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Global mixologists take over Indian bars, woo customers with cocktails and bottle flips

Bar takeovers have become the talk of the town, with restaurants and bars in the country eager to host the best mixologists from around the world. The trend has been buoyed by the growing appetite for fancy cocktails among consumers who want their drinks served in style.

Global mixologists take over Indian bars, woo customers with cocktails and bottle flips

Friday November 11, 2022 , 8 min Read

Last month, at RCB Bar and Café, around 20 people were huddled around the bar table, bowled over by the bartender flipping vodka bottles and a cocktail shaker in the air.

The Turkish celebrity flair bartender, Atilla Iskif, was at the Bengaluru bar for a bar takeover event to serve his signature cocktails—Atilla’s Passion and Atilla’s Smash. Atilla’s Passion is made using vodka, aperol, passion fruit, and raspberry shrub. Atilla’s Smash contains ingredients like whiskey, peach ice tea or peach syrup, Elderflower liquor or syrup, ginger syrup, lemon juice, and soda.

Like honeybees drawn to nectar, people were drawn to Atilla who entertained them with enthusiasm and passion and served fancy drinks in his inimitable style. There was palpable energy in the air, as the eager crowd exclaimed “cheers!”, visibly elated by Atilla’s showmanship and class act.

Atilla Iskif

Atilla Iskif flipping a bottle and a cocktail shaker in the air. | Photo Credit: RCB Bar and Café

Atilla, who has mixed drinks for popular bars in Australia, Canada, and the UK for over 10 years, ensured everyone left the bar happy and, of course, tipsy.

“We’ve already been to four cities. We’ve been training, doing shows, and performing in several hotels. I met a lot of bartenders when I visited these places and they were so happy to see me. We did shows with them. I like the energy, it was amazing,” says Atilla, describing his ‘bar takeover’ experience in India.

A bar takeover involves bartenders from one part of the world travelling to another part of the world to serve drinks in a local bar and share their ethos, values, and cocktail philosophy with the local consumers.

Right from Sidecar in South Delhi to Copitas in Bengaluru, several well-known bars and restaurants in India are hosting the best bartenders and mixologists from around the world. These mixologists, who curate special drinks and promise an experience like never before, are often seen as micro-influencers and superstars and enjoy a huge fan following.

Over the last few years, there has been an increasing interest in bar takeovers and guest shifts featuring renowned individuals in the country. They are not just confined to international bars and prominent personalities, but they also feature homegrown bars that do takeovers in other cities, with local personalities and brand ambassadors in action.

Such collaborations, in the form of bar takeovers or guest shifts, offer unique opportunities for local bars, bartenders, and consumers.

Gina Barbachano from Mexico, Bryan Bonifacio from Singapore, and David Cordoba from Argentina are a few expert mixologists who have taken over bars in India.


Innovative experiences

For consumers, it is not only about tasting new creations but also about experiencing something innovative.

Anand Virmani, Co-founder of Nao Spirits & Beverages, says, “You could get a bar from Singapore while you are sitting in Mumbai. It’s like travelling without travelling.”

Goa-based Nao Spirits, which makes craft spirits in India, is one of the companies instrumental in the gin resurgence in India and has hosted several guest shifts.

“For the consumer today, it’s not about just having a drink and forgetting it. They would like to know what they’re drinking, what it is made of, and how it is made,” says Kasturi Banerjee, Founder and Director of Goa-based Stilldistilling Spirits. The company, which makes premium craft rum Maka Zai, has been part of numerous guest shifts in collaboration with musicians.

Bars in the country are eager to appease consumers with different kinds of experiences, that they are not known for. For instance, an urban cocktail bar could do a tiki night—an island-inspired entertainment event—by bringing in a veteran from the tiki culture to offer a Hawaain experience at its bar.

Halloween is another popular theme during guest takeovers with people dressed up in the spirit of the festival and exhibiting fantastic spooky energy.

Karan Kothari, a Senior Analyst at Deloitte in Hyderabad, recalls his experience at bar takeovers and why he loves them.

“I enjoy bar takeovers as I get the opportunity to try something new. I remember an amazing experience at a bar in Goa where I asked the bartender to make one of his specials. I didn’t expect him to be putting on a show instead. I remember the glass tower he built; he poured different spirits and mixers from the top and then lit the entire tower on fire to finish it off. It was like seeing a piece of art in action. The drink was good, no doubt, but more than the drink, the experience was more than worthwhile.”

Sowmya Ramasubramanian, a journalist in Bengaluru, enjoys a fancy gin-based cocktail every now and then. She also likes the way in which it is presented and the entire fuss around it.

“Testing new drinks allows me to expand my knowledge about liquor and understand how alcohol can be paired seamlessly with fruit, soft drinks and even spices. It’s always a surprising delight to the tongue. Moreover, I had the chance to witness an international bartender gel with a crowd he barely knows. There’s a lot that can happen over a drink, especially an artfully curated one that’s consumed with a set of fellow drinkers. I enjoy it (bar takeover) because it’s another way to socialise,” she says.


Artisanal cocktail curated by Turkish celebrity flair bartender Atilla Iskif. | Photo Credit: RCB Bar and Café

Evolution of bar takeovers

In India, bar takeovers and guest shifts were tried and tested a decade ago. But the idea, although novel, didn’t quite attract many local bars initially. And for the ones that were willing to try it out, the high cost played spoilsport.

Over the years, as Indians increasingly travelled abroad, they were exposed to the culture of cocktail bars and innovative bartending around the world. Indian consumers have now developed an affinity for fancy cocktails and are game for more.

So, when Little Red Door, a Paris-based cocktail bar, which ranks among the top 50 bars in the world, mounted a bar takeover at PCO Bar in New Delhi in March, it was a huge hit, as a lot of the customers were familiar with the acclaimed bar and its innovative concoctions.

As cocktail connoisseurs and boulevardiers began experiencing more such bar takeovers and guest shifts, the concept started growing steadily in India, according to Arijit Bose, Co-Founder of Goa-based Countertop and Bar Tesouro, and an expert mixologist.

“We have seen many cases where we have made certain signature cocktails during a bar takeover and have repeat consumers who come to different outlets asking for the same cocktail,” says Kasturi.

Midnight Brekkie, which has ingredients such as peanut butter-washed gin, strawberry puree, watermelon juice, vermouth, and malic acid, is one the most sought-after cocktails at Bar Tesouro in Goa, ranked fourth in Asia’s Top 50 Bars list.

Gradually, a string of international bars made a beeline for the country for bar takeovers—Tell Camellia from Hong Kong; Bar Benfiddich and Bees Knees from Japan; Baltra, Limantour, and Handshake from Mexico City; Jigger and Pony from Singapore.

The growing popularity of bar takeovers has prompted liquor brands to pump in money and marketing support into such events. Bacardi, Greater Than, Maka Zai, Stranger and Sons, and Maya Pistola Agavepura are some of the brands that have supported bar takeovers and guest shifts in the last few years.

Rohan Matmary, Head Bartender at Bar Trigona at Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur, has done many guest shifts. Devender Sehgal and Hemant Pathak are also renowned mixologists who have done many guest shifts and are extremely well known in the industry.

Masala Whisky cocktail

Masala Whiskey cocktail served during a guest shift by celebrated mixologist Hemant Pathak. | Photo Credit: 30 Best Bars India

Opportunities for bartenders

Bar takeovers offer a great learning experience for local bartenders, who can witness up-close the discipline and rigour of people who are on top of their craft.

As they watch prominent mixologists in action, local bartenders are not only exposed to different techniques of mixing drinks but they also learn about different kinds of ingredients, the way they are used, and other little tricks of the trade. Apart from technical proficiency, local bartenders also get to observe how top bartenders engage with customers and understand their needs and taste profiles.

“These are things that you don’t read in a book or find on YouTube. These are things someone has figured out—you can learn and use in your drinks. Bar takeovers and guest shifts are one of the best ways to spread knowledge,” says Arijit.

International bartenders also learn about local ingredients and experiment with them in their cocktails, thus adding an ‘exotic’ touch to their creations when they get back home.

Atilla says he likes using different ingredients, including local ones, in his cocktails to offer different experiences to people.

Atilla Iskif

Atilla Iskif pouring an artisanal cocktail curated by him. | Photo Credit: RCB Bar and Café

Rise of Indian bars globally

Indian bars are also rising in prominence globally and are taking over bars around the world. 

“Indian bars have also made it to the Asia’s 50 Best Bars and the World's 50 Best Bars lists, putting India on the global radar,” says Vikram Achanta, Co-Founder and CEO of bar consulting platform Tulleeho and Co-Founder of 30 Best Bars India ranking.

“Indian bar personalities are going outside India for takeovers and guest shifts. This is a good recognition of expertise in India," Vikram says.

(The story has been updated to correct a fact.)

Edited by Swetha Kannan