I can still remember going to the The Oberoi, in early 80s with family friends. Alighting from the car, we went towards the restaurant, looking forward to a great weekend meal. As we sipped Campa Cola or Gold Spot in the restaurant, the menfolk would disappear behind another door, to return after 40 minutes or so. They smelt nicer, seemed happier and mentioned names like VAT 69, Passport and Dimple… At that time, none of these registered with me, though I knew that they had partaken of a pleasure only meant for adults.
Over the years, through the 90s and early 2000s, I got familiar with whisky having seen friends and family enjoy it with soda or water, kebabs or curries, in summer and more in winter, at homes or at hotel bars, just by themselves or with friends; each time with equal amount of joy and generosity. Interestingly, it was only and always whisky, the omnipresent signature beverage that we Indians love, enjoy and drink more than all else in the world.
With changing times, traditional restaurant bars - the erstwhile Maikhana's, have given way to glitzy whisky bars offering whisky, but not just whisky… Whisky across singe malts and blends. Younger variants and rare reserves, special blends to private labels, Scotch to Bourbon, Japanese to Irish, the choice is endless. These changing moments have also given rise to higher regard, respect and recognition for whisky as a category and purveyors of this golden nectar, are treating it with more care and responsibility, with a new and more aware set of consumers.
While most good whisky bars are still at hotels, independent bars are opening up across the country. With international awards like Whisky Magazine's Icons of Whisky now awarding Best Whisky Bars in India, an increasing number of bars are now encouraged to serve whisky in a more appropriate, stylish and correct way. A great bar can enable a good whisky to become a grand experience.
So what sets apart a bar serving whisky and a bar serving a fine whisky experience? I have visited over 300 bars, lounges and restaurants in India over time and observed how whisky is positioned and offered. Whilst some of these bars still do 'elbow service' tilting the bottle and just pouring out the liquid. The staff are still at the stage of 'soda, water or ice', possibly neat, whilst some others seem to have moved on. Good bars are training their staff, working with whisky companies to offer new ranges and above all adopting a 'whisky attitude', within the bar. We evaluated these bars on their range, labels, menus, display, ambience, glassware, service style, food menus, training and above all a whisky culture. We understand how whisky plays a key element in the entire beverage plan. Clearly the men stood out from the boys.
Whilst a lot still needs to be achieved, significant progress seems to have been made, over the last few years. Interest in whisky is also going beyond New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. At the Marriott in Pune there is Bar 101 with 101 whiskies, whilst its companion in Chandigarh has Whisky Bar 111, with 111 whiskies, comprising single malt whiskies including Mortlach 1971, Tomintoul 16 Year Old, Glendronach 14 Year Old, Blair Athol 12 Year Old and Deanston. The bar also makes its own unique infusions, blending whisky and other liquors with some exotic ingredients and other flavours selected by the in-house staff.
Mumbai's, Harbour Bar and an icon since 1933, is a great destination and offers whisky lovers a good range, with stylish interiors, muted tones, good cuisine and a vibrant ambience. The Macallan 21 Year Old Private Label beckons a pour while you overlook the Arabian Sea. The food service is polite and offers a range of meats and seafood, whilst doing justice to vegetarians as well.
Across town, The Chambers, at The Taj Landsend was literally a sight for sore eyes. The view from the 25th floor is superb, with an almost 360 degree view of the sea, well appreciated, as you savour a Talisker 25 Year Old in a rock glass. The service is quite extraordinary. For connoisseurs of single malt, The Bar at The Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, offers an extensive selection of whiskies, with the malt ice cubes - a one-of-a-kind offering in Mumbai.
Bombay High is one of the finest whisky bars in India and north Mumbai's favourite whisky destination. The bar has a separate area dedicated to the rare whisky. The staff are knowledgeable and and well trained. Location is quite favourable, since it is surrounded by great cuisine from other fine dining restaurants. Bombay High is a big bar and can house over 100 guests; even then it seems nearly full all the time, with music, whisky and contented punters. The bar builds on ITC Hotels' love for whisky. If you are lucky, you can still enjoy the Glenfiddich 1975 Private Label.
Reflections, at the JW Marriott, Mumbai has, over the years, built a steady whisky range and loyal guest gathering. The Dalmore 40 Year Old and Glenfiddich 50 Year Old can be enjoyed at this spacious and elegantly appointed bar, reflecting upon life and lifestyle.
Kolkata has only a few bars offering a good pour of whisky but Junction is one of the exceptions. The highlight at Junction is the Taj Hotel's Signature Private Reserve. The Macallan 21 Year Old, the hotel's own Private Label, complementing the overall range of 76 whiskies. 'Burning of ice' is also done for the state guests and royals. Importantly enough, clear crystal glassware from Schott Zwiesel is used. Rare whiskies are served in broad base, extra large, old fashioned glasses, to differentiate from the other whiskies and display the elegance of the drink. Frequented by corporate guests, businessmen and high net worth, the visitors also include state guests and royal families. If you hop across to ITC Sonar, the West View is a good bar to enjoy Whisky. It's quiet and yet vibrant.
Awarded as the Best Whisky Bar in India in 2012, by Icons of Whisky, India, The Library Bar, at The Leela Palace, New Delhi gives the feel of an old English lounge where guests can relax in sheer luxury over their favourite whisky and cigar. The bar also showcases a collection of valuable first edition books and antiques. One of the most prized possessions and a connoisseur's delight is The Last Drop 1960 whisky, a 1972 whisky, bottled by hand in 2010. For rare whiskies a whisky tray is set up with diamax glasses, offered to diplomats, corporate and fashion fraternities from around the city.
Though it's named after a Gin Ginny, Rick's, at the Taj Mahal, New Delhi has a strong whisky presence and attitude. The bar offers an impressive range, good glassware and a great selection of cuisine. Awarded as one of the Best Whisky Bars in India, Ricks is quite busy creating new malt trails, whisky offers and hampers. Rare whiskies and premium blends find company from early evening to late at night.
Polo Lounge, at the Hyatt Regency New Delhi accords a fine ambience and a good range including some older variants of Glenfiddich.
Rubicon, in Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon is a warm, friendly and non intrusive whisky bar. Rubicon has the largest collection of whisky in India, with 136 labels including a 50 Year Old, selling at INR 60,000 per dram. The bar is well appointed and spacious. Food is nice and is enjoyed mostly by businessmen and hotel guests. Rubicon also has a very knowledgeable staff.
The Library Bar, Leela Palace, Bengaluru, has a good selection of whiskies and the staff are well versed with the spirit. It offers a selection of over 60 whiskies, including some rare ones. The bar's rich leather seating, impressive wood and a fine array of malts, bring together a 'Palace' experience. The team is enthusiastic and takes pride in its selection. The bar was also accorded the Highly Commended Bar at Icons of Whisky in 2010.
ITC Royal Gardenia's Highland Nectar in Bengaluru, scores high on both ambience and collection. Besides single malts, it also offers some good whisky cocktails. Guests including business heads and lovers of the amber nectar, enjoy food well paired, with Indian dishes capturing the essence of the local flavours. A Whisky Museum ensures that guests see, touch and feel whisky history unfold over centuries.
Across these bars, glassware plays a big role in the whisky offered. ITC Hotels were the first to offer single malts in Glencairn glasses. Over the years, some new glasses have been imported and the Johnnie Walker Blue Label glass is especially nice. It's stylish, heavy bottomed and good quality, though I am yet to see it in too many bars, mostly in homes. The Reidel Glass single malt never picked up in India. Seems it did not have the shape or adequate marketing, leading to its low acceptance. Whilst the old fashioned glass continues to be the most used, some bars like the
Leela Palace, New Delhi have started offering whisky in more sophisticated glasses.
Highland Nectar, ITC Gardenia has a glass bar that includes the generous and stylish Ardbeg glass, which it had picked up from Islay, Scotland. A good whisky deserves a good glass and the usage of handmade glasses, mouth-blown and hand-finished by skilled artisans is a fine way of paying tribute to whisky at
The Piano Bar, The Oberoi Gurgaon.
The Spirit of Scotland seems to be finding fervour and favour with India and as the famous saying goes, "Drink whisky in happiness. Don't drown your sorrows in your whisky, it spoils the flavour."