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Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: India’s bar boom



People who like beverages are, in the F&B industry at least, divided into two broad categories. There are the wine drinkers. And there are the spirits drinkers. (And beer is a separate universe by itself.)

Within the spirits category, the fastest growing subgroup may well be cocktails. Yes, Indians like such spirits as whisky. An older demographic likes single malts, but blends are more popular. Trendies like such white spirits as gin and vodka.

The best thing about spirits is that you can drink them at home (rather than at restaurants) at a much lower cost, with no great drop in the quality of the experience. A measure of Lagavulin or Singleton will taste the same no matter whether you drink it in a fancy bar or in your living room. Given that bars can be pricey, many people do their drinking at home – especially now, because premium spirits are easy to buy in retail shops or in the duty-free sector.

So it is with the wine trade, globally. There is no difference in the taste of say, a First Growth Bordeaux drunk at home or at a restaurant. And it is much cheaper at home without the huge restaurant mark-ups.

This is less of an issue for wine drinkers abroad because a) most people in the West will order a bottle of wine – even if it is marked up – when they go out for dinner and b) at top restaurants, sommeliers pride themselves on creating wine lists that offer unusual or even hard-to-find bottles.

In India, with a handful of importers flogging the same bottles to every restaurant, the wine lists have a bland sameness with few rarities or bargains. The sommeliers don’t do much more than open the bottles. And anyway, Indians don’t feel the need to have wine with their meals.
One key component of a restaurant experience that no one can compromise on is the bar
The only advantage that restaurants once had was availability: wine was hard to find in the local retail sector. But with the opening of such good wine shops as Madhulika Dhall’s La Cave in Delhi and Bengaluru, you don’t need to go to a hotel to find good wine.

So, can you do all your drinking at home? Is there anything you need to go out for?

Yes. There is.

A good cocktail.

Even if you are a cocktail buff and keep mixers etc. at home, there will be only a handful of cocktails you can make in your own bar: say, a Bloody Mary, if you have Worcestershire sauce and perhaps, celery salt at home. A martini if you have the right kind of vermouth in your drinks cabinet. Even basic cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Cosmopolitan are rarely made well at home. People nearly always go out to drink them.

There is a clear parallel with food. We can all make black dal at home. But it will never be Dal Bukhara unless we go out to eat it. We can’t really make tandoori chicken at home because few of us have our own tandoors. It is a restaurant dish. A homemade dosa has its own charm but if you want one of these crisp, thin paper dosas, you have to go to a pro who knows how to make them.

So it is with drinks. It is easy enough to drink vodka or whisky at home. But if you want a great cocktail, you have to go out. These days, it is about the only drinking experience that you can’t replicate at home.

Savvy restaurateurs have realised this. I went, a fortnight ago, to a pre-opening party for Priyank Sukhija’s Dragonfly in Delhi’s Aerocity. Priyank is pretty much the king of the Delhi restaurant scene but, as he has gone more upmarket, he has decided that the best way to do it is to predicate the expansion on cocktails. Many of his newer places will have ambitious food menus but the stars of the show will always be the cocktails.

At Dragonfly, a celebrity bartender who has worked in some of London’s best bars has created a long and inventive cocktail menu and the night I went, all anybody could talk about were the cocktails.

It’s the same with Zorawar Kalra. After having established his group with fun, high-quality Indian food (Masala Library, Farzi Café etc.) Zorawar has lately focussed on cocktail-based concepts like Bo-Tai and Tyger. There is lots of food but it is the bar element that draws the crowds.

All this makes bartenders the key to the current restaurant/bar boom. But here’s the funny thing. Not enough people give them the recognition they deserve. If I asked you to name five top Indian chefs, you would have no difficulty. But if I asked you to name five top Indian bartenders, you would struggle to come up with even three names.

And yet, bartenders can be as important as chefs to the success of one of today’s bar-restaurants. The people who run the restaurants know this but somehow, they are never particularly keen to give their bar people a high public profile.

I realised this last week when I was one of the judges for the World Class cocktail competition. World Class is a global Diageo property and has a glamorous final event every year. (Last year was Berlin. This September it will be Glasgow.) Each country sends representatives who are chosen after intense scrutiny to compete with bar champions from other countries. (It is the Miss World of bartending.)

When Surabhi Negi of Diageo asked me to join this year’s judging panel, I pointed out that though I knew a bit about spirits (after years of writing about them and making TV shows), my real interest was wine. Was I qualified to judge cocktails?

She said not to worry and when I arrived for the Mumbai Regional final, I was relieved to see that the jury included two drinks experts, a legendary Indian bar guru, a great restaurateur and a top chef. So we had a perfect balance when it came to judging the 50 contenders.

Unlike many other people, I judge bartenders by the quality of their cocktails. I don’t mind a bit of drama in the presentation. But I am not impressed by jugglers masquerading as barmen and if a guy wants to fill the room with flames while making his cocktail, I treat him with scepticism until I actually taste the cocktail. (And then, usually, I realise why I was right to be sceptical…)

I take an old-fashioned view of bartenders. They need not call themselves mixologists (silly, pretentious word: do chefs call themselves ‘cookologists’?). They should have enough personality to hold up the bar and engage with guests but they needn’t be stand-up comedians. And their drinks must either be excellently made versions of classics or should show signs of genuine innovation.

But even with these preconceptions, I have to say that I was stunned by the high quality of the cocktails that the World Class contestants produced. It wasn’t just the final taste of the drinks. It was the imagination and the effort they demonstrated in thinking of all the things that went into the cocktails.

One guy made his own sandalwood bitters. You could use them as a cocktail component or you could just add them to a small (25 ml) measure of Johnnie Walker Black (with a cube of ice) and be startled by how they made the whisky come alive. Another extracted an edible magenta colour from a flower. A third took the smokey flavour of Lagavulin and built a brilliant cocktail around it.

I can’t name any of them because we have a Delhi semi-final to go (which should be over by the time you read this) and then an All India final in the third week of June. So all our marking is top secret.

Obviously Diageo hopes that one of these Indian bartenders will make it to the top five at the global World Class. And perhaps they will.

But that, for me, is not the most important part of the exercise. Over the last couple of years I have come to the conclusion that India has its own rules. For instance, it will never be the next China when it come to fine wine.

As for food, there will always be space for good restaurants but younger Indians are now going out for the experience and not the food. Give them kebabs, sushi rolls, dim sum, pizzas or whatever, and they will be more than happy.

There is just one key component of the experience that nobody can compromise on: the bar.

So, like it or not, by accident or by design, we are headed to a situation where India’s top bartenders will be as important as India’s top chefs.

So let’s give these guys the recognition they deserve.

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