When the Gurgaon Sector-15 market nears shutter-down time, Cocktails & Dreams, a speakeasy-themed neighbourhood bar stirs up a storm with the clink of glasses, jingle of shakers and the uncorking of tipple bottles. DSSC catches Yangdup Lama in a candid mood about all that stirs and shakes behind Cocktails & Dreams, his spirited and groovy bar that turns five this December.
Yangdup, the soft-spoken mixologist doesn’t fit the bill of being that friend at the bar who’d accompany you on a drive or an after-party. He is least likely to be seen rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of Delhi at dos around town. Yet, his social calendar is chock-a-block. His days are replete with bartending assignments for parties that boast of fantastic guest lists and Yangdup is in the middle of all the action, fixing drinks at replicas of the best night clubs. And that’s not all. He mentors the new wave of mixologists and champions international liquor brands – the latest feathers in his hat are being appointed India Attaché by Tales of the Cocktail New Orleans for 2017-18 and American Whiskey Ambassador for 2017 by Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
The spiritually inclined mixologist hailing from Darjeeling talks to us about the genesis of his speakeasy, “Speaks (as he fondly calls Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy) is set up on the lines of the Prohibition Era of 1920s which saw many cocktails camouflaging crude spirits with a mixer. We have minimalistic décor and warmth of a neighbourhood bar that was designed to brief of the Toby Keith song I Love This Bar.”
With his business partner Minakshi Singh in tow, the cheery mixologist flouted the basic rule of ‘Location Location Location’ in choosing the quiet Sector-15 market due to budget constraints. Even though they were being picked out by critics for their seemingly awry location, they turned the same to their advantage and the market is now often termed as ‘Speakeasy market’. “Guests were happy with the drinks and the food, but they complained often that we were empty and badly located.” The dynamic duo (ex co-workers and long-time friends) did the next best thing, and focussed on the product instead. Minakshi played hostess, and Yangdup was the official bartender for the first year of Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy, to ensure a smooth journey. And they managed to pack in hoards of fun along the way. “For most bars and restaurants, the first year is the best with pocketfuls of money, eyeball grabs and a lot of press-talk. Our first 365 days were the opposite,” shares Yangdup, for whom the Cocktails & Dreams journey, since then, has been epochal.
When prodded about a memorable moment from the early years, Yangdup lets us in on one such incident that unfolded on a busy evening. “This gentleman at the right hand corner of the bar finished drinks and asked for his cheque. When I was doing the needful, he stopped me short, slipped a Rs.1000 note into my hand; and whispered ‘thank you very much, I don’t need my bill.’ Taken aback, I got hold of his hand in a warm manner and said ‘thank you very much, but I own this bar!’ The gentleman stepped back, folded both his hands, and said ‘I am so sorry’. It wasn’t something that annoyed me but was damn funny because people didn’t recognize me as the owner and thought of me as just another bartender,” he laughs.
#DSSCScoop: Yangdup and Minakshi are finally heading to Delhi with Bar No. 2 (standing title till disclosure). Yangdup divulges further, “It will be another bartenders’ bar with an interesting concept. And no, it won’t be a speakeasy.” Permits agreeing, this new hotspot will be good to go in six months.
As they brace for the Delhi sojourn, they revisit some gaffes from the early days. “At CnD, we have a very small kitchen, and it is our biggest mistake. The feedback forms scream ‘limited menu’. At Bar No. 2, we’d definitely fix this.”
This gets us talking about reviews. “It is funny that we get reviewed on food at times. We serve food because we wanted to make sure there was something to eat. This is a bar and not a restaurant. But we are thrashed for our food in reviews wherein there is not a single word about a drink or the bar. We always knew that this is a place which would not please everyone and would attract a specific audience,” he smiles.
Yangdup, who relishes a well brewed cup of tea with the same zest as his tipple, mentors many top of the line bartenders across the country. He has been running Cocktails and Dreams School of Bar and Beverage Management since the past 15 years. The school offers a six-month and three-month bartending course, including a 30-day internship across bars in Delhi. From having dropouts or people with no alternate career option as his initial set of students, to bartending being a well-thought career choice, Yangdup says, “Bartending has come of age in India. The icing on the cake is the quality of bartending material that is now accessible. I know of at least 10 superb bartenders from India who could do very well if placed in bars across the world. Our students are brand ambassadors of the best liquor brands and are heading operations of some enviable bars.”
He is one of India’s most sought-after names, but there was a time he embraced the free-pour to ‘meet job deadlines.’ “I was transferred from Polo Lounge at Hyatt to Djinns as part of the opening team. It was a very high intensity bar and I ended up making a lot of mistakes like doing a free-pour instead of measuring the spirit. Every time I’d screw up the recipe, I’d fix it within my capabilities and serve it with a big confident smile,” remembers Lama who firmly believes, “Every time a bartender makes a mistake, a new cocktail is born.”
Cocktail trends keep evolving. Classics get reinvented, super tonics rise to glory, and hi-tech barware define the order of the day. What’s trendy today may be gone tomorrow. Yangdup gives a lowdown on what’s buzzing across bars, currently.
Tiki bars, Ahoy: Tiki bars are a rage the world over! I would love to do a Tiki place someday. Tiki cocktails are intense and full of flavour, unlike the classic martinis. You can really go wild as a bartender. However, I have a constraint. We sadly do not have enough rum (in India). To me, as a bartender for 23 years, rum is the most versatile of all spirits. In the West, we get a lot of rum with distinct characters, and you can make just about any kind of cocktail with it.
The aromatic world of house-made shrubs and home-made infusions: The uniqueness of a bartender lies not only in his mixing skills, but his innovation as well. A bar menu may have 30 cocktails, but it doesn’t end there. Somebody may just walk into my bar and ask me to fix a unique drink with a particular ingredient. The bartender has to rustle up something within a span of 3-4 minutes within which he should be done thinking and making the drink. He should have enough flavours in his flavour bank, and as many combos in his head. At Speaks we already make our own infusions and bitters. Also, when I travel I pick up a lot of bitters.
Plant-based sweeteners/Less-ingredient cocktails: I love using natural sweetness from the plants. Plant study always mesmerizes a bartender. It is a difficult to get a manic variety of herbs and botanicals in a place like Delhi. But I am lucky enough to zero in on a supplier. I don’t need to add sugar to the drinks at all. I just need to combine a fine spirit with one of these delicate and fantastic flavours purely from plants, to make a simple yet very enjoyable drink. I don’t have to use twenty ingredients. However, the trick to doing this right, lies in the bartender’s experience. He needs to be really evolved and he should’ve done enough work to get the flavours right. The intensity of flavours needs to be perfect or the ‘less-ingredient drink’ will fail to impress.
We fire the signature DSSC Rapid Fire shots at Yangdup, before the time reads rum o’ clock.
What would be your go-to cuppa after a night of crazy drinks?
Yangdup: Second flush Darjeeling tea.
If not a tipple, what would you be caught sipping?
Yangdup: Plain water.
Who is your favourite mixologist on the planet?
Yangdup: Gary Regan, who is also my mentor and guru.
Which is your favourite drink?
Yangdup: A finger stirred Negroni (may sound a little gross) by Gary Regan.
Which cocktail would you love to sip in Delhi and where?
Yangdup: A nicely made Old Fashioned at PCO.
Tell us about a must-have cocktail at Cocktails and Dreams?
Yangdup: The Fog Horn from the Classics section. It is a cocktail that comes from the prohibition-era with my twist. It has gingerbread and ginger juice.
What is the one tip you’d like to give upcoming mixologists?
Yangdup: No shortcuts please.