With three bars from India making it to the World’s Top 100 list, Indian bars are finally coming of age. Let’s raise a toast to that.
The World’s Top 50 Bars and now Top 100 lists along with Asia’s 50 Best Bars are like the Olympics of the bar world. And, like the Olympics, India’s performance has also seen a welcome groundswell over the last few editions of these rankings, with 2021 in particular seeing three Indian bars feature in the World’s Top 100, with one out of the three in the Top 50.
In 2017, Aer at the Four Seasons in Mumbai became the first Indian bar to enter the Asia’s Top 50 Bars list, coming in at #37. Sadly, having made that entry, they dropped out of the list in subsequent editions, and India had a dry spell for the next two years. The Indian bar scene, however, was at that time fast evolving. There were a few cocktails-centric bars like Delhi’s PCO and Ek Bar, Gurgaon’s Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy (C&D) and Goa’s Firefly. Alongside, there were also restaurants opening up that had really high-quality cocktail programmes, with Mumbai’s Bombay Canteen, Americano and O Pedro among these and Delhi’s Rooh and Perch in particular standing out. Perch also had a jewel within — more about that in a while. 2019 also saw the opening of Sidecar in Delhi and Comorin in Gurgaon, the first a bar born out of the passion of Lama and Minakshi, and a worthy successor to C&D, their first venture, and the second, very much a contemporary restaurant from Old World Hospitality inspired by the cuisine from the length and breadth of India, with a drinks programme to match.
Apart from these bars opening, what was also significant in the evolution was that you had former bartenders (Yangdup and Perch’s Vaibhav) or drinks industry veterans (Minakshi) or savvy operators like PCO Hospitality (Rakshay) and Hunger Inc (Yash and Sameer) all come together across India to help take India’s bar scene up a notch. Combined with this was the fact that over the past few years, due to the largesse of drinks companies, bartenders from India had been frequently travelling overseas to participate in the global finals of competitions like Diageo’s World Class, the Monin Cup and Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Challenge to name just a few. It became easy for these bartenders, especially in an age of social media, to quickly latch on to global cocktail and drink trends and build networks that helped keep them in touch.
In 2019, inspired by what we were seeing around us and with a keen sense that it was time for India’s bars to step off the local stage and gain a higher profile at an Asian and perhaps a world stage, we conceptualised and launched 30 Best Bars India, to award and recognise the best bars in India. Sidecar, New Delhi clocked in as India’s best bar, and our Top 30 list saw bars from across India recognised and awarded on a common platform.
And just when we felt that India’s bars were ready to take that next leap, Covid struck, throwing countless dreams and ambitions in limbo. It’s a tribute to the resilience of our bar operators, however, that they hung on by tooth and nail, reinventing themselves if required as also initiating new lines of business. I think this period also possibly helped them realise that if they were to survive, there was virtue in increasing collaborations, both between themselves as well as with other stakeholders in the industry. Sidecar, in fact, in spite of the pandemic, entered Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2020. And 2021 saw it as Asia’s joint highest climber, leapfrogging into the 16th place in the rankings.
As this was happening and Sidecar was very much ruling the roost, we also began to see in parallel the emergence of more bars in India that were in a sense true bars, rather than just the drinks adjunct to a great restaurant. Goa’s Firefly, a high-energy bar and the brainchild of Donovan Vaz, was already on the scene but as Donovan told me, the advent of Covid necessitated a change in model from a high-energy bar fuelled by events with large numbers to a more intimate neighbourhood bar, the concept of which was born over a Manhattan-filled night with Arijit Bose. And, thus, was born Bar Tesouro (#65) (Portuguese for Treasure) in South Goa’s Colva, away from the hubbub of the North. And along with the quiet neighbourhood bar vibe was also a great bar design, a ground-breaking cocktail menu and a fabulous bar team.
As Donovan said, till 2015, the Goan market knew only of cocktails like Pina Colada, Mojito and LIIT, and there was a need to change the scene. It helped that 95 percent of their clients were locals and open to new ideas, a classic case being a drink called the Aglio E Olio — inspired by the pasta of the same name, with a mix of vodka, garlic, butter, chilli, dry vermouth and parmesan air — that has proved to be a hot seller. Then there’s a cocktail of theirs called the Midnight Brekkie that has become so ubiquitous that its fans across India now refer to it just as Brekkie. It also helped that the pandemic saw Goa emerge as a destination that had us flock there from across India. And as word spread, cocktail lovers made the pilgrimage from touristy North Goa to the quiet South, to enjoy Tesouro’s cocktails and hospitality. The bar team, apart from Bose and Pankaj of Countertop who are often found behind the sticks, also has luminaries like Karl Fernandes, and in general a high quality of talent behind the bar and on the floor. “It’s important that we recognise everyone in the team, no matter their role,” says Donovan. Critical indeed for this jewel to shine.
They called it Tesouro, Donovan said, as it was a jewel of a location that they found at the last minute and were able to convert into their bar in a few months. However, Donovan is quite convinced that there will be only one Tesouro, and although they may open more bars, they will be under different names.
“It’s very humbling to get this recognition,” says Donny, as he’s popularly known, “especially when you think of what we’ve been through and still survived.” Their ambition is to keep growing, and to keep making better drinks, in particular I’m sure, the Negroni and the Palmetto (a rum Old Fashioned), two of Donny’s own favourites.
And while Tesouro was breaking fresh ground in Goa, out in Delhi’s quiet Basant Lok Community Centre, a new bar was taking wing. Hoots’ (#95) always existed as a bar within Perch, but as a space that was closed off, and only accessible if you knew what door to knock on, and more importantly be invited into. Those in the know were given a card with a # to call if and when they wanted to visit. A small, very intimate space, perfect for midnight assignations and the like, its cocktail menu was also superb, and true to the legend of Robert Hoot — the bon vivant owl, who gives it its name and Perch its logo — featured drinks that he’d loved and enjoyed, as well as from his father’s and grandfather’s journals, and therefore were also numbered as the #3 or #5 or #7, etc.
The bar itself, as Vaibhav Singh, the co-founder, tells me is modelled on a bar concept popularised in Japan, and now found in other parts of the globe, and known as Listening Rooms. These bars doubled up as places for audiophiles to gather with large vinyl collections and a busy record player. Hoots’ is perhaps not as purist as one of these that you’d find in Tokyo, but is somewhere between these bars and also Japan’s local community bars or izakayas; the difference, however, being that instead of people sitting at bar counters (which is, of course, an option), you also had them seated on comfortable couches. The parallel was that the server was also the bartender, and closed the loop for the guest, from order taking to preparation. And Cindy (sadly now left) and Sahil are very much the heartbeat of Hoots’. It’s the bartenders who are also a primary reason for Hoots’ now coming out of the closet, and being open to all contenders. Hoots’ has seen many of India’s top bartending talent in and out its doors, and as Vaibhav told me, it did rankle with some of them that they couldn’t speak publicly about what they were creating and serving there or indeed have a wider cross-section of people access the bar. Also, when it was a bar only in the know it became a bit more difficult to toss people out when closing time came around. They can now adhere to official timings. Vaibhav still has a twinge of nostalgia for the past though, as he felt they could do cooler things when Robert flew under the radar. The intimacy of the bar with space for just 10-15 people also enables a higher consistency of drink service.
Vaibhav doesn’t see Hoots’ being commercially viable as a concept outside of Perch, as here at least they don’t have to pay two rents. Like Donovan, he’s unlikely to have more bars of the same name, and instead will focus on doing a lot more in the existing space, both in terms of the drinks offering and the experience. “Next year will be pathbreaking,” he says. Joining the World’s Top 100 is still sinking in for him, and a bevy of congratulatory messages await reply. The way things are going, I’m sure that’s going to be a welcome problem for more bar owners across India.
Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.