A View from the city: Delhi

Hamish Smith speaks to Yangdup Lama, Partner and Mixologist at Cocktails and Dreams Speakeasy


Tell us a little about Delhi’s alcohol tradition.

Delhi and North India has always been a dark spirit market and whisky is the most sought after spirit. For the longest time people drank a mix of traditional Indian whisky made from 50% molasses and 50% grain. India is a densely populated country and there is huge consumption of spirits. The nature of alcohol tradition here in Delhi was nascent until about 15 years ago. Alcohol was taboo to most and considered a bad man’s habit. To be honest a matrimonial ad for a groom would read ‘no alcohol’ among many other criteria to qualify. Hence I would say this was an unexposed alcohol market until a few years ago, but things are changing fast and we are catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to alcohol tradition.

How does Delhi differ to other parts of India or Asia?

The biggest difference is the non-availability of a lot of international brands. High duty and unfriendly alcohol laws make it difficult for a lot of importers. Quality spirits are steeply priced. Drinking out is also very expensive as per Indian standards because of excise laws and taxes. We are still far behind cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo when it comes to quality bars and bar culture. There is still a lot of confusion among promoters as to defining offerings based on a bar, lounge or a night club. Within India Delhi does fare quite well in terms of the bar scene.

Who and what are the pioneer bars and bartenders in Delhi?

Some of the prominent bars in Delhi are Rick’s at the Taj Mahal hotel, Blue Bar at the Taj Palace hotel followed by the newly opened Grappa at the Shangri-La hotel. Apart from hotel bars there are a few good standalone bars such as PCO (a speakeasy), Perch, Ata Maison (a members-only club), Ek Bar (Indian style bar) and Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy. These are bars that do justice to cocktails and offer a good experience to customers at a certain standard. As regards prominent bartenders there are a few that I should be mentioning – Gaurav Dhyani from Grappa, Chong Sherpa and Vicky Thakur from PCO, Ani Sharma from Perch, Rahul Chettri from A ta Maison and Prajwal Rai from Cocktails & Dreams.

What are your favourite bars in Delhi?

I love PCO, Perch and Rick’s.

Where does Delhi look to for inspiration? Do you see an Indian style of bartending emerging?

Delhi mostly seems to be looking towards London and New York (mostly London). A lot of inspiration is coming from bartenders and bars based out of these two cities. Style, innovation and trends from these cities seem to be catching up with bars and bartenders here in a big way.

The Indian style of bartending will take a few more years to emerge although some bars and bartenders have tried this concept already, but I guess this will need a little bit more maturation in the area of bartending. We are still in the development stage when it comes to sensible bartending.

Where do you think Delhi ranks in terms of bar scenes in India?

Delhi certainly ranks as the number one city for bars and bartending in India and lives up to its expectation as the capital city of the country. But we are still far from international standards. We should be there in a few years.

What are the challenges for bartenders going forward?

Here in Delhi the biggest challenge would be to be able to work at a good bar that promotes quality bartending and great customer experience. Only about 5% of bars believe in this. Secondly the challenge is about availability of brands which would lead to exposure to play around with a wide range of spirits and liqueurs.