Minakshi Singh had barely graduated from college, but she knew what she wanted. One day, she would open a bar. She couldn’t have predicted then, that nearly 20 years later, it would become one of the best bars in the world.
Singh is the co-founder of Delhi’s Sidecar which was ranked 26 in the World’s 50 Best Bars list last week. Sidecar has outdone itself by consistently moving up the ranks—#91 in 2020 and #47 in 2021.
Singh, now 39, and her business partner, the ace mixologist Yangdup Lama, met when she was in hospitality college. She was a trainee assistant to Lama who was incharge of a private party in Delhi. Her job was to ensure he had a steady supply of clean glasses, ice and spirits for cocktails. “I loved everything about the bar. But, at that time it wasn’t legal for women to bartend in India under the 1914 Punjab Excise Act,” Singh points out. The law was stricter in Delhi after the tragic murder of Jessica Lall who was mixing drinks at an affluent restaurant in the city.
Being unable to bartend professionally, Singh opted for corporate jobs in Diageo and Pernod Ricard. In 2007, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on women bartenders and Singh created colour-coded excel sheets to start a bar. In 2012, she started Cocktails & Dreams (C&D), Speakeasy with Lama in Gurugram. In 2018, the duo opened Sidecar in Delhi. In an interview with Lounge, Singh talks about elevating the bar experience for women, overcoming sexist perceptions and her mantra for a good bar. Edited excerpts:
What drew you to the world of drinks?
The number one reason is my love for people. I like getting to know them, wanting to make them feel comfortable and ensuring they have a good time. Secondly, I enjoy the creative aspect of the drinks industry: be it designing menus or conceptualising events. We have organised quizzes, trivia nights, book readings, and listening sessions with vinyl.
What was your vision for a bar?
We were sure it would have great cocktails, comfortable bar stools and be a safe space for everyone. About 10 years ago in Delhi, if a woman was seen walking in or sitting by herself at a bar, people would assume something shady was going on. We wanted to change that perception. Now, it’s so nice to see our bar stools filled with women, enjoying themselves and not being judged. Back then, we had an event for the queer community with rainbow flags, and people said we would attract the wrong crowd, but it was a success. Over the years, we found tremendously supportive friends because we met them at bar. People would sit across the counter and shares stories about their marriages, breakups and babies. During the lockdown, many people offered to help in any possible manner, including raising money. Even in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined that a bar would make people feel like this .
What kind of challenges did you face?
While opening C&D we were bootstrapped and couldn’t afford a prime location. It was a self-funded venture and we weren’t making profits for close to a year. But, this challenge worked to our advantage. We went all out to make the place welcoming and warm for our guests. There were about 5-6 people in team, with Yangdup bartending and me serving drinks. He would do customised cocktails and drinks off the menu. For instance, if someone talked about tasting a Mai Tai in Barbados, Yangdup would say ‘Let me make you one, and you would forget about that’ and stir up something great. C&D became a huge off-the-menu place because of his skill and talent. We would earnestly try to get guests to try our cocktails. If somebody wanted whisky and water, I would suggest Old Fashioned and say ‘if you don’t like it, I could use a drink’. We would somehow persuade people to have just one cocktail. It allowed us to put a foot in the door and hope they would come back for more.
Second challenge, personally for me as a woman, was to deal with sexist assumptions especially from authorities. I would have to convince them it wasn’t my papa’s business and there was no brother or husband to have meetings with. It’s difficult to get a point across without being called emotional or aggressive.
The third challenge includes the outdated liquor laws, high taxes and no government support during the pandemic. I am paying taxes to run this bar and separate taxes to buy liquor, while you pay about 25% taxes on your bill, and there was no government relief when businesses were shut during lockdown. We should be given a trophy just for existing.
Is it difficult for a woman to start a bar in India, compared to a man?
I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have done anything differently if I were a man. The challenges are not the same though. For instance, Yangdup comes from the Northeast, and he has to deal with racism, while I have faced sexism. The world is riddled with a lot of biases and, whether you are a man or women, you are fighting them all the time.
How did Sidecar happen?
C&D was a success and it got glowing reviews. That’s when investors got interested and approached us for another bar that led to Sidecar.
What was your vision for Sidecar?
For Sidecar, we had money—that’s what we joke about. Yangdup bought the biggest bar counter he possibly could. I love books, and it has a big book corner with a comfortable reading spot. We were like kids in a candy shop and it’s a dream bar.
What is it about Sidecar that draws guests?
We believe you don’t go to a place just for drinks, or just for music, or just to meet people. The whole package has to work. There are tangibles in terms of food and drinks, but the rest of it is intangibles, like how the bartenders made you feel, was the air conditioning comfortable, were the washrooms clean, was the music too loud, did the music uplift your mood, and lots of similar unsaid things. We tell our team if a guest comes back, that’s the biggest compliment.
What’s makes a good bar?
It’s the team. There’s no brick, menu or cocktail glass; it’s always the people.