Sidecar was rated 16th on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list recently. A lot of the credit for this world-class bar lies at the doorstep of Yangdup Lama, known for his relentless efforts in shaping the spirit and cocktail culture in the country.
“I am an accidental bartender,” smiles Yangdup Lama, the 48-year-old co-owner of New Delhi-based Sidecar, recently rated 16th on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, and Gurgaon-based Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy. That’s surprising coming from a man who has spent nearly a quarter of a century in the industry and is known for his relentless efforts in shaping the spirit and cocktail culture in the country, as a trainer, ambassador and mentor. Winner of several awards, Lama is almost an institution in himself.
It was way back in 1995, after completing his hotel management degree from Calcutta, that the young boy from Darjeeling joined the Hyatt Regency in Delhi. Around 20 fresh graduates were hired and 19 of them joined on the correct date and were all sent to banqueting. Lama joined a week late and was sent to work at The Polo Lounge – the bar at the hotel. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” he smiles.
After working for three months behind the bar, he mentioned to his immediate supervisor that his dream was to become a bartender. “I got a long lecture on how time consuming it is and how much effort is required,” remembers Lama. But there was something the supervisor said which convinced Lama that bartending was the right profession for him. “He said, ‘If you are working in the F&B department of a hotel, the best place to be is the bar because you are the king and it is your little kingdom.’ That’s the day I thought I would like to be a bartender,” says Lama.
In the mid-90s, India was slowly opening up to the world. Hyatt Regency had 90 per cent occupancy and many of the guests were long-stay European and American expats. As is the culture in those countries, by 6pm these guests would arrive at the bar. While Lama served them, he also struck conversations with them. “I was new to the city and I didn’t have any friends. They were new to the country. It was easy to talk and form connections,” he reminisces.
Chatting with the bartender while you sip your drink is part of the culture in the West, where the bartender is often your friend and confidante. Lama was fortunate to have been exposed to that culture right in the beginning and that strengthened his dream further. “My exposure to a global audience at a young age helped. Bartending is not just about mixing drinks. It is about the interactions. And you can see that reflected in both the bars I run. I had the best time as a bartender at The Polo Lounge,” says Lama.
He was also fortunate to be mentored by a general manager and a director of F&B, both very passionate about the bar business. “My GM then was an Australian and the Director of F&B was Dutch, and they both loved cocktails. They made sure we held cocktail promotions. We hosted a Filipino band. We also had a visiting bartender from Spain, who would come twice a year.” At the Polo Lounge, Lama was exposed to the best of the western cocktail culture.
“I always tell young bartenders that apart from hard work, success is also a lot of luck. Luck favoured me. I was at the right place, with the right people,” he says.
Lama had been with the Polo Lounge a little over three years when Hyatt opened Djinns, one of the best bars in Delhi in those days. It was a high-energy bar that took the capital city by storm and became the place to be seen in. Lama was transferred to Djinns but he did not enjoy his stint there. “Djinns was happening, but it had a lot more domestic crowd. It had a lot of high energy and three times the revenue of a Polo Lounge, but there was no time to converse there.”
Bartending was still a new phenomenon then, so much so that Lama’s designation was still that of a server and not a bartender. After four and half years as a bartender, he was transferred to the hotel’s Italian restaurant, La Piazza. Lama quit.
In his exit interview he told the management that he wanted to be a bartender. They told him that he would fail because there was no concept of individual bartenders in India. “I thought to myself: If I failed, the hotels were always there. At least I shouldn’t regret having not tried.”
For six months, Lama struggled and then landed his first wedding assignment. “I went ahead full thrust, only to realise that it’s not possible for a solo person to man the bar at a wedding,” says Lama, remembering how people demanded several drinks since the alcohol was free! He soon trained a team of bartenders and by the end of the season, his team and he had bartended at several weddings.
Weddings, till then, were only about whisky and soda. Lama’s innovative cocktails generated a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. “It was a new concept that clicked.”
Weddings also offered good money since there is never any limit to the budget for a big fat Indian wedding. Lama remembers how he had clients asking for the most expensive of alcohol to be imported simply because it was their son’s wedding.
For the first decade of the millennium, Lama concentrated on weddings. It was also during this time that he met Minakshi Singh, the co-owner of both the bars. As a young final-year hotel management student, Minakshi wanted to be a bartender and asked Lama if she could work with him.
She did a few weddings with his team, and they hit it off. Lama was impressed with her dedication. Post graduating, Minakshi worked with Tulleeho and then in the marketing teams of Diageo and Pernod Ricard.
Lama and Minakshi dreamt of opening their own bar, but they couldn’t find the right investor. Finally in 2012, they pooled their resources and set up Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy in a basement in Gurgaon. It was the only place they could afford.
The first six months were difficult but slowly, business picked up and soon they had regular customers who enjoyed the vibe of the bar and the cocktails. Over the years, the bar has won several awards and has a loyal clientele.
The success of Cocktails and Dreams encouraged them and to set up Sidecar in Delhi’s upmarket Greater Kailash 2 market, in 2018. “I always wanted to do a bar in Delhi. It’s a market I know and understand.”
Sidecar has been a success from the start. Rated the best bar in India and 16th in Asia’s 50 Best list, Sidecar is Lama’s dream bar. “I even made sketches of the furniture,” he says, contending that the chairs and even the bar stools are comfortable enough for people to sit for long hours.
Details like the height of the bar or distance between the shelves and the bar table were all paid attention to. “We even invested in an ice machine. The first thing that you need to make a good drink is good ice,” says Lama, adding that most other bars buy ice instead of making their own.
Besides running the bars, Lama mentors and trains bartenders and consulting with those who wish to set up bars. His continues to set a high benchmark for Indian bartenders and brands through engaging talks, workshops and leadership programmes.
So, what’s next for Lama? “I definitely want to open a bar outside India. A bar that represents true India in every sense of it.”
Lama says he is in talks with an Indian restaurant entrepreneur in the US and wants to open a typical Mumbai ‘Aunty’s Bar’ complete with Bollywood music. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Aunty Bars in Mumbai were like the American speakeasies, since the city was under prohibition. “The other thing I want to do is create my own alcohol. It could be a spirit or a liqueur,” adds Lama.
“Besides that, I don’t have any other ambitions,” he laughs.