A leading beverage expert in Delhi gives us a list of bars that make the best cocktails in New Delhi.
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In the ’80s and ’90s drinking culture in Delhi was limited to men in bars drinking large pegs of whiskey. Luckily, times have changed. Specialty cocktails are hugely popular now, with bars across the city offering fancy drinks and excellent service. Karina Aggarwal, also known as Gigglewater411, is one of Delhi’s leading beverage writers. She has shared her list of the best cocktails in the city with Culture Trip, whether at a restaurant or a members-only club.
This members-only club regularly opens its doors to non-members for a fee (but not on Tuesdays). It has a gorgeous stage and frequently hosts live acts, a sprawling terrace and plush interiors. Karina told us, ‘this space is a mix of everything you want from a cocktail bar – beautiful design, an assortment of live acts and a bar team that really knows what it’s doing.’ It also has a regular film club on Mondays, in a tie up with independent cinema platform, MUBI. The menu is small and has a mix of Japanese and European bites, and the drinks menu also features an extensive wine list, if that’s more your style. Try the Dufftown Dram, a cocktail made from Glenfiddich 12, Fernet-Branca and grapefruit syrup, garnished with grapefruit candy.
The team behind Sidecar also own a very popular speakeasy-style bar in Gurgaon called Cocktails & Dreams, so when they opened their Greater Kailash II bar, they were already popular with Delhi folk. ‘It’s managed to carry over that same warm neighbourhood bar appeal,’ says Karina. ‘It’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name.’ Which is unusual for a bar so large, but seems to fit given the cosy seating, crowded bookshelves and intimate tables, which make it feel like you’re settling in for a drink at a friend’s house. Co-owner Yangdup Lama is an award-winning mixologist, and there’s even a drink named after him: the Yang’s Old Fashioned, made with betel nut infused bourbon, and served with date and maple cordial and orange bitters.
PCO is, as Karina says, ‘perhaps India’s original neo-speakeasy.’ You used to be only able to access by typing a secret code into a box, but even though it’s a bit more mainstream these days, Karina thinks that ‘it still conveys that ’20s vintage charm – think plush leather Chesterfields, dim lamps, regal bar-tops and ornate glassware. If you’re looking for quiet cocktails and conversation to a soundtrack of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, head upstairs. On certain days of the week the basement area can turn into quite the raucous spot.’ In keeping with the speakeasy theme, the menu is packed with lush cocktails, with detailed explanations of each drink’s origins. It also has a special cocktail hour, where the menu is organised by flavour and strength, so you’ll find a Lavender Tonic in the Fruity & Floral section and a James Brown (peanut butter rum, coffee liqueur, angostura bitter and salt) under Bittersweet & Spirit Forward.
In a city obsessed with exclusivity, it is no surprise that many of the bars on this list are secret or available only if you call ahead. Hoots‘ started out like that: a small living room-esque area under the hugely-popular wine bar Perch, as a way of showing off specialty cocktails. You could only get in if you knew the phone number and called ahead, and there wasn’t even a sign indicating where to go. Well, not any longer. It ‘has finally come into the light,’ Karina says. ‘It’s cosy, quiet and has a menu that plays a fair bit with modern cocktailing techniques but wraps it all up in a classic sensibility.’ Its signature cocktails have only numbers for names. Try the No. 4: tequila, clarified citrus, clarified grapefruit juice, hibiscus cordial and sparkling wine.
Before there were cocktail bars, there was Rick’s. Frequented by monied young politicos and industrialists’ children, this is a fascinating place to sit at the bar and eavesdrop on the conversations happening around you. It’s a place for ‘old school South Delhi bar nostalgia,’ says Karina. Surprisingly, for such an establishment-type place usually associated with more conservative drinks, they have an extensive cocktail menu. Try something from the Mixologist’s Vault section of the menu, which was mostly created for international competitions. A good starting point is the 24 Degree East, featuring whiskey flambéed with spices and house-made bitters, topped off with a splash of Australian wine.
Saz used to be a members-only club called ATM run by the PCO Group, which then pivoted into an American-style cocktail bar open to all. ‘Saz is part-grotty American dive bar, part ornate brown bar. It may sound confusing but it works’ says Karina. She also recommends ‘the eponymous Sazerac, of course. One of the most famous classic cocktails, it’s a heady mix of whiskey or cognac, absinthe and bitters.’
The Hong Kong Club
Unlike most of the other bars on this list, the Hong Kong Club isn’t small and cozy with leather seating and dim lighting. Instead, it sprawls across two floors at Aerocity’s Andaz hotel, featuring private dining rooms, grand staircases and a stacked island bar in the lounge area. It serves Chinese small plates and street food, fun, easy fare to pick at while you people-watch. Karina likes it because, as she says, ‘this stately cavern offers high energy, good cocktails and a fun cover band on most nights.’ Plus, she adds, ‘their kitchen stays open until really late. So you can even get a xiao long bao to go with that nightcap.’ Definitely try one of the cocktails named after the signs of the Chinese zodiac.
The Piano Man Jazz Club
While this music-first bar now has a branch in Gurgaon, it was in Safdarjung Enclave that the magic first happened. You might not think people would sit still for a music performance by bands they have never heard of, let alone allow themselves to be shushed if they are talking too loud, but TPMJC took low expectations and hoisted them from their trumpet chandelier. ‘They have the best curated acts, with musicians from India and around the world,’ says Karina. ‘It’s the kind of place where the live act truly takes centre stage and you’re expected to shut up and listen.’ Squeeze into this cosy bar (it gets very crowded, so plan ahead) and order one of the sweet candy cocktails, like an Apple Pie toddy featuring brandy with apple juice, cinnamon, five spice and lemon bitters.
Even though it’s primarily a restaurant – and one with a high pedigree (the group that owns it also owns number 60 on the World’s Best Restaurants list, Indian Accent) – the cocktails at Comorin are so great that Karina had to pick it as one of her favourites. It’s also the only one on her list from Gurgaon. ‘It has one of the best bar programmes in the country,’ she explains, “where they tinker with in-house vermouth infusions and so on.’ Enjoy the Indian comfort food, designed to be paired with your drinks. The cocktails are both familiar and have a twist in the form of their one special infusion or ingredient. Karina’s pick is the Khus Vermouth Negroni with sous vide gin, house light and dark Khus vermouth and Campari.
Fig & Maple
‘This is another restaurant space but makes it to my list for its extensive gin infusion apothecary list,’ says Karina of Fig & Maple. ‘There’s everything from portobello to curry leaves and about 60 others in-between.’ This well-lit space has an extremely Instragrammable rooftop garden and an extensive brunch menu to accompany any day drinking. ‘Sitting on their pretty terrace with a quirky GinTo is a great way to dust off the day’s grime,’ advises Karina.
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