At the first Mumbai edition of India Cocktail Week (ICW) held earlier this month, one beaming face stood out from the rest. Rakshay Dhariwal, the man behind the cocktail festival, had good reason to smile after a memorable year that not just saw him rise from the ashes (literally) but also expand his restaurant business under the Passcode Hospitality banner, and launch new editions of Maya Pistola Agavepura, the spirit brand that marked his foray into the alcobev space last year.
Dhariwal’s journey as a restaurateur closed in on a decade in 2022 but he shows no signs of stopping, having found the secret of success in diversification. Be it his now crowd favourite restaurants or ICW — which sees cocktails, food and performances by some of the biggest names and brands under one roof — what connects all the pieces together is the crown jewel in his portfolio: Pistola.
The origin story of this agave drink’s latest expressions is as compelling as the spirit itself. A tragic fire on Christmas Eve last year burned his distillery to the ground, along with much of the stock. But Dhariwal and his team managed to recoup their losses and bounce back. “Rakshay being Rakshay said, ‘Let’s do it again,’” observes brand ambassador Kimberly Pereira, who was incidentally scheduled for an interview on the same day the fire broke out.
The estimated loss from the fire that sank the launch of Pistola’s original variant, Reposado, was a whopping Rs. 2.5 crore. Dhariwal, however, decided to reboot and even go a mile further with three additional expressions in the form of Rosa, Añejo and Blanco, which have recently launched in Goa and Mumbai and are set to enter other markets soon.
In fact, when Dhariwal began rebuilding, he took up five times the space of the original facility once the flames died out. “I am glad because now I have enough product and space to quickly launch in any new market,” he says. But his passion for Pistola can be traced back to his F&B establishments, where he observed an increasing number of customers hankering for agave spirits. “Everyone was ordering margaritas and I realised that agave spirits would boom soon. But the tequila brands available in India were either very expensive or limited,” he points out, explaining what catalysed the genesis of Pistola.
While other craft spirits have been slowly entering the Indian market, Dhariwal essentially kickstarted a whole new category in the homegrown spirits industry — something that has to rank as a special achievement. Since tequila and mezcal face supply chain issues and are priced at a premium, having an agave spirit from the country does make life easier for everyone. For example, Pistola Rosa, which retails at Rs 3,200 in Goa, has one competitor, the Codigo 1530 Rosa that retails for Rs 14,800 in Mumbai. “The idea was to grow Pistola as the number one agave brand in the country,” he asserts.
The fire that both burned and fuelled Dhariwal’s furtherance as an alco-entrepreneur also posited itself as a severe impediment to the ageing process of the spirit. When the facility burned down, the barrels did too, exacerbating the need to procure new ones — and quickly. Dhariwal sourced a few from the whisky brand, Paul John’s distillery in South Goa and after enquiring among industry colleagues, zeroed in on Krsma Estates’ French oak barrels. This in turn led to the creation of the Rosa expression that has traces of the barrels. The Añejo expression has been aged in new American white oak barrels for 15 months, which lends notes of caramel, butterscotch and vanilla, making it a bottle worthy of competing with coveted single malts. Dhariwal says the Añejo is best enjoyed with ice and perhaps a splash of water, if you really need it.
This aside, there are also two limited editions that have been launched recently — one is a special añejo aged for 20 months called Phoenix Añejo, of which 1,800 bottles survived the fire, alongside 600 bottles of the Rosa Single Cask. The latter is available for sale only in Mumbai, while Phoenix Añejo retails in Goa, too. Come 2023, Pistola’s offerings will also be available in Karnataka, Haryana and Delhi with expansion plans in West Bengal, Telangana and Rajasthan to boot.
But Dhariwal’s multi-city goals don’t end with Pistola as was evident at the recently concluded iteration of ICW that piloted in Mumbai. Launched in 2019, the two-day cocktail festival sees both craft Indian spirits as well as established players pouring cocktails along with food stalls, music performances and artisanal stores. In the last three years, the festival has expanded to locations such as Bengaluru and Goa, before hosting its maiden edition in Mumbai. Here too, the co-founder’s goal was to push the envelope and help build a vivacious cocktail culture in the country. He tells us, “It’s not easy to host such events and brands will also allocate budgets to only certain big events to avoid consumer saturation,” he observes, adding that he is planning to talk to event organisers to create a schedule as a way of ensuring that there are no overlaps between similar festivals. This is indicative of his intensely conscious and collaborative spirit, and positions him as a bonafide industry man.
While Pistola and India Cocktail Week are fairly new additions to Dhariwal’s repertoire, his bread and butter has always been restaurants, many of which dot different corners of the country and have often inspired subsequent business ideas. He embarked on expanding Passcode Hospitality, much like ICW and Pistola, and now has a presence in Delhi, Kolkata, Goa and Mumbai, the last of which has seen the launch of new brands such as Saz, Ping’s and PCO, all within the last year. Be it Jamun in Assagao, Raki, a new crowd favourite amongst locals in Panjim, Saz On The Beach in Morjim as the perfect spot for a sundowner, or the decade-old PCO in Delhi, each establishment has managed to cater to different crops of patrons making Dhariwal’s 10-yearlong career a truly illustrious one. And interestingly, it all began with cocktails. “PCO started as a passion project because I couldn’t get a decent cocktail anywhere. We introduced classics that weren’t available anywhere such as Clover’s Club, instead of the Old Fashioned and Whisky Sour,” Dhariwal remembers.
The cocktail-forward diner’s Mumbai outpost is less than a year old, and has already hosted top mixologists from bars across the world, including those ranked under Best Bars lists. This includes names like Baba Au Rhum from Greece, Baltra from Mexico and Little Red Door from Paris, which was ranked fifth in the World’s 50 Best Bars list released in October, 2022. “I like to think that we pioneered cocktail culture in the country with PCO,” he shares. Clearly, Dhariwal has forged his own success story, and in a very literal way, after a trial by fire.
Images: Passcode Hospitality