Raising the bar this April with 4 mixologists who are redefining Indian cocktail culture

In conversation with Shatbhi Basu, Varun Sudhakar, Arati Mestry and Yangdup Lama on pushing the boundaries of Indian Mixology

Update: 2024-04-05 07:52 GMT

It was George Ade, an American writer and columnist who once quipped, ‘a cocktail is a pleasant drink. When you’ve had one, you call for two, and then you don’t care what you do’. If you too are all about seizing those happy hour vibes, you're probably smiling the smile of agreement right now—trust me, I'm right there with you! And let's be real, while a single sip of alcohol can stir up a story or two, cocktails with their fruity flair and boozy bravado, are the wildcards at any occasion.

I'm sure you've already got your go-to bars and signature drinks lined up for happy hour. Whether you're all about the classic charm of an old fashioned or crave the mesmerising magic of a colour-changing sunset margarita, one thing's for sure: Indian mixology is stepping up its game, offering a refined experience to all those who venture at its doorstep! Indian mixology proudly flaunts its rich heritage and isn't afraid to spice things up! And that, my friends, is what this feature is all about: how Indian mixology is shaking, stirring, and straight-up revolutionising cocktail culture! While we've got a legion of skilled mixologists to thank for putting Indian cocktails on the map, we've reached out to four trailblazing Indian mixologists who've played a pivotal role in elevating the scene to where it is today. Discover how they keep the creativity flowing, hear their inspirational tales, and get a sneak peek at the drinks they swear by!

Edited excerpts from the interviews.

Shatbhi Basu
Shatbhi Basu is considered to be India’s first female bartender, beginning her career in a time when even men tending the bar was a rare sight. And what’s even fascinating about her story is that mixology is something that came to her by chance. Wanting to forge a career as a chef, just a couple of days into the job, she was tasked with manning the bar, armed with little knowledge and even fewer equipment. ‘The biggest challenges I faced back then were lack of serious information on the techniques of bartending, restricted ingredients and equipment to work with. There was no one I could talk to or ask for assistance and so books were my best friends and teachers. They helped me to understand the bottles I saw on the bar shelves and taught me how to use them the right way. My mom and aunt gave me a very good book on bartending which became my bible as I navigated my way around mixology while also learning from those who sipped from the glasses I filled’ she says. With over 40 years of experience, watching Indian mixology shift, change and grow in real time Basu has seen it all. ‘Consumers crave both change and familiarity, often seeking to bring back what they experience when travelling. Today's bartenders can easily connect with peers worldwide through the Internet, fostering closer relationships with brands and sparking fresh ideas. This dynamic interplay contributes to evolving taste profiles and trends, leading to a resurgence of old classics and a quest to rediscover old techniques and flavours. It's a natural evolution driven by evolving palates and the bartender's creativity’ she said, talking about the ongoing trends in mixology. ‘After many years of relying on the west and taking from them, today’s bartenders are realising what a vast range of ingredients we have at home, at our own disposal. Not only that but every state , every small region within these states has something unique to offer. We draw inspiration from everything that we see around us. From the aromas that we remember to the flavours that we grew up with. I draw inspiration from elements of individual local cuisines and incorporate them into my drinks, creating cocktails that speak of our heritage,’ said Basu, shedding some light on how Indian ingredients are rapidly becoming the forefront of mixology, owing to their variety and uniqueness.

After all this, we just couldn’t end the conversation without asking her what her favourite drink was. ‘This is difficult as my favourites keep switching each time I create something new! Also, I tend to keep it simple, often going with a glass of wine or whisky. I could say that I like a really good whiskey sour and a margarita too. Or the simplest martinis. But let me share a drink that I like a lot, the Drunken Archer, inspired by Robin Hood!’

Drunken Archer
Glass: Martini
60ml vodka
15ml Archer’s peach schnapps/10ml peach syrup
1/2 teaspoon Campari
Garnish: 2 whole almonds
Chill the glass
Fill shaker with ice and pour vodka and peach schnapps/syrup over the ice and shake well
Drizzle the Campari around the chilled glass and strain the drink into the Campari rinsed glass
Drop in the almonds and sip

Varun Sudhakar
Varun Sudhakar stepped into the beverage industry after completing his graduation at the Institute of Hotel Management, Kerala and quickly went on to become the two-time winner of the national Diageo Reserve World Class Competition while also championing the title of ‘India’s Best Bartender 2013-2014’. Coming to more recent times he was also awarded the Teacher’s Glasses Best Bartender in India for 2019. Founder of Bar Bundle, an agency offering exclusive bar and beverage services and consultations, We started our conversation with Varun by asking him how the cocktail culture in India has progressed so far. ‘I would like to mention the positive changes that have occurred in the Indian bartending industry in the last five years, especially post-pandemic’ he began. ‘We are very progressive and competitive in the craft, on par with any global stage. The bar rating systems and bodies have given the option to invest in talent and bars. The value of bartenders (financially) has increased positively, and it has become a skilled job that is much more reputed’. With multiple feathers in his cap, it is no secret that Varun Sudhakar has a penchant for raising the bar by constantly working on improving the standards of bartending in India. ‘I think from a consultant’s point of view, we should be looking at every project with the same level of enthusiasm and inculcate what defines a great bar, while at the same time considering the requirements of the client and sharing your true opinion. On a personal front, I would say asking for help and observing the current trends are very much needed to foster growth and innovation within the community.’

While on the topic of raising the bar and distinguishing how Indian mixology is holding its own on a global level, we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to dig a little deeper and ask how he manages to strike the balance between preserving traditional Indian flavours and incorporating global trends and innovations. ‘This is the simplest thing because we are born and brought up amidst an abundance of flavours in our day-to-day life. For example, think of mezcal washed with a little ghee and balanced with a bit of tamarind and sugar cane juice and carbonated to blizz “ – I think the last line will make sense to a bartender but the general idea still remains that working with ingredients that we’ve grown up tasting, using and enjoy has never been easier’. At the end of it all, Sudhakar left us with a recipe for the perfect negroni (or at least the way he likes to sip it) satting that it was his favourite drink to make and sip and anyone can make this one if given a little attention.

It’s an equal amount of Campari, a good sweet vermouth and a good London dry gin mixed to perfection and sprayed with an orange zest (I prefer a 20:20:20 ratio, it’s a personal preference).

Arati Mestry
Starting her journey in bartending through a spur-of-the-moment competition, Arati Mestry has made a name for herself in the beverage industry on the basis of her expertise. Having worked for many well known luxury hotels and restaurants—Planet Hollywood Beach Resort, Goa; Elephant & Co. Pune; Seven Rivers Brewing Co, Taj Group Bangalore, just to name a few—Arati has always propagated the cause of inclusivity at the bar. Emphasising the importance of LGBTQ+ representation across various roles in the workforce, she states,’ while many companies do contribute during pride month, LGBTQ+ representation across various roles in the workforce is low, notably at senior levels and the reason being there are no inclusion policies when you join a company. Therefore, many still feel like they are the “only” one at work and sometimes might still feel unsafe to openly talk about themselves or open up, as there is always an assumption of their personal lives. The LGBTQ+ members might be amazing at their work and even thriving but still continue to face unspoken challenges and barriers’. In order to mitigate the situation as well, we asked her what, according to her, are some steps establishments should take in order to uphold inclusivity in the workspace. ‘ Establishments should exercise a certain level of transparency by mentioning their policies while recruiting itself. Using the language of inclusion, like being mindful of the pronouns a person might prefer or even issuing business cards mentioned with pronouns/ can go a long way at making members of the community feel safe and included. Arrange for support programs or training that will help in improving the culture in the company and improve employee engagement and focus on clear communication and feedback followed by synergistic actions. Having an ally at the workplace that a person can trust and believe in can also go a long way.’

As a person who rose through the ranks on the foundation of skills alone, Arati had a few pearls of wisdom to share with aspiring individuals. ‘Be the change you wish to see, give the best of yourself no matter what the task at hand is. The attitude you carry is contagious and inspiring so be yourself and be proud of who you are.’

Arati prefers sipping on a perfectly made negroni and likes making variations of it as well. But one drink that truly stands out for her is a Kumquat May.

Kumquat May
30ml Hapusa Himalayan Dry Gin
25ml sweet vermouth
30ml kumquat infused campari
5ml house made cold brew

Stir all together in a mixing glass full of ice.
Garnish it with sliced Kumquat (used for infusing) along with a thin slice of a chocolate.

Yangdup Lama
Yangdup Lama has been in the profession of mixology and bartending for over 25 years now. And through the course of his career, his skill and expertise has won him a position in the 2020 Drinks International’s Bar World 100 list of most influential people. Founder of Sidecar—which ranked at number 18 on Asia's 50 Best Bars 2023—we were more than eager to find out the beginnings of such a refined mixologist (or bartender, as he would like to call himself). ‘I have always said that I am an accidental bartender. My career choice as a bartender came more from the fact that my first assignment as a hotelier was to work at the bar, not bartending but the bar space.After a few months of observing how much fun making cocktails was, I seriously wanted to pursue the idea of tending the bar. If I have to mention inspiration then I must say the bar was the best space to work back in 1996 as compared to other food and beverage outlets.’ For a man who began bartending in the 1990s, Lama is one among few who has witnessed the growth of Indian mixology and actively participated in the scene through his establishments, which continue to flourish and offer exquisite service and cocktails to its customers. ‘The challenges in the business are manifold, but the toughest hurdle was and still remains that it is a dark industry with too many departments to deal with before being able to start operations. This business isn’t funded by banks and hence requires one to have the capital in hand or seek investors who understand the risks involved. Then comes the delivery of the product and the challenge here is defining what this product means. While we may have a price tag for food and drinks, the product is not limited to just that. Everything that we see or hear or consume becomes a product and the biggest challenge is to be able to deliver this with absolute consistency every single day. And in order to overcome these challenges, the strategies are simple. One should purely invest in the people, because this is a people's business. Creating a fantastic team, keeping them motivated and inspiring them as we progress is the best strategy one could adopt in this ever demanding and evolving space. This is strictly followed by one's own passion and perseverance. The fact that I come from a bartending background helps to keep the product well defined and relevant to the present times’.

When we asked Lama, what was one drink that he preferred to make and sip on after a long hard day, he said, ’my favourite drink is a Manhattan straight-up, I love to drink it myself and make it for my guests as well, of course with a little twist of my own!’

60ml bourbon
5ml campari
10ml maraschino cherry brine
3 drops aromatic bitters 

Stir it with lots of ice and serve straight. Garnished with cherry and orange oils.


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