In the last few years, the bar scene heated up so much that it began to be seen separately from the restaurant and nightclub business.
The bar scene in India is truly exploding. From a time when all we had as cocktails was a Bloody Mary made with canned tomato juice and expired Worcestershire sauce, to today when the boys behind the wood are busy conjuring up exotic mixes of rare ingredients and flavours, it’s been a long and tastefully intriguing journey indeed.
In the last few years, the bar scene heated up so much that it began to be seen separately from the restaurant and nightclub business. Suddenly there was a new type of space where people went to drink and enjoy music which was louder than in an eatery but not enough to drown out entire conversations. The music too, while foot-tapping and catchy, was never groovy, or if it was it only got so well past midnight. This was the birth of cocktail bars and they were a whole new species unto themselves.
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Now it would be wrong to say we didn’t have cocktail venues before this. Hotels always had a bar which served up the usual classical suspects decently well. The bar at The Oberoi New Delhi remains a favourite but it has never been a place with loud music, unless of course, you too believe that Beethoven’s classical chops had screaming Baroque overtones. These were places for a different era, a different breed of drinker, one that was decidedly older and not as experimental with their tipple.
It wasn’t until bars like PCO opened doors in the capital that we started understanding the concept of what a cocktail bar truly is. In the beginning many people were disappointed — who, the first-timers wondered, would want to listen to jazz and wait a whole five minutes for the bartender to mix a drink comprising an unknown mix of beverages!? And it certainly didn’t help that the bartender was making jokes, talking back, and trying to engage in a full-fledged conversation even as he went about his work. And, in case you were still dying to get in, one needed to really be ‘in the know’ to have access. It was doomed to fail yet somehow, it did just the opposite. And just like that, the time for cocktails had come. Mind you, PCO was certainly unique but not necessarily the first. Ricks at the Taj Mahal hotel had something of a mixed drink culture going. But places like these were certainly the minority in the mix.
Today, we have a selection of such bars dotting most metros and one needs to scan lists and reviews before narrowing it down to a few that one wishes to try. From hotels to standalone formats, bars now pride themselves on who mixes drinks there, any awards they may have under their belts, or just how quirky their seasonal menus are. And seeing this plethora, publisher Radhakrishnan Nair and the man behind Tulleeho drinks portal, Vikram Achanta, teamed up to host India’s first bar awards to count down the third best bars across India. It was a novel event and had quite the industry crowd gathered curiously to see who turns up on the list. The awards themselves were a well-curated event but then, like all awards, they will invite their share of opinions about whether the list was well-chosen or not. Either way, it wasn’t just them but a jury which apparently distilled it all down to the top 30.
I think the timing was spot on for an event like this — India certainly needed it — and next year it will grow bigger and stronger. For what it’s worth, I had my money on Saz, (or PDA or PCO) to top the list. But that’s how democracy works, in the end, the popular vote gets it. This year, Sidecar topped the charts. It’s a lovely bar helmed by a man who has fronted India’s cocktail scene for decades and a deserving candidate—Yangdup Lama. Either ways, we all now have a home work list to tick off from in the coming year.
The writer is a sommelier