Yesangdup Lama doesn’t want you to call him a mixologist. It is too fancy a term for him, the only Indian to have appeared in the 2020 list of International drinks Bar World 100 list of the most influential people.
“I call myself a bartender because I’ve been in this profession for 25 years and I love being behind the bar,” he says.
Lama juggles many roles – coach, consultant and cocktail judge. But his favorite role is what catapulted him to international fame – a bartender. He is now co-owner of Cocktails and Dreams, Speakeasy in Gurgaon and Sidecar in Greater Kailash 2 in Delhi.
What is the difference between a mixologist and a bartender, I ask. He smiles and says, “Mixologist is a more modern term. People who have created a few cocktails of their own like to call themselves mixologists. But there is no difference between a mixologist and a bartender.
Lama’s foray into the profession was accidental. Growing up in Darjeeling, he wanted to be athletic, but eventually realized that it wouldn’t work. Whether you call him a mixologist or a bartender, he is the undisputed guru of the profession. Whether seen as a failure in his career choice or gracing lists around the world, Lama is a brand in its own right.
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“The bar is the hero”
Lama’s idea of a good bar is simple: the guest is the star and the bartender the medium who makes them feel that way.
Author and columnist Vir Sanghvi says Lama avoided the temptation to turn his bar into a place with low lights and loud music. “The sidecar is neither fashionable nor glamorous. It is classic and timeless with the best Indian cocktails, ”says Sanghvi. Lama is clear on what he wants, and that’s probably what has helped him reign supreme in the industry for so many years.
Bartending isn’t just about mixing cocktails, juggling shakers and creating flames. This is where the “magic,” as Lama calls it, happens. A good bar never ceases to bring people back.
India is not a country where you drink cocktails, but it is changing, as is the bartender and the demand for good bars and bartenders, Lama says.
How to become the best of India
“People’s skills are important, do you like good conversations, do you like being around people while you prepare a cocktail. Otherwise, it’s probably not the profession for you, ”Lama says.
For starters, Lama’s foray into the bartender was accidental. He wanted to be an athlete when he was studying at Victoria Boys’ School, Kurseong, West Bengal. But once he passed his board exams, Lama decided to take a hotel management course.
He then worked with Hyatt for four and a half years. And it was while he was at Hyatt that he approached the hotel bartender, and a two-hour conversation convinced him to learn the art and science of bartending.
Lama’s decision to become a professional bartender was hardly seen as a wise professional choice, even within the food industry.
“When I left Hyatt to become a professional bartender, my own manager was not very supportive. He said there is nothing called a professional bartender in India, ”he says.
So, Lama became the first to try to be. He entered the Old Monk Bartender of the Year competition in 1996, the very first such event in India. Lama won. Soon most bars wanted it.
Even though his family were always supportive, they didn’t really understand what Lama was doing. It was this award that helped him explain his work and make them proud.
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25 years in the business
India has not yet fully embraced the idea of centering a bar on the skills of a single bartender, as is the case with chefs, Lama knows that bartenders make the best bars.
“The bartender is all about knowing alcohol, technique and your creativity,” Lama explains.
He also runs a school in Vasant Kunj called “Cocktail and Dreams” which offers a three-month course for a bartender certificate. The number of students has increased almost three times since 2002, when parents often sent their children to be bartenders because they weren’t good at school or anything really. But the scenario is definitely changing, says Lama. People take courses because of their interest and because they want to be professional bartenders.
Rohan Jelkie, a drink teacher and former student of Lama, took a course at his school in 2005.
“At the time, everyone was suggesting Yangdup Lama in Delhi. I have benefited from the learning of someone who has been trained by the best in the world and their connections, ”says Jelkie.
Rohan Matmary, who runs the Lama Company’s beverage program, bartending school, and Three Bar Stools YouTube channel, is also a well-known bartender and praises Lama – the bartender and the teacher.
“Dream big, but don’t get carried away,” Lama said, when asked what his advice would be for aspiring bartenders. Then he shows us how to make Manhattan wicked.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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