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‘There has never been a better time for bars in India’

Pankaj Balachandran, co-founder of India's best bar Tesouro by Firefly, talks about his career, the mixology industry and his winning formula

Pankaj Balachandran
Pankaj Balachandran

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Three weeks ago, the Goa-based Tesouro by Firefly was ranked number 4 at the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022. When Pankaj Balachandran, co-founder of the barely 19-month-old bar, spoke to Lounge, his joy was palpable: “I was not sure what happened. Being number four is massive."

Tesouro has created history. It is the first time that an Indian bar broke into the top five of this coveted list.

The award was announced with the words that their team created a ‘welcoming spot with an atmosphere that is perfect anytime of the day or night’. It is the recipe for an unforgettable bar experience that goes beyond the cocktail menu, notes Balachandran.

He uses the term ‘bar cycle’ as a yardstick to explain what a good bar entails. The starting point is the moment a guest walks in, orders drinks and food, pays the bill, wakes up next morning—with or without a hangover—pulls out the bill and has one of the two reactions: ‘What did I do’ or ‘That’s not bad, I had a great time.’ The second reaction leads to a re-visit.

“This is the bar cycle. A lot of bar owners fail to understand that they can offer the best food and drinks, but if they overcharge the customer, they won't have a great time, or they won’t come back,” explains Balachandran. The 32-year-old mixologist turned entrepreneur is now a co-founder and partner of the food and beverage consultancy firm Countertop India, ready-to-serve cocktail brand Jerry’s Cocktails and bar Tesouro. He speaks to Lounge about his professional journey, bartending in India and his favourite wines. Edited excerpts:

What sparked your interest in cocktails?

It began in my hometown in Kerala. I grew up in a middle class family, and secured high scores in my class 10 boards. As a generous treat, my father took me to the coffee shop at the Taj. I interacted with their manager, and everything about him—from what he wore to how he spoke—left a deep impression. I went on to study hospitality, and at the age of 19 interned at a coffee shop in Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai. My manager there asked me to browse through their wine collection of about 600 exclusive labels, pick a bottle everyday and talk about it. It was a six-month internship with a 12-hour shift, and I ended up tasting four-five bottles a day. It was a turning point which instilled the dream to be a sommelier. The hotel had a bar named Uptown Bar, and I wanted to learn mixology too. So, I would finish my shift at the coffee shop, and then work at the bar for another 5 hours under the mentorship of the talented bar manager named Colin Hutton. I was putting in 17 hours a day to learn about alcohol.

How did the hard work pay off?

At the age of 22, I was appointed as the bar manager at the exclusive bar Rick’s at the Taj Mahal in New Delhi. At that time, I was the youngest bar manager in India. In 2013, I won the Indian Sommelier Championship which took me to Australia and the legendary wine valleys of France. Around the same time, I visited PCO and met two incredible human beings —Arijit Bose who was running the beverage program and Vaibhav Singh who was a business partner. I was blown away by the kind of drinks they were making. Later, Singh went on to establish the wine and coffee place named Perch in Delhi and Mumbai, while I joined Bose to start the bar consultancy Bar Back Collective. Its aim was to train bartenders and consult with bars and brands. Our clients included bars like Sly Granny and HOME in PVR which was also in Asia’s 50 Best list this year, and we took on projects in Tokyo, Jakarta and Dubai. We did two gin festivals Gin Fling in Bengaluru. I developed the cocktail menu of bar named Hoots in Perch. I was also the brand ambassador for Monkey Shoulder. All of this was packed into 2018-2019. It was a lot of work and I must have taken about 230 odd flights in 2019.

Also read | How Vanshika Bhatia found her calling as a chef

What were the challenges in your professional journey so far?

Walking away from places that I built whether it was Hoots or Ricks. Creating them involved blood, sweat and soul, but there came a point when I had to move on to build other things.

What are the three key aspects of India’s mixology scene now?

Number one: It’s the best time to be in the industry. Today the limelight is on the bartender and they are gaining recognition at par with chefs. The income bracket for bartenders has grown exponentially their value is being recognised. About seven years ago, a good bar would pay their head bartender about 25,000 a month, and today it’s anywhere between 1.5-2 lakhs.

Number two: Opening the channels of communication to the rest of the world driven by social media. Now, bartenders can contact industry legends across the world and learn from them; be it through emails or social media. It was believed that bars in India were about five years behind compared to their counterparts abroad, but now that gap is getting shorter, because we are learning from the best.

Number three: The big guns of the alcohol industry, like Diageo, William Grant, Pernod Ricard, have arrived in India. They brought in international talents to showcase what they have to offer, and vice versa. Indian bartenders who are associated with these brands are travelling abroad to learn what the top bars in other countries offer. It’s this ongoing exchange of culture and knowledge that has enriched the industry.

What makes a great cocktail?

That’s a tough one. I’d say it depends on what you want to get out of the consumer. For example, at Tesouro, we have the clear cocktail Midnight Brekkie with flavour notes of watermelon and peanut butter. I have seen the facial expression of our guests change after the first sip, when they go, ‘Wow, what was that!’ That’s what a good cocktail does. It plays with your senses—what you see is not what you taste.

What makes a great bar?

The vibe and hospitality that allow the guest to have a good time, are as important as great cocktails. 

What are your wine recommendations?

1. A bottle of the Austrian grape varietal Grüner veltline

2. A classic bottle from Burgundy

3. A good house champagne

4. An Australian Cabernet Sauvignon

5. An Argentinian Malbec

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