Behind bars, at home: Here’s what's keeping bartenders busy post lockdown

After a challenging pandemic pause, as parties move to homes and hotel suites, bartenders are using the creative freedom of freelance gigs to tailor inventive cocktails and experiences

December 01, 2021 03:19 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 12:13 am IST

House parties over restobars. Intimate gatherings over heaving dance floors, and an elevated home bar experience over over-priced cocktails at a restaurant. As life slowly crawls back to a new normal, parties at home are replacing gatherings at local bars. And as hosts cater to these new parameters, curated catering menus and home bar experiences have become the order of the day. Bartenders who were forced to go solo after food and beverage establishments were shut down due to pandemic restrictions, have found freelance bartending a liberating career detour.

In Chennai, where bars recently opened their doors, after a protracted closure, bartenders have found new avenues to augment their incomes. Praveen Mohan, who worked at a bar in the IT corridor of the city, has taken on house parties since 2020, sometimes on the beach front, some at spacious apartments, where hosts wanted a restobar experience, but in a safer space.

“In the beginning it was tough, but then our whole industry went through this churning, so we just soldiered on. I taught classes at a local bartending institute in T Nagar, did some flair bartending during the week and waited for the parties to pick up,” says Praveen.

Back on their feet

Post July 2021, parties at beach houses and other venues along East Coast Road and Puducherry have been keeping the city’s bartenders busy. Nalla Samy, from the Chennai Institute of Bartending, says his schedule has been packed since mid 2021.

“Before the pandemic we took on at least 60 events per month and now that has shrunk to half that number. Events are smaller, with just 20 people and all safety precautions in place. Being a freelance bartender is slowly paying dividends again,” he says.

On the West coast, Vasundhara Vats, who designs masterclass cocktail workshops for small parties, says the freelance life chose her even before 2020.

“I lived in Mumbai for a bit, where I worked at Soho House, and then moved to Goa. When you're working six nights a week till 2am at a bar, it doesn't allow for any meaningful interactions with friends. You don't get to enjoy the sunlight, brunches and everything else that really appealed to me. I had the luxury of quitting a full-time bartending career so I would work on my own terms,” she says.

While Goa is the perennial party destination in the country, “monsoon months bring little work,” adds Vats, who now caters to small parties at villas, where she curates D-I-Y cocktail experiences, in a State blessed with a bouquet of fresh, floral and fruity ingredients.

Her drinks are served with fresh mixers — syrups with lavender and chamomile, rose lemonade and floral tonics.

“I decide my menu based on what I can find at Mapusa market — usually some luscious mulberry, passion fruit, and plenty of cucumber, which I think is the most underrated addition to a drink,” says Vats

Homegrown spirits

Abhirup Bhattacharyya, seasoned bartender-turned-brand ambassador for Maka Zai, a homegrown rum brand based out of Goa, says drinking habits have changed since 2020.

“A large number of people have started mixing at home. This was mainly because of the pandemic, but it is slowly becoming part of a lifestyle,” he says, adding that they now want a refined drinking experience, with sophisticated cocktails fashioned from homegrown spirits.

The gin resurgence in India, riding high on brands like Hapusa, Greater Than and Jaisalmer, among others, is pushing bartenders to experiment with their menus. Pierson Fernandes, school director, European Bartender School, Goa describes their butterfly pea flower-infused gin, which on meeting citrus turns from blue to purple. “It’s a big hit with guests at house parties,” he says, adding that “Vodka has faded into the background, whisky sours are a hit, and the rums are used for mojitos.”

Taking cocktails up a notch with homemade shrubs and syrups from scratch, and using substitutes like honey or jaggery instead of refined sugar, are par for the course for Sourav Singh who runs his bartending business in Kolkata, after stints across Delhi. As hosts look to offer their guests a customised experience at home, or a lavish suite at a hotel, the brief is simple — flair bartending meets a mindful approach to mixing drinks.

Sourav prides himself over his zero waste operation. “These days we make a lot of Old Fashioned, using orange garnishes. As a result I have so much left over orange pulp, with which I make a drink — Houston we have a problem, where marmalade is mixed with Bourbon, citrus and topped with wheat beer.”

From banquet halls, the party has now moved to penthouses. “I make sure the bartenders are dressed well for the occasion. We even tailor different sets of aprons and accessories to suit the ambience of a party,” says Sourav, adding that his staff comprises certified bartenders with over three years of experience at bars across big metros.

Across Tier 1 cities, junior bartenders charge anywhere between ₹2,000 to ₹4,000 for a night. They bring their own garnishes, shrubs and syrups prepared from scratch, while glassware and other mixers are charged on actuals. Senior mixologists and flair bartenders command over ₹5,000 to ₹15,000 depending on the number of guests at a party and the kind of cocktails on the menu. The hosts always provide the alcohol.

Sandeep Varma, founder and CEO, Institute of Bar Operations and Management, who has been in the business for over two decades in the Delhi-NCR region says the pandemic was a wake up call. “Suddenly, the big money events were few and far between. We had to take the virtual route and conduct cocktail workshops.”

His bartending course has found willing takers across professions. “Some hotel management students do a bartending course and can take up a job as a full time bartender or start their own business with a certification. But we found people from other backgrounds eager to become bartenders, so they could moonlight at house parties after a 9-5 job,” Varma explains.

In Chennai as well, professionals are looking at bartending classes to make money on the side, while learning a cool new skill.

“My student bartenders — IT engineers — can make around ₹15,000 a month with a few events,” says Nalla Samy, explaining how quickly the market is expanding. He adds, “Also, it's a change of scene from their day jobs!”

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