Show me the way to the next cocktail bar

Show me the way to the next cocktail bar
The latest buzz in town? Bartenders are the new stars, and artisanal drinks are de rigueur

Just like the rest of the food industry, the bar scenario in India is slowly but surely getting up to speed with the global bar scene with its own concept-driven bars with a clear focus on cocktails, service and drinks programmes.

With bar owners coming into their own, the next decade will see a lot of exciting action and any bar striving to make a mark will be right in the thick of things! It has taken the industry awhile, but a few brave bars did, finally, take the bold first step to venture out from their comfort zones into hitherto unknown territory.

Today, there is no doubt that not only has the bar been raised but also that it’s well beyond everybody’s wildest expectations.

For us industry folks, cocktail timeline in India are referred to as “BR and AR” (Before Ricks and After Ricks). Ricks in Delhi was the one hotel bar that took a massive leap of faith to launch an expansive cocktail menu. It went on to become almost synonymous with amazing cocktails and great bartenders.

A lot of credit goes to the then Taj Hotels F&B team. Until Ricks it was intriguing to see how many 5-star properties were unable to really make much of a dent in the cocktail culture.

There might be multiple reasons for this; but I feel it could primarily be the lack of intent and a limited investment in talent. Good bars need good teams.

Good teams

Circa 2012 is when independent bars began to come into their own. Delhi NCR saw Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy and PCO opening within a span of two months. Both were Speakeasy-themed cocktail-focused bars, run by passionate teams who took their drinks seriously.

Not only did they become legendary bars, but they went on to change the cocktail consumption pattern in Delhi NCR itself.

RakshayDhariwal, the founder and Managing Director of PCO (and now several more) says, “Back in 2012, I remember every guy’s standard order used to be a whiskey soda, while women would stick primarily to vodka or wine. Now, in 2019, most of my friends who are women are knocking back Godfathers, which is awesome!”

Yangdup Lama, of C&D Speakeasy corroborates this. “Because we were a bartenders’ bar, we had all the decision-making power in terms of cocktails and menu programming. That gave us a lot of freedom to offer cocktails of our choice, and also empower the bar team,” he says.

In Mumbai independent cocktail bars are still trying to make a mark (I wonder why?). But there are the likes of Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro (both under the same ownership) which, while being food-centric, have put a lot of detailing and work in their cocktail programmes.

Bewers’ brigade

Bengaluru led the micro-brewery campaign around 2011-2012 and has not looked back since. There are some amazingly fresh micro-breweries, backed with tremendous amount of love for the brewed kind. They have gone on to become the micro-brewery capital of the country.

So far Gurugram, the other city that could have very well followed suit and given Bengaluru a run for its money, has no notable brewpub worth its name.

In Bengaluru, bars such as Bootlegger and Big Brewsky, which have put in a lot of energy into cocktails, are now reaping the benefits of being the pioneers in mixology. They continue to invest in training and uplifting their bartenders to ensure they remain ahead of the pack.

PraveshPandey of Big Brewsky gives credit to the consumers in Bengaluru. “They have traveled the world and know what s/he is drinking and have an appreciation for good spirits and cocktails.”

New celebrities

Bar chefs, mixologists, bartenders and barkeeps are the many names of the same professional, who can make or break your evening at the bar. Now that this simple fact is recognised (finally!) it is great to see superbly talented and smart boys and girls getting into the trade.

In fact, good bartenders are now the most sought-after talent in the bar industry and are absolutely the key to a good bar. If your bartender has the right attitude and is backed by knowledge and humility, he has the golden combination and is someone you don’t want to lose in a hurry.

Everything across the globe has to be (rightfully so) about going local. While being sustainable is key, it is also important to be conscious of the environment, as more and more restaurants (especially chef-owned) are harvesting local or regional cuisines, using indigenous ingredients – and bars are following suit.

The newest entrant into the Delhi bar scene is Sidecar, a beautifully built artisanal cocktail bar, that takes pride in making its own syrups, bitters, tinctures and grog. Bombay Canteen and O’Pedro have also been creating their own infusions and in-house bitters to ease some of their drinks innovations.

Going artisanal

YashBhanage of Bombay Canteen highlights another aspect. “Low ABV cocktails that are more flavor-forward are the way things are going. Cocktails that are being consumed now are more about extracts, infusions and herbs, and not as spirit-forward”.

Pravesh from Big Brewsky in Bengaluru corroborates this, adding that consumers are now increasingly open to bitter flavours and are placing a greater value on simplicity, with the minimum number of ingredients being restricted to no more than four in their cocktails.

Another notable new restaurant entrant, Comorin (from the team behind the iconic Indian Accent), does its own flavour extractions via sous-vide and infusions.

There are other restaurants across India that are run by chefs which also offer fabulous cocktails as well, including Miss T, Masque & Sly Granny, to name a few.

“It’s great to see restaurants put so much energy, time and investment into cocktails. Nowadays a dining experience is incomplete without a great cocktail menu,” VarunSharma, the head bartender at Comorin (a Rick’s alumni), points out.

The cocktail menu can also be an art form, argues Yash, and mentions that they release a cocktail book every year, dedicated to one thematic idea. An example of this is a menu that paid homage to Mumbai’s rich art-deco architectural heritage.

Yash says, “Guests are looking for experiential cocktail programmes, not straight-jacketed menus.”

Future trends

On the future of bars and the cocktail culture in India, our pathfinders had very pertinent comments to make. Yangdup predicts that the next decade will be even more exciting, with great bars and bartenders coming out of the country.

Rakshay points to the direction of “zero-waste” cocktails, craft beers and locally sourced ingredients for cocktails, with his heart set on the agave and its derivatives, tequila and mescal as a choice of alcohol.

While we all agree that the consumer now is very well “consumed”, given the globe-trotting jobs and well-travelled holiday makers, we still only have had a drop in the ocean in terms of bars and cocktails.

Looking at the amazing offering, very diverse culture and seasonality in India, we will be hoping to see a lot more watering holes, and cocktail bars opening in non-metro cities.

To see new concepts like gin bars, tiki bars, and tapas bars could very well just be the Maraschino cherry in our Manhattan!