Yangdup Lama | Photo: Surajit Sharma

“It’s not about making a beautiful cocktail but also spreading a lot of love. Bartending is a performance, not just in terms of mixing and serving a drink, but demands skills and creativity, interaction with guests; everything put together. For many customers, the bartender is a confidante; someone to talk to through thick and thin. But to be so, he must be a good conversationalist and an even better listener,” explained renowned bartender and mixologist Yangdup Lama.

“Not all come to the bar with friends and not all are in a happy mood. Being able to understand each customer, fixing the right drink to suit his/her preference and mood, are qualities of a good bartender. Drinks are of course important, but it is the overall experience. If the experience is good, the customer will always order a second drink and always come back. And he/she will be thankful,” he said.

“A matured bartender holds the possibilities of replacing a counsellor,” he laughingly adds.

The only Indian to have been featured in the 2020 list of “Drinks International’s Bar World 100” list of most influential people, an evening with Yangdup Lama – “The Spirited Monk” (as his Instagram handle reads), and tasting his elixirs is an experience in itself.

Hailing from Kurseong, Darjeeling, Yangdup Lama is the co-owner of Sidecar in Delhi’s Greater Kailash 2 which is currently ranked 26th in the World’s 50 Best Bars 2022 and 14th in Asia. He also co-owns Cocktails and Dreams, and Speakeasy in Gurgaon. Yangdup Lama has authored the book Cocktails & Dreams: The Ultimate Indian Cocktail Book.

Bartending with a cup of cappuccino

A small bar counter in a reputed roof-top pub of Guwahati; behind it is the man of the evening, mixing the colourful potions. With his constant smile and small talk with the customers across the counters, he created a niche ambience around him.

Yeah, that’s my first impression of Yangdup Lama, doing what he does best- mixing cocktails. In between fixing up those complex alcoholic drinks, he would sneak a few moments to continue the unfinished conversation we were having since that afternoon; to my astonishment sipping on a cup of cappuccino himself.

Meeting Lama was like meeting a good-old friend, although it was the very first time. True to his teachings, the 50-year-old presented himself as such to each of his customers.

Yangdup Lama
Yangdup Lama

Back to the conversation, speaking of people’s growing attraction towards cocktails, he said: “The market for cocktails is gaining pace compared to what it was 10 years ago. Earlier consumers ordered looking at the prices; the more expensive it was perceived to be better. Today consumers are much more aware and know what they want. They know the kind of cocktail they want, what alcohol base, and what flavours. And the new generation is very experimental and understands that good ingredients matter equally,” said Lama.

That has paved the way for good bars and cocktails; the mixologist added that the onus is high on the bartenders to fix up drinks to satiate the evolving and exploring consumer base.

“The ambience is the other critical part. I wanted a bartender’s bar to showcase the idea and art of producing each cocktail and give a fabulous experience. You need not always come with friends to party. You can walk in alone to my bar and spend an evening. It’s more on the lines of a neighbourhood bar.”

He recommends an ideal bar counter to be about 2 feet in width, a decent distance to have an over-the-counter conversation. “I like to keep things classic, there is no DJ or loud music in my bars. I pick the playlist myself, again very classic and soothing. There has to be ample space for conversations,” he added.

Reigning in an unconventional career choice

“The journey, like any other, had been a mix of ups and downs. For a small-town boy, settling in a big city came with a fair share of struggle and with a lot of hard work in my initial years.

“I went to Delhi in 1995 and worked in hotels. I was with the Hyatt for four and a half years. I was lucky to have been sent to the bar. India at that time was opening to the world and there used to be many expats who had long stays in the hotel. Most of them would be at the bar after 6 o’clock every evening. They brought a very nice bar culture and I got a lot of exposure, having catered to those international guests. Meanwhile, I learned under a senior who was a great bartender. I was at the right place at the right time although bartending was not recognised as a career. Even my designation was not a bartender but just a hotelier,” Yangdup Lama recalls his initial days.

Yangdup Lama
Yangdup Lama

“In 2000, I left hotels to become a freelance bartender. I started a mobile bartending service that catered for private parties and clubs. People always love good tasting fancy colourful drinks and loved what I made. I am thankful to all the people I came across as an amateur and as a freelancer, all my colleagues from the caterer to the event planner, designer and all the like-minded people including my partner,” he added with gratitude.

Recalling his family’s support for his choice of career three decades back Lama said, “I wanted to be an athlete but at that time sport wasn’t much of a career choice. I wasn’t a very studious person either. And that’s when I discovered hotel management. But the first time I went behind the bar and started making drinks, it was like playing a sport. So, 26 years on I am still high and enjoying my journey.”

Bartending as a career option

“Alcohol requires sensible handling, from the makers to the sellers to the consumers. I suggest all, even bartenders, to use it very sensibly and not get carried away. They should not become alcoholics.

“Secondly, discipline is very important. Lastly, keep your eyes, ears and mind open for learning all the time. My biggest learnings have been from my customers and the young minds that I go to train,” said Yangdup Lama.

He said that the food and beverage industry in India and Asia is pacing up and expanding from Tier I to Tier II, and III cities. “Young people must take this opportunity. In Tier I cities, the payment is good and bartending is considered a respected profession. Many now enrol at my school by choice rather than as a last career resort, as was the case a few years back. In Tier II cities, the industry is developing and the requirement of skilled professionals will only increase.”

Yangdup Lama opined that the easygoing friendly attitude of the people of the northeast makes them a preferred choice in the hospitality industry. “I especially recommend this industry for the not-so-studious students. To be successful in the F&B industry needs a lot of skill and talent but they need not be very studious. And our happy-go-lucky nature comes in handy.”

Expressing his gratitude to be in Guwahati where he had been during his student years, Yangdup Lama hoped to get further associated in the Northeast in the future.

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About Barasha Das


Barasha Das is a journalist working in Northeast India region.


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