From whiskey to Bacardi; how Delhi’s nightlife evolved post reforms

Bar owner Vaibhav Singh sheds light on how India has grown into the largest growing market for alcoholic beverages consumption over the last few years due to rise of a new professional class


Vaibhav Singh of Perch, a wine and coffee bar in Delhi’s Khan Market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Vaibhav Singh of Perch, a wine and coffee bar in Delhi’s Khan Market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

In the year 1996 when McDonald’s and Domino’s opened outlets in Delhi, 17-year-old Vaibhav Singh in distant Haldwani was coming to terms with the fact that he may not be able to fulfil his parents’ dream of becoming a doctor. Haldwani is a small town in the foothills of Nainital, where Singh says, children judged each other on the height of the cliff they jumped from or the distance they cycled in the hills.

“Being a doctor’s son, my parents expected either me or my brother to carry on my father’s legacy but I realized early on that pursuing it meant studying for a long period of time and I wasn’t very academically inclined.” Singh was sent to Delhi in 1996 after his class XII exams for medical coaching but he realized that things were changing. “I have a few uncles who were in garment exports and suddenly, they were doing very well. Media started booming and I realized that engineering and medicine were not the only options.”

Singh joined McDonald’s as a crew member—he was being paid Rs2,800, which was good money those days—but had to quit as his local guardian became very upset. “The sentiment was, ‘don’t we feed you, why do you have to do this?’ It became very awkward, so I left the job.” But what was an awkward experience became the building block of his professional life, as he went on to become a player in the food and beverages industry.

Singh studied hotel management and took a job with ITC Maurya Sheraton in Delhi. Though he worked as a butler, his weekends were spent helping out in what was then Delhi’s most happening night club, Ghungroo. “It was around this time (1997-98) that Sheraton opened its first golf bar. The sport was coming of age in India, DLF had just opened a gold course, there were other tie-ups, so it seemed like an idea whose time had come.” This was also the time that excise laws were being overhauled so that it became easier now to get a licence to import alcohol.

Singh recalls with a smile on his face how the golf bar had a collection of 57 single malts and how he had hand-written notes about each one of them. “Before that, the fanciest whisky we knew was Glenfiddich. People either drank ‘scotch’ or ‘Glenfiddich’ and suddenly, we had these options.” Ghungroo gave way to a new pub, Dublin, which had beer on tap for the first time and it had an exhaustive collection of Irish whiskey. “The thing is that we had a better collection then, than we do now. The rules have changed again and now it’s much more expensive to import foreign liquor; so, the choice in the market has gone down again.”

Singh’s journey in the food and beverages industry has tracked the growth of the sector and as such, he has interesting insights on how the drinking culture was evolving towards the turn of the century. From whisky and rum, people were moving on to vodka. “Bacardi was a young brand, Smirnoff was what the cool guys drank. Suddenly, there were people apart from the old regulars at expensive bars and most of these new patrons, as far as I can remember, had made their money in automobiles and garments.”

India has always had a complicated relationship with alcohol—always something to be enjoyed behind closed doors and when it came to women and drinking, there were a lot of taboos. Till even two decades ago, women-friendly bars were few and far between. Today, it’s a different story. According to a 2014 report by Centre for Policy Research, India has the largest growing market for alcoholic beverages consumption. The paper states that liquor tariffs and taxes on liquor are high but, “...consumption of imported and domestic produced liquor has been on the rise over the past five years.”

In 2004-05 Singh moved to Agni, one of the most popular discotheques/bars of its time and recalls a very large women clientele. “I don’t know why but the women, nearly 70% of whom were bankers, felt very liberated there. It was a ritual to climb up on the bar top and dance. So yes, women had started stepping out by this time.” This was also the time that the night life culture in the city had started changing and Singh credits it mostly to a lot of disposable income thanks to call centres and other professions like advertising becoming mainstream. “Before the economic crisis of 2008, I have seen people ordering wine bottles costing upwards of Rs1 lakh as corporate entertainment. We would sell shots of Armagnac which would cost Rs35,000 and people were consuming it.”

Singh’s stories, accumulated over different stints with the city’s most happening night clubs and bars, are about unbridled spending, mostly in cash. But by 2011, as the impact of the global recession hit, the spending dropped. This was the time when Singh himself went independent by starting a speakeasy bar in Delhi and then eventually moving onto a wine and coffee bar, Perch, in Delhi’s Khan Market.

“There are these huge gaps in the market and the idea with this (Perch) was to go geeky with coffee and make wine more accessible. Even today, most Indians tend to be very conventional with their eating and drinking choices, so this is an attempt to push the envelope,” he says. According to him, setting up an independent business has become easier than it was two to three years ago. “Should I give credit for this to the government? Yes; but mostly, it is also because we as an industry have come together; our association, led by young entrepreneurs, has become more strong. Now, most of the procedure is online, you don’t have to go through touts. But even now, most of the directions remain grey, things need to be defined more clearly.” According to him, the high rates of tax and registration fee are one of the main reasons why the back-bar is shrinking in so many restaurants.

“If reforms hadn’t taken place, I would have had only four or five options available to me. I consider myself blessed that I grew up in an era when the market was opening up,” he says.

This is the 50th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

To read more from Days of Our Lives, click here.

More From Livemint