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India is now turning out the world’s best bartenders

I am sure that most of you have heard of Ranveer Brar, Kunal Kapoor, Ritu Dalmia, Manu Chandra and Hussain Shahzad.

So, here’s my question. Have you heard of Yangdup Lama? My guess is that most of you have not.



And that is a real shame.


   Lama is, by a long way, India’s best bartender, the acknowledged master of his field. Young bartenders worship him and long to learn from him. He is so well-regarded internationally that Sidecar, his Delhi bar, came in at number 16 on the list of Asia’s Best Bars, the only Indian bar on the list. To put that in perspective, the only Indian restaurant that has ever done as well on the companion list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is Indian Accent.


   And yet Lama has nothing like the fame of Manish Mehrotra. Why should this be so?


   I think all of us who write or post about food and drink should plead guilty. We spend a lot of time glorifying chefs (often with justification), but we forget that these days, bartenders are what hot chefs were to the last decade. And while there are many well-known and much-feted bartenders in the West, there are very few bars (let alone bartenders) in India (unlike say Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok) that are nationally famous.


   I know a little bit more about Yangdup than most food writers because he and I have been colleagues on the World Class judging panel for some years now and have travelled together for the competition.


   World Class, in case you are not familiar with it, is a global bartending competition organised each year by Diageo, the drinks giant. It is mildly skewed towards Diageo’s commercial interests, in the sense that bartenders are encouraged to use spirits within the Diageo portfolio. That’s pretty much all that Diageo asks of the bartenders and in return, it spends millions on training them, polishing their skills and giving them the opportunity to compete at the global final.


   The other thing that Diageo does is to get people like myself to judge the final round of the Indian competition. This year the judges were celebrity bartender Shatbhi Basu and hotelier Kapil Chopra along with Lama and myself. In previous years, judges have included Chef Kelvin Cheung, restaurateurs Ashish Kapoor, Sameer Seth and others from the food business.


   To Diageo’s credit, it has continued to support bars during the pandemic, when many were shut for long stretches. Diageo’s Shweta Jain got me to judge World Class and I asked her why they kept the competition going during this terrible phase.


   “The last year has been extraordinarily challenging for all parts of the hospitality industry,” she said. “But we’ve been determined to shine a light on the innovation, creativity and community spirit within the bartending community and crown a winner no matter what. And the World Class India finals were a great platform to do just that!”


  "One reason why Lama’s Sidecar does so well with the global drinks community is because it focuses on the drinks and does not take refuge in dim lighting or loud music."

   And indeed the competition has become the biggest deal within the bartending community and in the years that I have been involved as a judge I have not only learnt a lot about spirits (thanks to such teachers as Lama), but have also come to respect the bartending community. It is filled with bright young men and women, who not only make international quality cocktails, but have often emerged from small towns and disadvantaged backgrounds to become bartenders at the best bars in India.


   So, what are the best bars? Well, new bars seem to open every week in India. But many of them are places where the lighting is grimly dim and the music is deafening. They are places where conversation is impossible, where you can’t see what you are drinking and where the bartenders are chosen for their showmanship rather than their skills at mixing drinks. A juggler who mixes drinks on the side does better than a guy who makes great cocktails. If a bartender can set fire to the spirit inside fifteen glasses lined up at the bar without singeing his own beard then he gets paid more money.


   I have nothing against such places. They appeal to people who don’t have much to say to each other anyway and enjoy the spectacle.


   While I am happy for such places to be regarded as the top lounges/entertainment venues/whatever, I don’t take them seriously when I rate bars. The new style ‘bars’ last a couple of years till the crowd moves on to the next hot place.


   One reason why Lama’s Sidecar does so well with the global drinks community is because it focuses on the drinks and does not take refuge in dim lighting or loud music. It emphasises the relationship between customer and bartender (the best seat in the house is a place at the bar counter) and does quietly imaginative things to its cocktails (even the eponymous Sidecar is subtly tweaked) without covering them in clouds of cold smoke or igniting them. (Lama’s partners in Sidecar are Gaurav Jain and Minakshi Singh.)


   Sidecar’s chef bartender Rohan Matmary won this year’s World Class, leaving the three of us judges raving, while the only one who actually gave him a hard time was Lama. (I guess he was overcompensating for the Sidecar connection.) Watching Rohan, you had the sense that if you ever went to a bar alone for a drink, you would want him to be the guy who mixed your cocktail and chatted to you. While Rohan was easily the best of this year’s finalists, the overall standard of the contestants, all of us judges agreed, was staggeringly high.


   I asked Lama why the standard was even better than the previous years and he said that his visits to catering colleges had convinced him that more and more of the brighter students were opting for a career in beverages. They liked the beverage side of the business for many reasons, he said. First of all, it gave them greater personal contact with customers. Secondly, it allowed them to be creative relatively early in their careers. (It can be years till a young chef is allowed to create a dish.) Thirdly, people tend to notice bartenders in a way that they don’t notice say, captains or sous chefs, which made the job more attractive. Fourthly, bartending is a global skill. If you can make an excellent cocktail in Delhi, you can probably make exactly the same thing in New York.


   Then, there is the whole business of ingredients. Chefs find it hard to get the best lamb, chicken, beef or truffles in India. With bartenders, there is no such problem. Diageo made every top spirit available to the World Class contestants and there was no sense in which they were handicapped by a lack of ingredients.


   Which leads us back to where we started. Since there is so much talent in the field, going by the World Classes I have judged, where will these guys all find jobs? Will they also end up having to set fire to 15 glasses in a darkened bar?


   Well, fortunately many standalone restaurants are recognising the importance of having good bar sections. At World Classes over the years, I have judged excellent bartenders from such restaurants as Comorin, O Pedro, The Bombay Canteen and a surprisingly large number of places in Goa. Many standalone bars are also coming up all over the country and while they are not yet in the Sidecar league, I am sure they will get there.


   And perhaps in a couple of years, if I am still judging World Class, I will be able to report to you that India is now turning out the world’s best bartenders: men and women you enjoy chatting to as they make you world class cocktails!



Posted On: 19 Jun 2021 11:00 AM
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