What It Takes To Be India’s Best Bartender
Dive into Navjot Singh’s journey in becoming the best bartender in India
The photos, as I see them, are evocative and touching. The photographer has caught Navjot Singh in the crowd at a pivotal moment, in the seconds leading up to the announcement of the Teacher’s Best Bartender of the Year award, when the names of the six nominees are being announced, a razor hot field if ever there was one. They then catch him in the split second of the award being announced, with the realisation sinking in Singh that he was the anointed one. An award that was made all the more remarkable as it was voted for by a 25-strong technical jury, who ranks among India’s finest bar and beverage professionals. It took Singh back to an emotional moment in his life, during a vocational training stint during his hotel management years at The Lalit Hotel in Goa. He pleaded with a senior bartender, whose name he shall not take, to let him work at the bar — a request that was summarily disregarded. He still remembers going back to his room and writing in his diary that either he would get into OCLD (Oberoi’s prestigious training programme) or become the best bartender in India. OCLD did not happen, but as his pen foretold, he will always remember this day for a prophecy foretold.
Like most spirituous endeavours in India, Singh’s, too, were born on the wings of rum, or rather rum smuggled from his father’s bar, who, being in the army, had a plentiful and varied supply. The world of spirits got him hooked then, and by the time he’d reached the end of his first year of hotel management, he had already boned up the second year’s syllabus; such was his passion for beverages. He still remembers making a 500 km journey back and forth from Gurdaspur to Delhi to witness his first cocktail competition, the Monin Cup.
After an abortive run in a hotel’s MT (management trainee) program, Singh got a chance to help open Gurgaon’s Clock Tower bar at the young age of 23. However, his big break came next when he was asked if he’d like to be part of the opening team at Novele, at Delhi’s Shangri La hotel. It was very much the turning point in his life, as it led to being trained and groomed by bar supremo Luca Cinalli from London. Those 20 months got him on trend, especially when it came to knowledge about London’s bar scene. A bar ahead of its time, Novele had a short shelf life, but had a lasting impact on the Indian bar scene, especially for the talent it spawned. From Novele to Gurgaon’s Pra Pra Prank and Prankster, from where he has his next anecdote for me. A friend was joining a new cocktail hot spot in Delhi, and recommended his name to the owners. The owners didn’t take to him at first, but his friend told them to visit Singh at his workplace. Over the course of the evening, they rang up a bill of Rs 16,000, drinking and chatting with Singh, at the end of which they asked him when he was joining them. The bar they were opening was Lair, of course, and Singh hasn’t looked back since, with Lair now pretty much at the top of the game when it comes to India’s cocktail scene.
Singh’s favourite mixing techniques are rolling and shaking, but the latter is always with a three-piece shaker. At Lair, he says they try out several drinks using multiple methods to see what might work best for the cocktail. And the technique does play a role, he says. For example, for a cocktail like the Khus Negroni, throwing it opens up the flavours of the drink more.
“Why aren’t we proud of our own products?” asks Singh, peeved that we undervalue our own produce compared to international equivalents. Considering the quality of oranges from Nagpur and Gondhoraj from Kolkata, think of the kind of orange liqueur or Limoncello we could make, he wonders. Gondhoraj occupies a special place in his heart, with emotion in every syllable.
“We have apples, saffron, wild lavender, cassia bark, liquorice, kinoo, plums,” and his list goes on and on about the untapped ingredients we have that can find their way into a drink, “but still we look overseas.” Indian gin brands are a welcome harbinger of change, he says, showing that India is finding its own voice when it comes to local spirits. I’m curious to know his views about the lack of diversity in Indian bars, and Navjot attributes it to the lack of adequate mentorship. He feels that if the few women, who have been in (and out) of the Indian bar scene were able to get better advice, their careers might be on a different trajectory, which would have inspired many more women to get behind the bar.
“If I were to open a bar,” he says when I ask him, “then it would be a small bar, with just bar nibbles and drinks,” and “the drinks would be just classics and forgotten classics.” And his choice of classics are not the mainstream ones. They include Vieux Carre, a French concoction from the 1930s made using rye whisky, cognac, sweet vermouth, and bitters, which was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway; and Scofflaw a 1920s Prohibition era American cocktail made using rye whisky, dry vermouth, lime juice, and grenadine.