You feel as if you are entering a cocoon when you step into SOKA, an effect enhanced by a large hanging paper sculpture resembling a luminous insect that dominates the small room. The effect is intentional— the 531 sq ft SOKA, a new and of-the-moment cocktail bar in Bengaluru, has only 38 seats, and rather than try to create the illusion of space, it seems to double down on the lack of it. The bar, which is generating no mean buzz in the city’s crowded pub space, feels intimate, sophisticated and languid—a bar for grown-ups in the style of tiny Manhattan cocktail bars where you may bump into a retired Hollywood star nursing a very dry martini.
It is a distinct shift from the type of watering hole that has ruled Bengaluru for years now—large and loud with a hectic energy and vibe. The menu at SOKA spells out this distinction as well, with cocktails like the Next-Gen Martini featuring Bull Dog gin, extra dry vermouth, Choya Yuzu Liqueur, and a hint of herb tincture; the Cheese Cherry Pineapple, a homage to the founders’ favourite snack at Downtown Pub, one of the city’s oldest watering holes, made by blending Bacardi Carta Blanca, aged cheddar and cream cheese, pineapple, Luxardo cherry, acids, and bitters; the Mofo Don, a tribute to a vegetable store owner in Russel Market who acts like a Don, with tequila, pickled pineapple, red cabbage, cilantro, and jalapenos. “It’s a labour of love,” says Avinash Kapoli, one of the partners at SOKA, who along with Sombir Choudhary has launched restaurants like Jamming Goat in Goa and Bengaluru. “You can tell that we are passionate about cocktails, and after creating beverage programmes for restaurants and bars across the country, we felt like we needed to create our own space that would allow us to play around,” says Kapoli. “We wanted to create a bar for bartenders.” The food menu is limited and consists mostly of bar bites—what they call nano plates—with dishes like stuffed olives, edamame and fenugreek tart, and a fried chicken dish reminiscent of Bengaluru’s deep red fried kababs.
His words about a ‘bar for bartenders’ are echoed, almost word for word, by mixologist Arijit Bose. Incidentally, famed Indian mixologist Yangdup Lama was the first to use this term when he created the speakeasy-style Cocktails & Dreams in Gurgaon a decade ago, which led to the award-winning Sidecar. The model is now followed by those in the community, like Bose, who are serious about cocktails. Widely regarded among the best moxologists in the country, his pandemic baby Tesouro By Firefly (now called Bar Tesouro) in Goa had a dream run, ranked No.4 in the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2022 and winning multiple awards for its cocktails. Bose subsequently parted ways with Tesouro, moving on by opening craft cocktail bar Spirit Forward in the posh Lavelle Road area of Bengaluru.
With its mid-century modern furniture, plush leather seats, and a shocking blue wall perfectly complimenting a gleaming chrome bar, the 65-cover Spirit Forward makes you feel sophisticated and stylish the minute you step inside. “A bar is not just about drinks—it’s about people, the vibe…” says Bose. “I have been coming to Bengaluru for a long time, and the culture of small, intimate bars was always there in the city—but with the beer boom, the mindspace was taken over by large-format breweries and pubs, some as big as 80,000 sq ft. Frankly, you don’t need a great amount of talent to peddle beer,” he adds, a trifle acerbically, speaking from Singapore where Spirit Forward is participating in a bar takeover at Jerrold Khoo and Bai JiaWei's Stay Gold.
“A great cocktail bar is centred around the drinks, which take centre stage, with the food menu complementing it and not the other way around, which is the norm at most ‘resto bars’. You want a specific vibe—a grown-up, refined space. Not for families, not for kids. A place you can head to on your own, sit at the bar counter and have a chat with the bartender. Or just be on your own without feeling uncomfortable.”
Creating a next-level bar experience has been long overdue in Bengaluru, over-run by cookie-cutter pubs, and the past few months have seen a steady shift in mood. “You could say it started with Copitas and ZLB, and things have changed dramatically in one year,” says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of bar ranking platform 30 Best Bars India. Copitas, a multiple award-winning bar at the Four Seasons Hotel and ZLB, a year-old speakeasy-style bar at the Leela Palace Hotel, have changed the scene with their serious cocktail programmes and by hosting multiple bar takeovers by leading mixologists and teams from some of the top bars around the world, says Achanta. “A ton of new bar talent has also flocked to the city. Cocktail-centric bars are usually run by people who know the business very well, because it is a complex proposition,” he adds. Apart from people like Bose and Kapoli, he names Sahil Essani, also formerly of Tesouro by Firefly and named India’s top bartender at Diageo World Class 2022, as one of these talented mixologists who are finding a creative outlet in Bengaluru’s growing cocktail culture. Essani currently heads the beverage programme at Muro, yet another new, lavish cocktail bar in the city that describes itself as “a social club focusing on crafted cocktails, culture and conversation”.
For the regular bar-hopper in Bengaluru, this shift is all about appreciating the craft of great cocktails with a dash of playfulness and fun. One evening last week, a colleague and I found ourselves heading down a lane at the sprawling Leela Palace Hotel, hidden from view by an ivy-covered wall. At the end was an inconspicuous door that led, surprisingly, into the hotel kitchen. Bemused, we looked around and saw a lift, which only had three buttons—Z, L and B. Taking a wild guess, we pressed Z, and found ourselves stepping into a dimly lit corridor that led to what looked like a Victorian drawing room. We were at ZLB23 at the Leela, a speakeasy-style bar that mimics the secretiveness of the illicit establishments in Prohibition-era New York. In one year since opening, it has hosted no fewer than 10 top bars from around the world for takeovers—a solid testament to how seriously Bengaluru is being taken in the global cocktail circuit. Teams from Mexico City’s Handshake, Barcelona’s Paradiso, Bangkok’s Vesper and Delhi’s Sidecar—all have been in The World’s 50 Best Bars list— have been behind the counter at ZLB23.
As we stepped into the warm, cosy space this chilly January evening, there was a jazz band playing, while a talented mixologist from a Dubai bar, in the midst of a takeover at ZLB, plied us with cocktails. We sunk into our plush leather seats, gave ourselves over to the music, and sipped on negronis, feeling sultry and sophisticated. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to live it.