India is a country that has prioritised food over the drink. Drinking was long considered taboo and the law conspired with traditional norms for a healthy pub culture to flourish. However, in the last 15 years India has seen a massive change in the food and beverage industry. Not only has the mindset of the consumer changed – a drink or two after work is completely kosher – every major liquor brand feels that its biggest growth potential is in India.
When I started bartending about 17 years ago, if you wanted a drink, you had to head to a bar in a hotel and relish a few straights in the company of a few drunken sods with channel music in the background. India’s economic growth changed it all. Today, standalone bars serve better quality drinks, with excellent service and unique concepts, and are giving hotel bars a run for their money.
Over time, Indian cities have developed a distinctive reputation vis-à-vis alcohol. North India – especially Delhi and the surrounding cities – loves dark spirits especially when accompanied by loud music. Bangalore gained a reputation as being the pub capital of the country as several bars that served beer on tap became hangout spots in the city. Mumbai pioneered night clubs and jazz bars, while Kolkata had the unique privilege of being the only city where clubbing started after midnight.
Sadly, the authorities have always played party pooper. Many pubs in Bangalore have shut down, and almost every city in the country now has stipulated hours beyond which pubs can’t remain open. It is to the credit and resilience of bar owners that they have continued to thrive and innovated with concept and style when it comes to bars.
Apart from the major metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, tier two cities like Pune, Chandigarh and Jaipur have seen the emergence of many bars in the last ten years. This is likely to continue. In the last two years interesting concepts have emerged and with the opening of the Gin Bar (gin has never been on the top list of preferred drinks by Indians) in Mumbai last year, three Speakeasies in Delhi NCR region and the Monkey Bar in Bangalore, developing a unique bar concept is the trend.
Some concepts are now passé: ‘Ladies Night’ and ‘Happy Hours’ was a concept in many discotheques on Wednesdays and week days to increase footfalls by offering free drinks to ladies and getting more men to come in and spend on drinks. Today, bars that don’t do well offer these freebies. Today’s consumer doesn’t need to be bribed into buying a drink. He knows what he wants and he is happy to pay for it. Women too walk into bars with confidence – unless they are entirely seedy. I have seen the switch of consumers from drinking at home to walking straight to their favorite drinking holes after a long day at work.
Smart Consumer ‘Quality over Quantity“: We all like our drinks, and we all like it right. Although bars have emerged in the last many years, the prices of drinks are over the top. We pay a bomb for a drink that is sometimes so awful to taste and even a simple drink like a hi-ball (eg whisky with soda) does not have the right proportions. Consumers expect good quality drinks, served right, and well balanced.
With travel being an integral part of modern lifestyle, the consumer’s exposure to international standards of beverage experience has made him/her more aware of what and how s/he wants her/his drinks. A good drinking experience is not just about how much you pour in a glass, it is about the right mix and how complete the bar is with concept, music, décor, and service. And most importantly, it is about the price (not necessarily cheap). A good ambience with great music (live or recorded) is an essential element to a good bar experience. In the last three years, Hauz Khas village in south Delhi has seen a mushrooming of bars, pubs, eateries and cafes with great concepts and décor in a small radius of half a kilometer. But it is still lacking in good service and price points.
Unique Concepts: It is the concept that sets the signature for a bar and makes it different from the others. Bars like Blue Frog (Mumbai), PCO (Delhi), Monkey Bar (Bangalore) and Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy (Gurgaon) have shown the way. While Blue Frog has made live music as its USP, PCO and Cocktails & Dreams have used the prohibition era in America (Cocktails as USP) to innovate with both food and alcohol. Monkey Bar on the other hand, is a neighborhood tavern with drinks, quality and no compromise on food and service.
Location: Nothing can beat the location of Striker (Gurgaon). This place is all about beer and good music (live at times) and has strongly appealed to the corporate consumer from Gurgaon. Many brewpubs have emerged in Gurgaon, Pune and Bangalore, but only a handful provide the true experience of fine and fresh beer. There is hardly any variety in most brewpubs and those that focus completely on their beer are here to stay. Beyond the fine offering of beer, the brewery could purely work on various food concepts based on the beer styles. Good concepts are a combination of well thought beverage delivery with the right décor and service.
If you promise to deliver the finest of experiences to the customer in the present bar scenario you have an edge over the rest. Getting the bar concept right is an idea whose time has come. More bartender-oriented bars with cocktail-centric beverage experiences are the trend. Food and beverage pairing may not be the call of the hour, but good beverage (beer, cocktail or spirits) combined with a good food in the offing certainly is. Price points being the differentiator.
About the Author:
Yangdup Lama is a Mixologist and Owner of Cocktails & Dreams/Thirsty Three Hospitality.