Served table-side on a bed of ice—to keep the drink at a brain-stirring recommended temperature of minus 4 degrees Celsius—the martini at Rick’s, at The Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi, is a thing of beauty. I pour just enough into my glass and sip it slow, to make it last. Before I reach the bottom of my drink, there’s a server by my side, asking if I would like another. I am eager but I choose to pick the next cocktail that catches my eye—one that blends white cacao gin, apricot vodka and seaweed tincture. Postmodern Jukebox jazz plays in the background and there’s a woman behind the counter who clearly knows her stuff. I could be anywhere in the world but the truth is that I am in Delhi, where cocktail culture is redefining parts of the National Capital Region (NCR).
Over the past few years, Delhi and Gurugram (in Haryana) have become home to some of the most exciting cocktail and bar programmes in the country, supporting a thriving ecosystem for both bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike. There is a growing pool of talent behind the counter creating innovative drinks programmes—reflecting the bar’s philosophy—while using technology smartly; a number of bar entrepreneurs willing to take a risk; and, of course, favourable conditions like comparatively affordable real estate and liquor pricing.
The experts agree: Accolades and recognition for the bars in Delhi and Gurugram have been pouring in from across the globe. Last year, Sidecar in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-II ranked No.26 on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Bars list, and, in July, was No.18 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, with three other entrants—PCO, Home and Hoots’—from Delhi that made it to the top 100 list. 2023 also saw Sidecar top India’s 30 Best Bars, a nationwide ranking based on a jury poll of more than 250 members, which featured nine other bars from the region on the list. In the Mumbai vs Delhi vs Goa vs Bengaluru debate, this time, there’s a clear winner. Industry estimates suggest around 75 new bars may have opened up in the NCR since 2021.
SO HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
According to Pankaj Balachandran, co-founder of the Goa-based bar consultancy Countertop Collective, which designs bar programmes for establishments across India and the Middle East, it all started at a gin joint years ago—Rick’s. A hot spot inspired by the bar and protagonist in the 1942 film Casablanca, Rick’s opened in 2002 and quickly became the place to be in the Capital for dirty martinis and Old Fashioneds. Balachandran began his career there in 2013 as restaurant manager with Devender Sehgal, who now heads the MO bar at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, and bar maverick Arijit Bose, Balachandran’s current business partner. While other cities had their own versions of Rick’s at the time, none had the lasting power of this slick hotel cocktail bar, which stuck to doing classic cocktails really well when others were focused on the ambience.
After a brief hiatus earlier this year, Rick’s launched its refurbished avatar in May, with Art Deco-inspired interiors that combine 1940s sophistication and contemporary charm via cocktails that play with the idea of what the suave Casablanca protagonists would drink in 2023. Boozy interpretations include the aforementioned martini, berry tea-infused tequila, pandan milk-washed drinks and even those with tomato miso and toasted sesame honey.
Mumbai’s Anushka Bagchi, 26, the bar manager at Rick’s, says that while the idea of running a bar in Delhi might not appeal to many women, she saw it as an opportunity to change the narrative. “Especially in a city that has a reputation like Delhi, when there’s a woman behind the bar, she immediately puts other patrons at ease. If they see how comfortable I am here, they relax too.” Bagchi says the new menu—serendipitously developed by Balachandran—offers a selection that gets you thinking about flavour combinations. It stars eight signature cocktails, featuring everything from Japanese soy sauce to toasted banana saccharum.
“In Delhi, people really know their F&B, the bar is already high,” Bagchi says. “In Mumbai, there’s a lot of attention given to the vibe and food and customers are more experimental. But not enough attention is paid to the final drink served to a customer. This is a missed opportunity. Nowadays, it’s not hard for an Indian bar to have a good selection of alcohol. Ultimately it’s the bartender’s technique, experimentation and creativity that will bring people back for more.”
THE HUB FOR BARTENDERS
Bagchi isn’t wrong. Increasingly, the bars in Delhi pushing the cocktail envelope are the ones that are growing in popularity and collecting awards. While this may not sound surprising to most, for a market like the NCR, which remained predominantly spirit-dominated and whisky-forward for decades, the acceptance of cocktail culture and speakeasies is a true sign of the impact these bars have had on the drinking culture.
At Hoots’, a dimly lit 20-seater speakeasy hidden below the wine bar Perch in Delhi’s Basant Lok Market, 90% of sales are cocktails, with only 10% accounting for straight drinks or other beverages, according to head bartender Sahil Negi. Here, cocktails are batch-made and clarified, to help the two mixologists behind the counter save time when the bar gets buzzy. Each drink, which simply has a number for a name, is complex and curiosity-inducing, incorporating ingredients like sous vide caramelised yogurt and techniques like milk clarification and fat-washing. Negi, groomed in a dapper ink-blue suit and slickly gelled hair, explains the bar philosophy as he watches me sip the stiff-but-stunning Number 5, his version of a gimlet that swaps lime cordial for a woody palo santo one that’s shaken into the gin. “We try not to repeat any flavours so as to increase the amount of choice and agency customers have,” says Negi. These include a twist on an Old Fashioned that incorporates miso, and a chamomile-foam Whisky Sour.
At Home in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, a sleek Parisian-style jazz club bar, technique and experimentation come to the fore with ingredients one least expects in a cocktail—like hung curd—in creations like 16th Century, reminiscent of a creamy kulfi, with Bombay Sapphire gin, lavender, citrus and saffron. There’s also the unique Oromo, which blends Jim Beam Bourbon, goat’s cheese, cold brew coffee and bitters for a complex and savoury sip. Led by Santanu Chanda, declared India’s Best Bartender at India’s 30 Best Bars earlier this year, the enthusiastic and smartly-turned-out bar team in tincture brown waistcoats and checkered trousers serves up libations that focus on spirits like tequila, pisco, gin and whisky, muddled and mixed with seasonal produce.
Rakshay Dhariwal, managing director and founder of Pass Code Hospitality, the group behind PCO, one of Delhi’s first speakeasy-styled cocktail bars, explains: “I would argue that the city attracts a number of talented bartenders simply because of the sheer volume of good cocktail bars here where they can learn from the best and hone their skills.” He goes on: “Delhi’s bartender community is a robust and unique one because, unlike other cities that have food or chef communities, Delhi also has a tight-knit circle of only bar owners and bartenders. That WhatsApp group is always buzzing with recommendations, suggestions and advice. Our biggest competitors here are also our strongest allies.”
Negi, who moved from Dehradun to Delhi, says: “Delhi is where the most exciting bartending opportunities are, much more than other Indian cities, where positions in the kitchen or front-of-house are plentiful. If you are serious about bartending, Delhi is where you can grow and learn from the best.” The geographical location too allows for talent from neighbouring regions to access opportunities offered by bold bar entrepreneurs and gives them space to flex their creative muscles, using ingredients from their home towns. So it’s not uncommon to see produce like rhododendron flowers and Assam tea leaves—ingredients from the Himalayan region—adding new flavour profiles to classics that are enjoyed by the region’s well-heeled, discerning consumer.
There continue to be concerns, of course—about the safety of women at night, consistency in service and drinks and Delhi’s liquor policy nightmares. Still, the appetite for cocktails is keeping both demand and supply steady.
While Mumbai and Bengaluru have their fair share of unique bars, both cities have been unable to break away from tried-and-tested formulas. In Mumbai, experts agree there are a few good restaurant bars, like Americano, The Living Room by Masque, and The Bombay Canteen, but in a city where commutes are long and work is always a priority, most guests don’t have the energy or time to think about grabbing a drink at a bar and then dining elsewhere. Post-office hours, there’s only time for one stop, and, more often than not, one drink during the week. In an interview in February, The Bombay Canteen’s co-founder, Yash Bhanage, told me: “In Bombay, I have to give people food along with their drinks, otherwise people get hangry after a long day at work! Business-wise, it would be very hard to sustain a cocktails-only bar here.”
In Bengaluru, where the brewpub parks are many, beer dominates the daily drinks conversation, not blended concoctions. And Kolkata, a city that enjoys its tipple, is extremely price-conscious. While these cities create offerings tailored to their audiences, there’s little else by way of variety.
In Delhi and Gurugram, however, bartenders are going the extra mile, be it at hotels, restaurants or hidden speakeasies. For instance, at Comorin in Gurugram, a regional Indian restaurant from Old World Hospitality (the same group as the award-winning restaurant Indian Accent), cocktails are inspired by drinks such as Tamil Nadu’s version of buttermilk, or neer moru, which is spiked with green chilli-infused tequila and a complex house-made carraway liqueur. Servers pour clarified Cuban Sours from a tap, guests can sip tasting pours of khus (vetiver) vermouth and vanilla cognac and also choose from a sous vide section that uses the vacuum-sealed cooking technique made famous by MasterChef Australia to create alcoholic infusions with combinations such as vodka, smoked pinewood and orange, and gin with rose and hibiscus.
“An infusion that would have normally taken a week can now happen in a matter of minutes with the sous vide machine, giving us a deeper, richer flavour profile,” explains Varun Sharma, head mixologist for the Old World group. In a tour of the facilities, Sharma also shows me the dehydrators, fermenters, soda makers and other tools he has added behind the counter to serve up sleek, technique-driven drinks using Indian ingredients—such as jamun (Indian blackberry), pickled spices and coconut—that hint at nostalgia. This direction is led by Comorin’s food menu but it is deftly translated into a drinks programme full of delightful surprises.
At Lair, an edgy modern speakeasy with a noir palette spread across 3,600 sq. ft in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, guests can enjoy a range of flavourful Asian fare with an extensive cocktail menu that draws inspiration, and ingredients like kumquats, guava and agave, from across India for its cocktails. Based on preferences, one can choose from cocktails —levels one to three—which list drinks that increase in complexity and inventiveness and are served in highly Instagram-able avatars, using everything from mini tajines to charcoal black glasses to amp up presentation.
When it comes to having a good time, one can’t forget that large-hearted Delhi joie de vivre. “I love that in north India, the default celebratory protocol is to go all out! When people step out to celebrate, they are not stingy—it’s all about the biggest Champagne bottle, the best whisky money can buy. The hosts are always extremely generous, encouraging their guests to overeat and overdrink! That is such a uniquely Delhi thing that we don’t really talk about,” says Sidecar’s Minakshi Singh.
As an ode to its home city, Sidecar recently relaunched its signature Dear Delhi menu, a showcase of cocktails lovingly named after its muse. The menu lists cocktails inspired by neighbourhoods like Connaught Place and Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest wholesale spice market. Think whisky and Karachi biscuit blends and spiced rum and sweet vermouth sips.
Unsurprisingly, this cocktail craze is extending to the big fat wedding market. Bars like Sidecar and Gurugram’s iconic Whisky Samba are increasingly being asked to create mini versions of their spaces at parties, pulling out all the stops. “Popping up at an Indian wedding is so incredible because of the kind of creative, customised solutions we are able to dream up for a couple’s special day,” says Ashish Dev Kapur, founder of Whisky Samba.
While a star bartender is flown in for the special occasion in other parts of the country, whole cocktail bars from the city pop up for weddings in the Capital. From margarita and taco-themed haldis to midnight tequila tents, the options are as varied as they are creative, to serve Delhi’s discerning consumers, hungry for exclusive, personalised and unique F&B experiences.
THE INFLUENCE OF GURUGRAM
When I ask experts why the phenomenon is unique to Delhi and adjoining Gurugram, the explanations are varied. Founder-partners Minakshi Singh and legendary mixologist Yangdup Lama—of award-winning Sidecar and Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy fame—list the one no-brainer reason: affordable real estate.
“When we started, we knew we wanted to be a homely, neighbourhood bar with a steady stream of regulars. If our rent was astronomical, we would have simply shut down, instead of doing things like group discounts and coupons to bring in crowds to justify our costs,” says Lama. The duo opened Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy 10 years ago in Gurugram and admit that they were “naive” to open such a niche offering in a then unpopular location. “Location is everything in hospitality and honestly, we picked ours primarily because it worked for our budget. People thought we were crazy to open in Gurugram back then but it’s one of the real reasons that ‘Speaks’ is able to celebrate its 10th year of existence this year—the fact that we were able to keep our costs down thanks to low rentals,” explains Lama, citing the example of many F&B offerings across the country that started boldly and were eventually forced to shut down or dilute the concept and cater to a larger audience to pay rent.
Starting a bar or restaurant in any Indian metro is an expensive and complicated process—given varying state excise policies and licences—but the startup capital required to launch in these two cities ends up being one with a healthy return on investment, given the rents, licences and average spend—approximately north of ₹6,000 for a table of two—as compared to other metros, where the average spend is about 10-15% less. Experts estimate that a 1,500-2,000 sq. ft bar would require a startup capital of around ₹3 crore and one of 5,000 sq. ft, about ₹6 crore.
While Goa is a cheaper market to operate in, it is currently dealing with a problem of oversupply—in the past year, 600 bars and restaurants have opened their doors here, leaving the average diner spoilt for choice.
“We have some of the best policies for bars in the country here,” says Kapur of Whisky Samba, where guests can sample more than 150 varieties of whiskies and single malts, apart from other spirits and cocktails, as they party till it’s time for the joggers to start their morning runs.
Just recently, Haryana deputy chief minister Dushyant Chautala allowed restaurants across the state to remain open 24x7, making it the only state in north India to do so. This comes on the heels of the Delhi government announcement in December 2022 that allowed restaurants and bars in five- and four-star hotels to operate round the clock.
As I sip on Whisky Samba’s lip-puckering twist on a Sazerac that’s coconut milk washed and topped with sesame seeds, Kapur explains why he’s bullish on a location that was viewed, until fairly recently, as a rough-and-tumble region.
Over the years, with the influx of multiple corporate headquarters, Gurugram’s social fabric has changed to accommodate well-heeled working professionals from across India and overseas. This, coupled with the fact that many old south Delhi families are swapping their independent bungalows for Gurugram’s plush condo complexes with state-of-the-art facilities, has made the neighbourhood a lucrative one for retail entrepreneurs. “While other Indian cities cater to the dominant palate—Mumbai is skewed heavily to vegetarian cuisine, Bengaluru is big on meats and beers—in Gurugram, there’s no one size fits all formula. This allows for different kinds of offerings to thrive. Where else in India would you find an entire mall full of Korean restaurants, bars and supermarkets?” asks Kapur. In conjunction with the “best drinking laws in the country”, this situation offers the perfect cocktail for F&B businesses.
Dhariwal maps the region’s love for cocktails with the rise of India’s homegrown alcohol brands. He launched Pistola, India’s first premium agave spirit, in 2021. While many of India’s gins, whiskies and rums are manufactured in Goa, they are still cheaper to buy in Gurugram, owing to lower excise duties. Paul John Bold Single Malt whisky, manufactured in Goa, costs ₹4,500 (750ml) in its home state, ₹6,000 in Mumbai and ₹2,300 in Gurugram. Greater Than Gin, the first premium homegrown gin to manufacture in Goa, will set you back by ₹850 in the sunshine state, ₹2,750 in Mumbai and ₹800 in Gurugram. A bottle of Black Label, Delhi’s favourite, can set you back by ₹1,800 in Gurugram, ₹3,450 in Goa and ₹4,000 in Mumbai.
This price point has allowed bartenders in the region to freely experiment with homegrown and other premium spirits, encouraging guests to try these creations. “It has been a win-win because mixologists are willing to take greater risks and blend familiar flavours with ingredients they grew up with. And who doesn’t love a cocktail blended with the taste of your childhood?” asks Dhariwal.
The discerning consumer is driving bartenders and F&B managers to dig deeper to not just get more creative behind the counter but also deliver a one-of-a-kind experience.
When Whisky Samba opened in 2017, Kapur and the team were tasked with trying to convince people that whisky can be fun and young. They came up with Boarding Pass, the “welcome cocktail” that blends whisky with Angostura bitters and ginger ale and is served to all guests, free. “It’s something we do till today, as it helps get guests in the right mood to experiment with cocktails and shows them that whisky isn’t a stiff boring drink,” he explains.
After years of recommending cocktails to guests who were asking for straight pours, Dhariwal says their “mood cocktail”, a drink option at PCO that gives the bartender the freedom to invent a new sip for those willing to experiment, is a best-seller. “Even though they don’t know what’s in it, because it changes every day, guests continue to order it, simply to be surprised,” he says. It’s these initial investments by entrepreneurs like Dhariwal and Kapur that have helped others reinvent themselves and offer even more elevated experiences.
At the leather-and-darkwood styled The Library Bar at The Leela Palace in Delhi, head bartender Siya Negi deftly swirls citrus peel infused clarified vodka and sparkling wine for me to sample, ahead of the launch of the revamped bar menu in August that takes the bar’s moniker to a whole new level. Each of their eight signature cocktails pays homage to a famous novel or author. There’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a complex and boozy whisky-coconut caramel and charred pineapple interpretation of the sprawling Thomas Pynchon novel. Around the World in 80 Days is another must-try, blended with elements from across the globe—Aperol from Italy, Pisco from Peru, London Dry Gin from the UK and strawberries from Shimla. “Sipping is just one part of the experience,” says Atul Tiwari, executive assistant manager, F&B, at The Leela Palace. “But the whole ambience, your conversations, the feel of the menu, the vibe of the place—these are all the things that make the drinking experience different and exclusive.”
At The Library Bar, guests will soon be able to browse the new selection, presented in the form of a bookmark inside leather-bound copies of the novels the drinks were inspired by. Each time a guest orders a drink, the table number and “issue date” will get stamped on a “library card” in the book. It’s this attention to detail that blows me away as I sip on crystal clear, perfectly balanced drinks and sink blissfully into a plush leather armchair.
BEYOND THE BAR
While there is much excitement and buzz about Delhi’s bar scene, it’s not without problems. For Priyanka Blah, spirits consultant and academy chair for Asia’s 50 Best Bars and World’s 50 Best Bars, safety and security are keen concerns. “...frankly, I don’t think Delhi’s bars do enough to make its women patrons feel safe while unwinding with a cocktail.” Blah argues they can do a lot more, from female-only taxis to code-word shots that cue bartenders when a guest needs help.
At Sidecar, bartenders have been known to drop regulars home or book them taxis. “This sort of sensitisation and training takes months but it is paramount for us,” explains Singh, walking me through staff training that ranges from safety and security to D&I (diversity and inclusion) terminology, beyond bartender upskilling. “Attracting, training and retaining talent behind the counter is key,” concurs Balachandran.
It helps that bartenders now get higher salaries. Insiders say average salaries have risen from about ₹25,000 a month in 2017-18 to upwards of ₹60,000. Thanks to training and grooming investments by bar owners, buttressed by the Capital’s tight-knit bartender community, it’s much easier now for good talent to find a spot in Delhi and be well taken care of, helping create a better bar experience for guests.
“Cocktails are the way forward, there’s no doubt about it,” says Lama emphatically. As the world shifts its attention to India, for investment opportunities, trade alliances and more, what I am most excited to see is how Indian chefs and bartenders tell their own stories—of who they are and where they come from—in unique and refreshing ways. In Delhi and Gurugram, they are already off to a great start.
Smitha Menon is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and is India’s only 50 Best TasteHunter. Follow her @champarani on Instagram.