Globally recognised and revered bartender, bar owner, and author Yangdup Lama’s passion for his craft is palpable. With the reputation of being India’s finest resting on his shoulders, he has consistently pushed for a change in how bartenders and customers approach the process of making and consuming a cocktail. On the occasion of World Bartender Day, he taps into his barrel of experience to list out his cherished flavour combinations and shares tips on making a concoction that’s delicious from the first sip to the last.
For over 25 years, Yangdup Lama’s daily routine has involved experimenting with unique ingredients, serving up concoctions of happiness, and busting notions about all things shaken and stirred. Along the way, he found himself in global headlines, featuring alongside the crème de la crème of the bartending world. In 2020, he became the first Indian to be named in Drinks International’s Bar World 100 list of most influential people. His South Delhi bar Sidecar came in at number 47 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The establishment crowned India’s best bar in 2021, also secured a coveted spot in Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for two years in a row.
His time behind the bar has pushed Lama to further the revolution. Unique, eclectic blends are now preferred over classic combinations, with a growing number of customers expressing an interest in exactly what kind of liqueur is in their martini glass. With this, Lama hopes to nurture the relationship between the people on either side of the bar.
A firm believer in customising a drink to suit the palate and mood of the customer, Lama is adept at juggling ingredients, consistently adding to his repertoire of exquisite blends. His Instagram is a kaleidoscope of flavours, beaming customers, and refreshing anecdotes from his experiences around the world. But the man who has a host of ingredients at his disposal likes to kick back with a whiskey on the rocks. If he’s feeling fancy, he throws in a few simple ingredients to elevate the nightcap.
Yangdup Lama on his journey with ingredients and why Asian flavours rule
What does it take to be a good bartender?
Good knowledge, good skills, creativity, good salesmanship, great personality, all of that. But I’d say that it starts with being a good human being. Everything else can happen over time, whether it’s developing the technique of making cocktails or coming up with the beverage menu. But certain things like warmth or a good smile need to come to the person naturally.
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You wouldn’t really enjoy going to a place that has a good-looking bar and amazing drinks, but the bartender is unwelcoming. But if the bartender is friendly and warm, then even a beer tends to taste better. So the right human qualities are important not because someone’s told you to have them, but because you’re naturally a people’s man.
What are some bar essentials to have at home?
It depends on how passionate you are and how much money you have (laughs). But to go with the basics, definitely a handful of spirits of different varieties — rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, or brandy. You should invest a little bit in your glassware, without which your drink experience is just half-lived. If you like experimenting, keep a bottle of Angostura bitters handy. Also, something citrusy, like lime, to balance a drink.
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Beyond that, everything the kitchen has is great — fresh mint, cucumber, or ginger. Another essential that you should have at a home bar is good quality ice. It’s the cheapest ingredient and is always taken for granted. The quality of ice can make or break a drink. So invest in a good ice mould and chilling unit.
Also, I always have a bottle of cointreau at home. It’s a fantastic orange liqueur that is a great after-dinner drink. It’s got both sweet and bitter orange and isn’t too sweet on the palate because it has almost 40 percent alcohol, which is at par with any other spirit. So it tastes very nice and is probably one of the most fantastic liqueurs. I love it.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with? Any bizarre combinations that surprisingly work?
I like using ginger. Something as simple as a ginger lemonade, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, is nice and refreshing, with the right touch of spice. I also like dark spirits, so a combination of whiskey or rum with cherry is a no brainer.
An unusual but interesting ingredient I use that is otherwise not used in food and beverage is edible camphor. It’s used in ritualistic ceremonies, and every time I attended one, I’d taste the holy water. When I got into making cocktails, I decided to experiment with it and infused it with gin. At first, it was too strong, but once I got the hang of it, I liked adding it to my creations.
What’s your secret to making a delicious cocktail each time?
It’s the ice. Every time I’m in a situation where I need to fix a drink for someone, I don’t look at the ingredients first but the ice. Because depending upon its size and how clear or cloudy it is, I decide whether I need to shake, stir, or blend the drink, and if so, for how long.
You can always find cocktail recipes in books or on the internet. But nobody will tell you how many cubes of ice to use. These are the things that can determine how good the cocktail tastes at the end of the day.
How to bring ‘Asia’ to a western drink?
Most classic cocktails we see today, be it old-fashioned or martini, are from the West. And what we do is take these classics and use Asian flavours to make, probably, better-tasting martinis and old-fashioned. I think Asian flavours rule. There’s so much variation in flavours, from citrus to spice, grassy to herbal. It has a wide range and therefore fits into everything.
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Asian flavours also elevate the classics, like a classic martini isn’t appealing to most cocktail drinkers. Because martini tastes like drinking gin straight up and not everyone likes doing that. But if you add a twist to it with lemongrass, it would add a refreshing touch to the drink. Or even fresh coriander, dill, cinnamon, black pepper, or ginger are great. Imagine a mango martini. It would be fruity and nice, easy to consume.
In the past, I’ve experimented with garam masala and made a lot of mistakes. When you cook with it, you tend to add more because it’s the flavour that dominates, but in drinks, you can’t overdo it. The thing with drinks is that you’ve got to like the first sip and the last sip. So the flavour intensity is critical. Over time I’ve learned the right balance of garam masala.
Has spirituality or travelling changed the way you approach ingredients? If so, how?
Totally. All that we seek when we sit at a bar or sip a cocktail is happiness. When I look for an ingredient, and I get inspired to make a drink, and it brings a smile to the face of the customer, then I think the spiritual practice is correct. We also work in a very unforgiving space. As a bartender, you have bad timings, bad eating habits. When the world is celebrating, you’re working the most. You have family complaining about you not spending enough time with them. The profession calls for a lot of sacrifices, so you need to be happy first. If you’re happy, you can pass it along to the person sitting across the bar. Spirituality has also taught me to accept failure and take things on the chin. Like with the garam masala story.
Travel also exposes you to the right things. It has made me look at ingredients from a different perspective. Some, for instance, aren’t just good for flavour but are supposed to be nutritious or seasonally appropriate. All of them have their own story. So if I’m making a cocktail with an ingredient from my experience in Japan, I would want to convey my story through it.
What sets your two bars (Sidecar and Cocktails and Dreams) apart? How do you manage to do justice to those distinct vibes?
It’s simple! When two people come to my bar and ask for a margarita, I don’t make the same drink for both of them. I ask them how they would like it. Some like it on the rocks, some like it dry. So it’s the same drink, but you fine-tune it to the customer’s liking. And that’s what we did with both the bars. Sidecar is in a slightly upmarket South Delhi location and has better footfalls. Cocktails and Dreams is cosier. When we first started, we didn’t have enough rental money, so we went with Gurgaon. When someone asks me what’s a bartender’s bar, I always refer to Cocktails and Dreams.
Any trade secrets you can share with us?
We’re in the business of hospitality, and that means we don’t have a product. I always tell bartenders to put themselves in the shoes of the customers, so they can give the customers exactly what they want.
Any simple and easy recipes you could share with us?
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If you’re drinking a bourbon or rye whiskey, try sometimes to drink it not just with soda water on the rocks but with equal parts of apple juice. I love my whiskey with apple juice, in the ratio of 1:1. So, if you’re doing double whiskey, add the same amount of apple juice, lots of ice, and three slices of apple on top. It’s a simple recipe, and I don’t know what exactly you could call it but it’s a nice combination that I discovered.
Where do you draw inspiration from for every new drink?
Inspiration comes from everything. I think your practise should be such that you’re open to learning from the world. When I’m going to a training session, I do it with the idea of learning, not just to teach. It has to be a two-way street; I’m just a facilitator! Similarly, when I visit another bar, I’d go there not just to drink but to learn something new. When I’m at a department store, I buy what I have to, but I keep my senses open in case I discover something new, maybe a jelly, jam, or preserve that could end up being a great ingredient for my cocktails. When you keep your eyes and ears open, you learn a lot. And that process will ultimately help you with a plethora of ingredients.
All images: Courtesy Yangdup Lama