarre and such a cool sensory experience.
SC: “And that’s what I want to bring! I think our generation are more in touch with nature now, especially being in lockdown, but we’ve generally lost touch of where our food comes from. I want to incorporate nature wherever I can. I didn’t know any of this five, six years ago but I taught myself, which means anyone can! It might just mean growing herbs for your drinks, but it’s giving you that knowledge and connecting you back to science, and nature. It’s magic.”