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Top bar secrets from India’s top mixologist Yangdup Lama

How India’s top mixologist Yangdup Lama creates the perfect bar menu.

We talk to Yangdup Lama, the highly respected, award-winning and influential mixologist and bar personality from India about his career and his advice on how to put together a successful drinks list.

Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into drinks?

I always say that I am an “Accidental Bartender” rather than a “Bartender by Choice”. I am a hotel school graduate and started my career in hotels with the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Delhi in March 1995 with the idea of becoming a successful hotelier. I was assigned to work at the bar and that's where I became fascinated with the art of bartending.

I was very inspired by the bartender at my bar and one late evening after closing the bar I approached him and told him I wanted to learn the art of bartending. So I would say it started around the later half of 1995. It was no looking back after that and with the passing of time, I started to enjoy being behind the stick and mixing drinks.

I was awarded the Indian Bartender of the Year in December 1996 by the Hotel and Food Service awards and that paved the way for me to take bartending and beverages as a career landing me where I am today.

India’s top mixologist Yangdup Lama

India’s top mixologist Yangdup Lama

Why did you want to work in the bar sector?

As I progressed working behind the bar I enjoyed both understanding beverage culture and heritage, but also the chance to work with such interesting people and I just became submerged In the sector. The conversations, laughter and learning that goes on from both sides of the bar is tremendous and that made me a happy man both professionally and personally.

I could not think of any other career I wanted to do so when my employers wanted me to work in restaurants, I resigned from the hotel and became a freelance bartender providing mobile bartending services across north India.

How did you progress into your current role?

It all started with those initial five years in hotels as a bartender and then as a freelancer. I set up my company of mobile bartending service called “Cocktails & Dreams” in the year 2000. I soon had a team of 20 plus bartenders working across a number of corporate events and weddings in North India. The market for good cocktail services just grew and grew and soon my business had increased threefold and I was handling more than three to four events per day.

In September 2003 I set up one of the first bartending schools in India under the banner “Cocktails & Dreams School of Bar and Beverage Management”.

By the year 2010, I was doing a lot of consultancy and training along with my mobile bartending service. I was working closely with Bacardi, Diageo and Pernod in India to help them offer specific training to bar teams for their spirit brands as well as helping to introduce professional bartender programs for them on the ground. I was one of the first trainers of Diageo Bar Academy and Bacardi Bar League in India. I also started doing bar and beverage training workshops for the Taj Hotels, Oberoi Hotels and ITC Hotels in India to name a few.

By the year 2012, my current business partner and I went on to set up India’s first bartenders bar. A speakeasy-style cocktail bar under the name “Cocktails & Dreams, Speakeasy”. The bar is a cosy little place in the great Delhi region that specialises in customised cocktails and is always thronged by regulars throughout the week.

In December 2018 we opened an artisanal cocktail bar called “Sidecar” in central Delhi which went on to become the only bar to make it to Asia’s 50 Best lists in 2020 and 2021 and to the World’ Best extended list in 2020 at #91.

cocktails dreams speakeasy

Cocktails dreams speakeasy 

What is involved in your current role and your main tasks?

I am a bar owner, entrepreneur, mentor and trainer doing pretty much everything that requires me to do. Mixing drinks, creating them, mentoring and training, planning and marketing and also looking at playing the right music at the bar. On busy nights I am sometimes even clearing plates and soiled glasses which also gives me a different kind of enjoyment as it is all about making our guests happy by the end of the shift.

If you were asked to take on a hotel or restaurant’s bar and drinks program how would you go about introducing changes to help grow sales?

I would have a few questions to ask them first. From who their present visitors are, to their present-day beverage sales analysis, their marketing plan and drinks program. This will give me a background as to why they aren’t as successful as they want to be and what is critical to their business. I would also want to know what the vision for the bar is in the future and does that fit into the scheme of things considering the present and future customer profile.

Based on my findings I would then suggest appropriate steps to take this engagement forward to make it a more fruitful one.

What questions would you ask of the owner to know what sort of drinks list to create?

I really would like to know the concept of the bar, what analysis he has done to come to this concept and theme and how much he believes in the concept. How original is his idea?  As a bar owner, it is important to have the right brief for everyone you engage in the project. Based on this I would suggest the possible drinks list that I would like to create to complement everything that he or she would like to create.

What do you most look for and want from drinks suppliers to help drive sales?

I always want my drink suppliers to be my partners in the business. I want to engage them in most of my programming based on which brand fits well with each event. I want them to be able to offer training and support that helps lift the performance and enjoyment of my staff. It is not one-way traffic. I want my suppliers to do all they can to make sure my customers have a great experience so they need to know who my customers are and how they can help them.

Can you think of any good examples of partnerships with suppliers and drinks you have listed as a result?

We have done many programs at our bar from live music, cocktail workshops, bartender guests shift, book reading sessions, bar quizzes and special themed events. We have engaged various brands to partner with us in each of these activities and have always had a positive result in terms of sales and experience. We have always worked on some excellent collaborations and that has helped keep up even during tough times.

What does success look like for you from a drinks programme - what are the key ways to show success?

Drink programs have to be meaningful and original. Whatever we create has to match our customer requirements, suit their taste profiles and offer a good variety of drinks to explore and experiment with. It has to be driven with passion. It has to be applied using the right techniques, with the right attitude and a well balanced and priced drinks menu. They are all critical to success.

How would you go about devising a drinks programme at a new venue - what are the key factors about the list that help the bottom line?

The concept and theme of the place. Keep the drinks program original. Make sure it offers drinks with good and well-balanced taste with a large base of spirits to suit a wider audience. It all needs to be beautifully presented and with balanced pricing (not too cheap and not too expensive). The customer should not feel ripped off. The experience should score above everything else.

You also need to keep on top of your beverage costs so that the bottom line is well covered.

Staff training and tasting are important to help elevate the overall experience of the customer.

What do you focus on to be good in your role?

Keep an open mind and be willing to keep on learning and discovering. You need to have the right positive attitude and most importantly be a disciplined professional.

What do you see as being the key skills and talents needed to be a good bartender?

The formula of “KASH” into “CASH”. Which works out like this: 

* K – Knowledge. Always keep an open mind to learning. Knowledge gives you confidence.

* A-Attitude. The right attitude helps you grow professionally and personally and helps you develop at each step.

* S-Skill. Skill is a must which can be learnt through various means. Practice and exposure help develop your skill.

* H- Habit. Develop the correct habits. Learn the basics and adopt them correctly. The right habits lead to the right character and that is what helps you develop as a human being. We have to evolve and evolve in a progressive way.

You can find out more about Yangdup Lama here.

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