Hotel Bars: Evolution, Recreation and Improvisation

From watering holes for single travellers and those looking for a relaxed evening out, contemporary bars in hotels have transformed into destinations in themselves.

Hotel bar, Bar, The Leela Palace New Delhi, The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, Taj Lands End Mumbai, Drink Designers

Traditionally, bars in hotels have always been formal spaces, attracting the well-heeled and well-travelled. They have worked like a salve for solo business travellers and are a perfect setting to clinch the big deals. In fact, for years, a good-looking, stately bar was a significant offering in hotels—both luxury and boutique. “Bars”, says seasoned bartender and consultant Yangdup Lama, “were the early birds [as far as] implementing concept-based/theme-based ideas go. From Patiala Peg-Polo Bar to The Imperial, Delhi (1936), Chhota Bristol (Shaw Brother’s), Kolkata (1872), Harbour Bar, Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai (1933), or even Thugs in Broadway Hotel—each was a story that recreated a certain concept or even a mood.”

More often than not, Lama believes, bars were revered for their luxury [element]—some of the finest alcohol could be had here. They were also known for their unique ability to bring together different elements and yet weave it into a fantastic, relatable story.

Fascinatingly, even after a century, the game has remained unchanged, believes Atul Tiwari, Sommelier and Assistant F&B Manager, The Leela Palace, Delhi. “It continues to be about how well you tell a story.” What has evolved are the formats. And the fact that they are attracting higher footfalls, and even driving business to the restaurants and coffee shops within hotels.

According to an HVS-FHRAI survey, over the years’ revenue from the F&B segment has jumped considerably. Experts tell us that they may even make up 50% pf the pie. Parveen Chander Kumar, General Manager of the storied Taj Land’s End, Mumbai, says, “Bars are not just standalone revenue earners; they have become outlets that feed the restaurants and coffee bars. They attract far more people, who often head to a restaurant or coffee shop within the hotel, after a drink.”

Recreating Another Era
The Sahib Room and Kipling Bar at St Regis, Mumbai, is indicative of how a hotel can recreate the clubs from India’s colonial era to gain footfalls, complete with a cocktail menu that is an ode to past. Another fine specimen of great storytelling is The Library Bar in The Leela Palace, Delhi. Says Tiwari, “It is an old English-style lounge, where guests can relax in sheer luxury over their favourite Martini, signature cocktails and single malts. We boast a precious selection of the finest liquor in the world, such as Louis XIII, a prestigious cognac, and The Last Drop, a rare cask whisky. We also have a unique wine list with over 170 wine labels. The Library Bar displays a collection of valuable collector’s books and antiques. Adjunct to The Library (Bar) is the alfresco seating with a Middle Eastern theme, where our guests can enjoy their Cuban cigars with vintage single malts and cognac.”

Pretty much till about a decade ago, bars across hotels in India, says consultant Aman Dua from Drink Designers, were primarily based on a particular time in history or the concept of royalty. Like Bar Palladio in Hotel Narain Niwas Palace, which, in keeping with the trend, recreated the lavish lifestyle of the Mughals.”
Most hotels could afford the lavish touches because of the space afforded to them. Add to that, says Lama, “the exclusive collection [of spirits] and the style in which the classics were served,” and the hotels had a winner at hand.

The Evolution of the Bar
In the early 90s, bars went through an age of renaissance. Concepts such as speakeasy and Rock & Roll began seeping into the world of bars. Some hotels created a casual, fin-sub segment and shifted it to indulge the younger crowd, who are more into Cosmopolitan than scotch on the rocks. Location, suddenly, says Sumit Singh, F&B Director, Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, “became one of the driving factors of a great bar, with the onus resting on an interesting drink menu. It was the rise of what we called as BarChefs. Bartenders now had the skill and the knowledge to talk about a variety of alcobev.”

It was an era that led to the creation of Dome (Intercontinental, Churchgate) and Aer (Four Seasons), where great location and amazing cocktails became the selling points. Dua says, “But even [though the concepts changed], the setting was always luxurious and exclusive.” Hotels also began experimenting with the concept of lounge bar. “It worked very much on the traditional concept of the bar,” adds Tiwari, “but minus the formal air. These were more fun, innovative and could sell a lobby in an instant.” Pling in Pullman Aerocity is an example of a lounge bar in a hotel. The elegant lounge bar, with a name inspired by the sound of ice dropping in a glass of liquid, offers an experience complete with live music, exclusive club style services, and showcases the signature ‘Vinoteca by Pullman’ with international wine selection by the glass or bottle.

In the last two years, Taj Land’s End, Mumbai has opened two innovative bars—the House of Nomad and Atrium Bar. The former, a high-energy bar with a deco-esque ambiance, is inspired by the pubs in Europe with a sharp focus on cocktails, fabulous music and innovative food, such as delectable Sushi, small plates and wines from different regions of the world. Andrew Pearson, an award-winning mixologist, drinks expert and director of beverage consultancy company, Andy Pearson Drinks, described by Theme Magazine as ‘The Jamie Oliver of Drink’ and ranked 25th in the ‘Top 100 list of people’ to have shaped the UK bar business, is the man behind the skilfully drawn up bar menu.

Says Kumar, “We shut down an Italian restaurant to open our newest bar—House of Nomad, and our P&L has tripled. We are located in the midst of a pulsating residential area and it is seen as a neighbourhood watering hole.

The recently refurbished Atrium Bar at Taj Land’s End, on the other hand, is a relaxed lounge bar, almost like the lobby bars in European hotels, and serves 180 brands of whiskies from across the world.

Crafting New Experiences
The rise of ‘well-versed’ bartenders has ensured star billing for them. According to Roxanne Read, Mixologist, Park Hyatt Hyderabad, India has seen “the rise of interactive bartenders, who can indulge you with conversation and cocktails.” Increasingly, bars in hotels are turning into experimental spaces where bartenders mix-and-match ingredients to come up with innovative cocktails. For instance, Rika in Park Hyatt, where, says Read, she focuses on using chillies from across the world in the cocktails she crafts. “I use fresh chilli, chilli-infused alcohol and chilli oil in my offering. I also ensure that every drink is an experience, a presentation of edible art.”

Completing her journey of offering an immersive experience is the live food station in the bar. In fact, says Read, “Not just the theatrics behind the cocktail are up for view, but guests can also see the drama of food unfold in front of them, which makes the experience far more immersive.” Bridging food with bar offerings, in fact, is a trend that Sofitel BKC is leveraging to its advantage.

Peter Sethi, Outlet Manager, Le Bar Diamantaire, Sofitel Mumbai BKC says, “We have a dedicated bar in all our F&B outlets. There is the whiskey bar in Tuskers, the recently opened gin bar at Jyran that showcases some of the finest gins from across the world, and even the stylish Vinothéque in Artisan, which boasts close to 300 wines from 80 labels. And this is aside from the Le Bar Diamantaire, which features the tallest glass wine cellar.” The idea, adds Sethi, “was to turn each of them into destinations that do not just serve great spirits in a fantastic ambience, but also good food. Our award-winning restaurant, Tuskers, features perhaps the best whiskey list in the country.”

Sofitel BKC’s move to weaving a bar around a restaurant started a new era of destination bars that sold much than a drink. With an array of choices available, more pocket-friendly bars are the key to success in upscale hospitality offerings, says Dushyant Mishra, Assistant Director of Food and Beverage, Hyatt Regency Pune. He believes that bars, much like restaurants, have become a platform to showcase bartending skills. Bartenders are now being called upon to possess in-depth knowledge of the bar culture, know the classics, and craft menus to suit the season/occasion and need, says Tiwari.

According to Mishra, the secrets of [profitable] bar are cocktails with a good narrative, a great menu, great ambient spaces and smart pricing strategy.

Improvising to Stay Ahead
Upender Singh Tomar, Food and Beverage Manager at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru claims that just having the best spirits doesn’t suffice; bars are distinguished because of their crafted cocktail list and their ability to improvise. Adds Tomar, “How well you are able to capture the attention of the demographics you attract with your offering has become the driving factor behind the success of any bar.”

The improvising spirit has helped bars such as Andaz Delhi’s Juniper Bar, India’s first gin bar, to stay ahead of the game. Prakash Chandra, Asst. Director of Restaurant Operations-Juniper Bar says, “We feature best stylised gin and tonic infusion. We opened our doors with 38 varieties of infused gins—all done in-house—revolving around the botanical and medicinal history of juniper.”

Kumar says that at House of Nomads, while the cocktails are inspired by the classics, they innovate to make their own concoctions. It serves, for instance, Fig Sour, or fresh Indian figs infused in Johnnie Walker Red Label Whiskey, fresh lemon juice, homemade bitters and egg white. The figs impart a deep texture to this drink. Zombie Apocalypse is a powerful fruity combination of rum, orange, mango, pineapple and lime.
There is no taking away from the return of the classics, especially classic-inspired cocktails. Bartenders are focussing more on flavours than flair. While whiskey, wine and beer remain popular, gin has gained quite a traction. There are more women drinking whiskey and increasingly, bars are focussing on great whiskey lists, like they do in Atrium Bar.

Relevance, adds Dua, “is the key to most bars surviving. And that relevance comes with its own set of extra costs, especially when it is in a volatile market like India.”

To stay relevant, iconic bars such as the Harbour Bar Mumbai have begun working on a gin-inspired menu.
Sethi confesses that the biggest challenges are “managing costs and garnering ROI—especially with the playground open to standalones as well. While having associations and sharing inventories with other F&B outlets helps in mitigating some of the investment that are needed to upgrade an iconic bar, one needs to keep the initiative goings.” In case of Harbour Bar, he says, “It becomes very challenging to come up with ideas that don’t interfere with the heritage value of the venue. Last year, we introduced Speakeasy Saturdays that, over time, have became significantly successful and led us to start Speakeasy Fridays as well. As a concept, the speakeasy style of nights have found resonance with our patrons. The bar has kept abreast with the most recent trends. [From leveraging the gin craze] to possessing the finest list of whiskies from across the world, Harbour Bar has been significantly ahead of its time since 1933 in offering the finest to its guests.”

The newer bars are feeling the heat as much as the older ones. This is where celebrity bartenders come in handy, says Chandra. “Not only do they bring in some freshness, but allow time for in-house bar hands to take inspiration and create newer cocktails.” There are myriad ways in which hotels ride new revenue streams. In recent times, bars have driven revenues for hotels with their ingenious drinks menu and a vibrant, fun ambiance.

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