World Bartender Day: The rise of mixologists, quest for experimentation rules India’s bar scene
YS Life caught up with some of the biggest names in India’s alcobev space to understand the growing significance of mixologists, upcoming trends, and more.
Friday February 24, 2023,
10 min Read
India’s alcobev industry is making a stir, one drink at a time. Previously, the country was heavily reliant on fail-safe processes and techniques, as consumers were content with vanilla offerings. Cut to today, there’s a high energy cocktail-first culture brewing in most parts of the country, pushing brands and bar owners to take the leap towards experimentation. This, in turn, has given way to the rise of high-quality mixologists who don’t just create exotic concoctions, but also know the art and science behind them.
Interestingly, it’s not just bars that witness an influx of consumers. During the pandemic, people went ahead and sampled cocktail mixes, which turned out to be hugely popular. From martinis to mojitos, to assorted gin and whiskey offerings, there was so much to choose from.
Fortunately, the trend of enjoying fine cocktails continues, or probably has grown over time. With the appearance of names like Sidecar in international lists, it’s reassuring that India’s bar culture is giving stiff competition to the world’s best. It also helps that the country is one of the world’s fastest growing alcobev markets, with an estimated size of $52.5 billion in 2020.
On the occasion of World Bartender Day, YS Life caught up with some of the most reputed names in the industry to know more about the significance of mixologists today, some interesting trends to watch out for, and where India’s cocktail culture is headed.
The secret to India’s rising cocktail culture
On being asked what has helped drive a cocktail-first culture in the country, Vikram Achanta, Co-founder – 30BestBarsIndia, a definitive ranking of India’s 30 best bars shares, “Bartenders turning bar owners is an important factor to look at – some names that pop up are Yangdup Lama at Sidecar and Vaibhav Singh at Perch (he has exited Perch). We’ve also seen significant investments being made towards raising standards in bartending talent, fuelled by training and cocktail competitions that give Indian bartenders tremendous exposure.”
Echoing his thoughts, Vijeta Singh (of Elephant & Co. fame), Co-owner of the chic Cobbler & Crew in Pune, believes that bars today are becoming more about “who owns them” and “who runs them”.
“Some of the best bars in the country are run by incredibly talented mixologists, which has encouraged other bartenders to find their own ground. A bar without a good cocktail programme won’t be recognised as a true bar anymore, unless it’s a brewery. Even restaurants are getting bar consultants on board to make sure their cocktails are paired well with their food offerings,” she adds.
There’s another key change that must be highlighted, says Arijit Bose, Co-founder of Countertop India, an initiative that helps set up bars and offers consultancy to beverage brands to run innovative cocktail programmes.
“Operators today are no longer trying to hire the ‘one mixologist’ – instead, they are building teams to run bars more efficiently, with focus on all aspects other than just a good drink in a glass. It is critical to use social media effectively, pay attention to ice programmes, emphasise on ingredients and local produce, and more. Improving the baseline is something we at Countertop focus largely on, and the restaurants and bars we consult with have been receptive to it,” he explains.
As bar menus become more evolved, restaurateurs and bar owners are ready to experiment with takeovers and guest shifts. These are not just confined to international bars or personalities, but also local bars mounting takeovers in other cities, chimes in Vikram.
“The number of openings pan-India, ranging from metros like Mumbai and Kolkata, to centres like Pune, Goa and Jaipur have increased the war for talent. These bring local personalities and brand ambassadors into the spotlight, helping them build their own profiles and creating a landscape where consumers head to bars to interact with specific bartenders,” he says.
Some of the prominent bars that have come to India include Tell Camellia (Hong Kong); Bar Benfiddich and Bee’s Knees (Japan); Baltra, Limantour, and Handshake (Mexico city), and Jigger and Pony, and Manhattan (Singapore), among others.
An appetite for experimentation
Of course, it goes without saying that India’s young population that falls between the age group of 25-45 years is ready to experiment with new flavours and spirits. Gone are the days when sitting with a glass of rum or whisky was the norm.
At Cobbler & Crew, which calls itself a “high energy cocktail society”, all beverage offerings on the menu have developed a fan following of their own. “Feeling Good is one of the cocktails we recommend to our guests to begin their evenings with – it’s a gin-based clarified cocktail that’s loved by all. Another cocktail, Oh Temptation, is a tequila-based cocktail with a bhakarwadi garnish,” she adds.
Sorano in Kolkata, which also finds a mention in the 30BestBars list 2022, has a unique proposition that has raised the interest of cocktail drinkers in the city. Being an authentic Italian premium dining restaurant and bar, mushrooms feature liberally on their food menu across courses. Elevating their quest for experimentation, they have introduced the innovative flavour in cocktails.
Manoj Singh Rawat, Head Mixologist – Sorano, answers why, “Mushrooms have an earthy, warm, slightly woody and meaty flavour, which is best characterised by the fifth primary taste of umami that is extremely popular for the Indian palate. In our signature drink, Paramour, we’ve brought in different kinds of mushrooms and a variety that people hardly know in India, chanterelle.”
Another cocktail programme that is being much-talked-about is that of Loya, nestled in the national capital’s sprawling Taj Palace. Referred to as Paanch, meaning five, their take on drinks is inspired by the number five that has great significance across the North of the country.
“This extends to the five rivers of the region to our five senses, the five elements of life, and closer home, in the five tenets of Loya’s cocktail philosophy — Harmony, Experimentation, Authenticity, Reverence, and The Spirit that come together to signify the heart of the north,” quips Taljinder Singh, Senior Vice President and Brand Custodian - The Indian Hotels Company Limited.
Through their zero and low-proof drinks, not only does Loya push the envelope in the art of drink making; they also champion the north’s botanical abundance, time-honoured techniques, and heirloom ingredients.
Restaurant and bar owners are also willing to exercise patience, when it comes to painfully curating their menus.
Nicky Ramnani, Managing Partner at Broski Hospitality LLP that runs Pune’s popular The Daily All Day and Tsuki, worked on Tsuki’s menu for six months before the restaurant opened to the public.
“We must have done 30-40 cocktail trials before we ended up having 13 cocktails on the menu. Strong cocktails are not an issue; you need to balance them correctly,” he feels.
While the trend of cocktails is here to stay, certain spirits have found favour in the last few years, highlights Vidhi Puri, Founder – The Cocktail Story, which prides itself in being India’s first cocktail community. Today, they also work as an experiential marketing agency for alcobev and luxury brands.
“I believe gin is still people’s favourite but agave is also coming up. Pistola has emerged, and so have cocktail mixers. Consumers do not want to have straight drinks anymore; they are far more keen on experimentation, which is something we saw during COVID-19. Some great brands like Lazy Cocktails have a lot of great sugar-free flavours. We are also seeing aperitifs like aperol, campari, and amaro making a mark,” she mentions.
Arijit highlights mezcal, bourbons, and rums with a high character also being preferred spirits of choice for making cocktails.
“In India, the craft industry has taken a huge leap thanks to its genesis in Goa, providing bar people with a lot more ingredients and categories to play with for their cocktail programmes,” he shares.
Trends to watch out for
Tarun Sibal, Chef and Co-owner of Goa’s popular culinary bar and restaurant, Titlie, believes that each bar has a story – some thrive on playfulness, others on indigenous local produce, while a few on sustainability.
“It is critical to keep the distinctiveness quotient high. As a consumer, I exactly know what I am going in for at a particular bar. At Titlie, our culinary bar and beverage programme is palate and taste forward. Each cocktail has a unique flavour profile created using local and seasonal produce. We have our own take on classics and some that are absolutely new,” he adds.
Some of their cocktails are hugely popular – Paloma uses fresh sweet lime and curry leaf, instead of grapefruit. They also offer an espresso martini that comes with a dalgona foam. Another interesting offering is dragon ball mojito, a tropical take on the classic.
Further, Nicky adds that the trends we are using today are taking us back to the roots. “Methods like washes and clarification have been in the industry for a long time, but are being largely used lately. Similarly, indigenous ingredients are trending as bar owners are more concept-driven. Having a concept menu helps you distinguish from the world to build a specialised ecosystem,” he explains.
His personal favourite at Tsuki includes Iki-Gai that has gin, basil, custard sugar, malic acid, and sparkling water. It’s a clarified cocktail with a fruity palate.
Apart from techniques and ingredients, Sorano’s Manoj highlights that state-of-the-art equipment like rotavapours are also being used to infuse more complex flavours into drinks, sous vide, and finishes like sugar art and creative garnishes.
“There’s also an increased emphasis on glasses and trendy serveware, with clear, transparent Japanese glasses enjoying immense popularity in bars now,” he adds.
Sustainability is another area being given more attention today. Bars are working to reduce their carbon footprint and looking at business operations from an environmental lens – through local sourcing of ingredients, reducing plastic usage, and recycling all kinds of waste, Vikram says.
Ice programmes have also become a significant part of cocktail basics. According to Arijit, bartenders use the directional freezing technique for clear blocks of ice and hand carve them for use with high end spirits and cocktails.
While much progress has been made in this industry, particularly over the last few years, Vikram hopes to see greater diversity behind the bar with more female bartenders being in the spotlight. This is as the cocktail culture transcends beyond urban towns and enters Tier II and even select Tier III cities.
Moreover, it is the spirit of collaboration that is likely to take India’s cocktail culture to greater heights. At Cobbler & Crew, their lineup of exciting events is testimony to this claim. This weekend, they will be at Vault, Mumbai, for a bar takeover with Pistola, alongside some of the best bars in the world – Paradiso Bar, Barcelona, Spain (2022’s #1 cocktail bar, in The World’s 50 Best Bars), Lost and Found Drinkery, Nicosia, Cyprus, and Le Club, Matsuyama, Japan.
In a similar vein, The Cocktail Story celebrated World Bartender Day with The Pamper Pop Up for Indian bartenders. The event was held across Mumbai, New Delhi, and Bengaluru from February 21- 23, 2023.
“The Pamper Pop Up zone, an exclusive zone, was all about bartenders. It featured massages, face painting, T-shirt printing, tattoo, a celebrity hair stylist and live music. This unique initiative was aimed at offering the bartenders an opportunity to unwind, relax and rejuvenate, and to celebrate their immense contribution to the industry,” shares Vidhi, adding that the event also featured guest shifts from some of the most renowned bartenders across the country.
There’s no doubt that the sheer volume of what’s happening in this space will help further raise the profile of India’s bars amongst local bargoers as well as give a fillip to cocktail culture overall, Vikram says.
“We will no longer just see DJs and bands that populate the social media handles of top bars, but also some of the world’s leading bartenders,” he concludes.
Edited by Teja Lele