Bar culture in India

By Peter Eichhorn

“The smile you send out returns to you.” This traditional Indian saying can also be understood as a mission for every interaction between service staff and customers in the hospitality trade – especially in our bar scene.

Just how much do those of us here in Central Europe really know about cocktail culture in the land of the great Ganges River? If we take a closer look, we see that we are surrounded by all manner of products and other things that demonstrate our ties with this massive subcontinent of 1.38 billion people.

Whisky lovers swear by Amrut and Paul John, Old Monk practically embodies the history of rum in the region, Indian tonic water is the perfect addition to an Old Raj gin, and in the world of beer, India Pale Ale is synonymous with the start of the craft beer revolution.

We thought this was reason enough to find out what three protagonists – pioneers even – of India’s bar culture had to say during Pouring Digital BCB, so that we could get to know a bit more about the fascinating and rapid development of India’s bar scene.

All three had a great deal to say as they got together to embark on a virtual journey through the history of cocktails in India, right up to India’s drinking culture today and the recent publication of the first “30 best bars in India” list. ( First place in this prestigious ranking is held by the Sidecar bar in New Delhi, an establishment operated by the grand seigneur of India's bar scene, Yangdup Lama, who has been a bartender since 1995.

Rohan Carvalho also took part. He has been active in the bar scene since the late 1990s and is currently busy training bartenders and serving as an advisor to bars. This illustrious gathering was moderated by Rohan Jelkie, who has been closely involved in India’s bar scene since 2005 and is currently working as a brand ambassador with training projects, such as the Beam Suntory Blend Programme.

We have compiled a few of the highlights of their fascinating discussion here.


British wood furnishings and Bollywood villains

Yangdup Lama recalled the uniformity that defined the 1990s: “Back then, it was almost impossible to find a bar unless you looked in a hotel. As a result, cocktail drinkers were confronted with a typical hotel bar setting no matter where they went, with bars being seen as a glorified waiting area before visiting a restaurant or as conventional lobby bars. In each establishment, Britain's colonial heritage was palpable. Wood was prominent in the furnishings of the hotels and their bars, in keeping with their British forebears. In addition to these bars, it was possible to get cocktails in a variety of clubs, including golf clubs, business clubs, and – in rural areas – clubs catering to rich landowners. Here, Jelkie referred to the Bangalore Club, which is still in possession of an IOU from Winston Churchill in 1899 when he was posted here with the military. The famous drinker’s debt – 13 euros – still has not been paid.

All three were in agreement that Bollywood films had helped to shape lifestyles in the subcontinent, and people’s attitudes to the finer things in life along with them. “Bollywood played a major role in defining the image of alcohol. Back in the 1990s, it was always the bad guys who drank alcohol,” remembered Lama. Jelkie added that: “For many years, it was Bollywood that influenced the way in which we ate, drank and lived. In the 1990s, lots of Bollywood films were shot in Switzerland. The country has been a dream destination for Indians ever since.”

The 2000s saw a great deal of change in the hospitality trade, and in the bar sector in particular. Bollywood stars began opening bars on a regular basis – sometimes they operated the bars themselves, while other times they were present at grand openings to cut the ribbon, bringing greater media attention to these bars.


Finally Friday and Hard Rock

Rohan Carvalho analysed the beginning of the new millennium: “There were many changes between 2000 and 2009, and a lot of new products and spirits became available. The economic boom of the 1990s made its mark on the 2000s: there were many bars serving beer and spirits before the new millennium, and everyone made Bloody Marys and Pina Coladas, but genuine mixing stations were nowhere to be found. In Bombay, cocktails were seen as more of a feminine drink, with gin in particular viewed as something solely for women. The year 2000 marked a turning point. I can remember ‘Bowling Company’ and ‘Fire & Ice’, excellent entertainment concepts with high-octane bars. High prices meant good business, and it was possible to make a great deal of money. Furnishings and size also had a role to play. People were continually trying to outdo one another, to see who had the longest bar, or the most striking interior.”

T.G.I. Friday’s opened, and it quickly became a popular destination, with Margaritas and Long Island Iced Tea being served. In 2006, the Hard Rock Café came to India and combined atmosphere with music.

Lama was in full agreement about the importance of this transitional phase: “I was working in Delhi, so I was able to experience how numerous international firms came to India and changed people’s habits and expectations. After-work drinks became part of the culture – it marked the start of the transformation of India’s bar scene. A bar called ‘Gin’ paved the way for a new generation of bars and hotel bars, offering rare rums, 15 types of beer and cocktails by the pitcher.”

The first major cocktail competitions began taking place in the mid-2000s, and the international trend towards molecular cuisine began finding imitators in restaurants and bars. “Before 2008, guests were happy if a flair bartender could toss a bottle in the air – then, bar patrons’ expectations began to change.”

Jelkie also remembers the molecular trend, and everything that changed as a result: “Numerous bartenders began using these techniques while behind the bar. It offered a way to supplement the flavours on offer. One of the bars where this was done was the ‘Smoker’s Grill’ in Delhi. In the late 2000s, major brands joined Beam and Bacardi in increasing their investment in India. Product variety increased markedly as a result, and for the first time, brand ambassadors were deployed to create a bond between brands and bartenders.”


Virtual and real craft cocktails

Rohan Carvalho also shared a few thoughts on international networking: “By the late 2000s, social media was having a greater impact. International influences increasingly made themselves felt in India, and these changed the everyday experience in bars. Good service took on a much bigger role here than in the past.”

Jelkie agreed, emphasising the importance of the virtual world, where India bartenders can now go to find out more about the latest international trends and techniques: “The PCO Bar and Rick’s in the Taj Mahal Hotel both opened in Delhi, while Ellipsis set up shop in Bombay. Inspired by the new generation of craft cocktails from the USA, fruity drinks and slushies are accounting for a smaller percentage of business as more Old Fashioneds and sours are served.”

Awards have also begun to play a bigger role. Restaurants have long enjoyed this form of recognition, and bars began demanding the same privilege. Lama smiled: “Now Indian bartenders can be rock stars too.”

Where does India find itself today? Carvalho: “The industry has been doing more to address end customers directly, getting people to mix their own drinks at home and fostering greater respect for bar culture. Craft beer has also become a major trend throughout India.”

Jelkie emphasised regionality: “We have every reason to be proud of our whisky. We have the water, we have the grain, we have the know-how.” Smiling, Lama added that: “And we have the customers.” Summing up, he stated that: “In the 1990s, India was miles behind, and it spent the 2000s trying to catch up. Now, the last decade has seen India get up to speed with the international bar scene.”

All three mentioned the “30 best bars in India” list and expressed their hope that it would still be relevant after the coronavirus crisis.