Indian Bartending - The Past, The Present, The Future
India, once a part of the Commonwealth, has a long history with drinks. There has been references to alcoholic beverages of different kinds in ancient vedic texts. In many parts of the country local communities have brewed or distilled different kinds of alcohols since a millennia or more. Much of its modern social drinking practices are in part derived from the traditions of its armed forces. Some of the earliest bars in the country came up in posh member clubs known as “Gymkhana’s” which served as social meeting places for members of the polity, bureaucracy and the elite of Indian society and have been around since pre-independence. Service in such places is personalized and exclusisve. The role of the bartender was, and still is, hidden.
The Formative Years
India’s economy was opened up to private enterprise and foreign investments in 1991. This led to many international food & beverage chains to enter the market. Along with this came the big hotel chains. And then in 2001 the government liberalized the imports of alcoholic beverages into the country, further leading to a growth for the industry.
In the early 2000s bartenders were just another part of the service team whose core job was to dispense drinks, usually straight or beers. They were usually working in Hotel bars because only the Hotel bars would be able to hire a bartender, most standalones had an open bar and the service team would help themselves to dispense drinks.
Over the years, India has seen an enormous change in the bartending sector. From alcohol being considered untouchable due to religious barriers and being perceived as a taboo in society to being a $52 Bn industry growing at an average rate of nearly 7 % (CAGR) every year, India seems to have seen it all. With this growth, the need of bartending was much needed and it came in with time as expected.
Slowly the cocktail culture took off around the mid 2000’s with consumers travelling abroad and blending themselves in the cocktail cultures of places like Europe and America. With cocktails, they also realized how important was the bartender behind the bar. Today with an emerging and energetic bar culture in India, the consumer here is looking for something more than just drinks. He is looking for a great experience, an experience which will improvise with the test of time and also keep inviting him to the bar again. India is growing towards this and a lot of bars are being recognized as the best there is in India to offer. Bartenders and restaurateurs are constantly working upon crafting great experiences in terms of food & beverage along with décor and ambience.
In parallel, the same growth trajectory can be said to hold true for bartenders. They saw how mature cocktail markets in Asia respected its bartenders, through awards, competitions etc. Add to that an increasing number of our bartenders who are now leading top bar programmes in different parts of the world and also local talent going around Asia to bartend and who have taken on the challenge fairly well and proven to be a great representation for the local community. This increased exposure led to what can be termed as the millennial revolution where the leading bartenders in India in the last one decade have become the beverage managers of top bars in the run up to the next decade. Today, most of the top bars in our market have bar programs headed by millennials who are well travelled and competitive with respect to the global markets. On the other side of the table, bar and beverage brands are doing the most they can in the space of giving exposure to their beverage leads in the right international markets to grasp a better understanding of the business and this learning in turn proves invaluable to their operations in India.
We have been witness to an entire generation of bartenders today who feel very motivated towards working hard to achieve the same with beverage competitions. An increasing number of local bartenders who are quite social media savvy have been able to stay connected to the Asian community at large. Everyone now just gets online and finds the person who they want to speak to. Also, they use platforms Instagram, Facebook & Pinterest to get loads of ideas in place. We have also learnt that a lot of such ideas, which we see online, work only for international markets and it is often difficult to work further on them because of the limited availability of spirits and ingredients. One of the most common example for this is the humble lemon. Funny, right? But the ubiquitous citrus fruit which is a staple in most bars across the world has a limited presence here, primarily because imported raw materials are expensive in the country and secondly because there are a lot of local varieties of lemons available like the Gonghoraj (in West Bengal) or the Kaji Nemu (In Assam) which make it easier to use local than imported goods.
Sustainability and lowering carbon footprint are a call to action that bars here have heeded to. Bartenders in India are now looking deep within the country to discover spices, herbs, fruits etc which the world has not seen. Also considering a lot of young bartenders in India come from small towns and villages, they have a better understanding of local ingredients and they have better access to take the extra step for sourcing local ingredients. Some great examples that have worked here are Cardamom, when macerated in the right amount with a dry vermouth gives amazing results in tweaking your martinis. Wood apple, commonly referred to as Bael in Hindi makes a great shrub, perfect for G&Ts. The betelnut, a popular post meal digestive, pairs well in an old fashioned. These are all local customizations made by bartenders in their own bars to achieve small yet something of significant value on their cocktail menus. This has also helped Indian bartending grow sustainable due to the fact that these ingredients are available locally and avoids extensive carbon footprint in the environment while supporting the local farmer.
Rohan Matmary a.k.a. Rouge Rohan is a bartender turned beverage manager at Sidecar and Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy in India’s capital city. Amicable and sociable, Rohan is a favourite with consumers and the bar fraternity for his style and innovation at work and as a great host. A well known face at many bar competitions of international repute and having won at them, Rohan is one India’s most traveled bartenders and is also someone who is well connected with the international community.