On October 23, the banquet hall of the Pullman Hotel in Aerocity, New Delhi was packed with the best talents from the bar industry in the country. Mixologists, bartenders and owners of bars converged to find out if they had made it to the list of India’s first bar ranking attempt.
Titled the 30 Best Bars India, the first-of-its-kind awards and ranking list was curated by Tulleeho, a beverage education, training and consulting firm, working in the beverage and hospitality industry in South and South-East Asia.
Vikram Achanta, Co-Founder of Tulleeho conceptualised the idea three years ago but admits that the time was not right to host the awards then as the industry was still finding its feet.
He revisited the idea last September and started putting the process of discovering India’s best bars for the first edition of the awards together. The rankings were based on a nationwide poll of bar enthusiasts, industry experts, connoisseurs and writers that covered bars in at least a dozen Indian cities and regions such as Delhi NCR, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Kolkata, Shillong, Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kochi. “The last four-five years have witnessed a tremendous growth in the bar industry.
We have been part of prestigious, global cocktail competitions, and bartenders and mixologists have got immense exposure and many opportunities to network with global icons,” says Achanta, sighting the example of Devi Singh of Firefly Goa who won India’s World Class 2019 competition by Diageo Reserve World Class, and competed at the world championship in Glasgow early this year.
“We need restaurants and bars to back their teams, and not remain faceless businessmen. This is slowly happening,” says Achanta adding that the need of the hour is for owners to invest in equipment – from a good ice machine, sous vide equipment to barrels for ageing – and back their team to experiment. “Today, people focus inward, on honing their talent and creating great cocktails. Mixologists and bartenders must improve their communication and customer engagement skills. When you walk into a bar in Europe or America, bartenders also play a crucial role in putting their customers at ease; talking to them, suggesting drinks as per taste palates,” says Achanta, who started Tulleeho as a bar review website in 2000. “I started it with a friend as a hobby. There was no information on good bars then. Alcohol was a taboo subject then,” adds Achanta, who turned his attention to training and promotions for beverage companies during the dotcom bust in 2001.
An Economics Graduate from Delhi University, Vikram completed his MBA from IIM, Kolkata and spent eight and a half years as a management consultant before starting Tulleeho in 2000. “We realised that there was much more that we could offer beverage companies than just reviews. The market was seeing a rise in events and promotions around wines and spirits,” he adds.
Today, with three offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, Tulleeho operates in 15 cities across the country. Internationally their portfolio is spread across Asia including The Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and eight countries in South East Asia, along with a recent entry into the Middle East.
The voting process
In the first stage of the awards, a core team of 50 members, including Keshav Prakash, Rohan Carvalho, Arijit Bose, Magandeep Singh, Suchir Suri, Rojita Tiwari, Kanishka Sharma, Deepali Gupta, Nikhil Merchant, Jeet Banerjee, Rij Eappen, Sam Chandy and Shatbhi Basu, was formed. The voters were asked to nominate 10 to 15 bars.
The mother list had 450 bars across 15 cities including Delhi NCR, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Kolkata, Shillong, Darjeeling, Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kochi. “We had some interesting surprises in Pondicherry, Darjeeling, Guwahati and Bhopal.” The core team further narrowed down the list to 136. They were absorbed into a larger jury of 200 members for the final voting process.
In the next step, the bars were divided into 35 nominees from North, South and West regions and about 20 in the East. “We didn’t want it to be a process where four people in a room were doling out judgements.”
Achanta, who is an official voter for Asia’s 50 Best Bar, created a similar online platform wherein a user after logging in could vote for a bar at, both, national and regional categories. “From 450 to 136, we had room for subjective input but after that, choosing the final 30 was a one-vote tabulation,” says Achanta.
The voters were given precise criteria for each category and were asked to evaluate the quality and variety of cocktails on offer, curation of the wines, beer and cocktail menu, design of the bar and service standards. For Best Microbrewery, the criteria included quality and variety of beer served, knowledge levels of the staff, quality of drinks service and environment. For the Best Cocktail Menu, the criteria included the ability to recognise new international trends and setting new trends in India.
Each jury member voted in the following eight categories: Best Bar, Best Hotel Bar, Best Independent Bar, Best Microbrewery/Taproom, Best Cocktail Menu, Best Bar Design, Best Bar Team and Best Bartender.
The ranking also featured two People Choice Awards for the
Best Bar and Best Microbrewery/ Taproom, based on open online polling of bar users from across the country. Additionally, two nominated awards in the category of Best Vintage Bar and an Industry Legend Award were presented during the main ceremony. LuxeBook speaks to the winners:
Industry legend award recipient Shatbhi Basu
This award category got the loudest cheer as much-loved Shatbhi Basu received the award for being the industry legend. The first woman bartender in India, now in her 50s, got into bartending while she was assigned with an added duty of a restaurant supervisor in the 90s. “I’m committed to continuing this journey, learning and sharing constantly to elevate bartending in India to the best standards. Definitely not resting on my laurels!” she tells us. She jokes, “Being called a legend is, I guess, a reminder of how long I’ve been around. It’s an acknowledgement of my love for the profession and contribution to bringing awareness of the skill and knowledge bartending brings to the table.”
Basu says that internationally there have been lists of Best Bars and it was high time India got one. It gives an impetus to, both, bar owners and bar teams to innovate and excel at what they do. “It will get the rest of the world to take us more seriously and hopefully, put us on the global map,” she says, adding, “I have so much more to do and a lot more to achieve. They’ll just have to give me another award in ten years!”
No# 2 and Best Bar Team: The Bombay Canteen
The second place on the list was taken by Mumbai’s The Bombay Canteen, which is known for pushing the envelope under chef Thomas Zacharias’ leadership. The Bombay Canteen also won the Best Bar team award, which Co-Owner Yash Bhanage says is a prestigious feather in their cap. “When a team is applauded for its work, it creates a positive culture. Our training programme is intense, which looks at service from the moment a customer walks into until he/she leaves. How do we make the experience more approachable and hassle-free? When we introduce drinks to our customers, we tell our staff not to mention the ingredients, that they can read on the menu. Our tea, tells them the back story,” Bhanage explains. When the restaurant started, they introduced a cocktail programme that focused on creating classic cocktails. “If we were doing a whisky sour, we made sure we perfected it with egg white.
And then the genesis happened, and we began to tweak our drinks, add Indian ingredients where possible. We make a mix of pineapple and starfruit juice, which makes for great flavours. We use souring agents such as kokum and tamarind, but as long as it does justice to the final taste,” says Beverage Manager, Raghu Raghav. His bar uses unique techniques such as clarifying milk, fat washing, and is equipped with a banta machine to create tonics. Even a version of Vermouth Rosso is made using pomegranate molasses, plums, Indian port wine and spices. “We didn’t expect to win but we are glad it happened. We focus on providing our guests with a sense of warmth. And while places get categorised into cafes, restaurants and bars, we are interested in building comfortable spaces. The victory will be celebrated, but I always tell the team, we are as good as the last cocktail we served!,” says Bhanage.
Top cocktails at The Bombay Canteen
1. Green Fields comes with gin, jasmine and green tea syrup, starfruit juice, lime, egg white
2. Dark Monsoon is a concoction of Old Monk rum, honey ginger syrup, ginger ale, star-fruit juice and angostura bitters.
3. Pinjra has gin, thyme and citrus-infused dry vermouth, house lime cordial and blue pea syrup
No #1 Sidecar and No #3 Cocktails & Dreams – Speakeasy
At first and third ranks are mixologists Yangdup Lama and Minakshi Singh’s much deserved Sidecar (Delhi) and Cocktails & Dreams – Speakeasy (Gurgaon) respectively. When Cocktails & Dreams – Speakeasy opened in Sector 15 of Gurgaon in 2012, it received much criticism for opening in a “dead” place. In a chat with LuxeBook from his native town Darjeeling, Lama says, “I started my career as a bartender 25 years ago. So, when I was setting up my place, the focus was on great cocktails. A bar is truly a place where one can walk in without thinking of what he is wearing. You are not there to impress anyone or check people out. You are here to unwind after a hard day’s work at the office or to chat with a bartender or to enjoy the music.” Lama add, in one corner there will be a person drowning his sorrows and at the other, a group of friends would be celebrating something. “Our idea was to create a place that attracted people from all walks of life and in different moods. When the vibe is right, the cocktails, even beer for that matter, will taste great,” he says, laughs.
At Sidecar, the entire beverage programme focuses on artisanal cocktails with homemade bitters, liqueurs and flavours. “We even make our own vermouth, cordials and purees,” says Lama. We have replaced sugar with palm sugar and dates. When a bar is owned by a bartender, the experience of the place is enhanced. “As I have worked behind the bar, I know what a great investment; an ice machine, for instance, is. Since my focus as head of the family is clear, it trickles down to the team. I tell my boys, enjoy the journey, love the cocktails you are making. Do it for love,” he says. While his partner Singh leads from the front, Lama keeps an eye on his boys to ensure that the bar runs smoothly.
The duo is aware that this win comes with great responsibility. “It is like being Virat Kohli. No matter the pitch, everyone wants him to score 100. Now, the expectation has gone up, and being the best bar in the country, the journey will get tougher,” says Lama, who is happy to see Asia do well on the global map. At the Global World Class competition held in Glasgow, among 54 countries, five out of the top eight winners were from Asia. “India still needs to make its mark. We need focussed owners who want to make amazing cocktails and not just do good business,” he says.
Top drinks at Sidecar
1. Aunt Emily has a gin or vodka base with homemade dry cranberry puree, elderflower cordial, and lime
2. Gin Thing has Gin, homemade hibiscus cordial, lime, rhubarb bitters, pink grapefruit squeeze and tonic over ice
3. Yang’s old fashioned has bourbon infused with betel nut, date and maple cordial and orange bitters served over ice.
Top three drinks at C&D
1. Fog Horn is originally a mix of gin and ginger ale, a high-ball style drink, it is served as a tall Collins with vodka, gingerbread syrup, ginger juice, lime and ginger ale built over ice
2. Whiskey Sour, the classic style
3. Aviation: Originally invented by Hugo Ensilin, the head bartender of Wallick in New York, the recipe is a mix of cherry infused vodka and violet liqueur with the citrus balance of lime, shaken and served on crushed ice