Passing the bar exam

Sandeep Arora heads south and checks out the bars in Bangalore and Chennai. Here's his pick of the best watering holes for discerning tipplers.

     Print Edition: December 12, 2010

Sandeep Arora heads south and checks out the bars in Bangalore and Chennai. Here's his pick of the best watering holes for discerning tipplers. This is the second part of our series on the best whisky bars of India.

As we discussed in the last issue, where we looked at the best bars of north India, finding a good whisky bar is not easy. To qualify, not only should the bar offer a great selection of whiskies, including blends, single malts and rare offerings from private bottlers, it must also have a staff that is trained to know its whisky. Then, there's the question of having the right glassware, being able to match the right food to the whisky, and offering the perfect ambience to drink it in. Get all these factors right, and drinking in the bar becomes as much of an education as a pleasure. For our second instalment of our series on India's Best Whisky Bars, we've gone south, and looked at Chennai and Bangalore. Both cities have an open attitude towards enjoying one's tipple and offer some of the most delicious food in the country. While Hyderabad too offers great restaurants and food, it doesn't score that well on the whisky bars front, largely due to state excise issues. Our only regret is not being able to include any standalone bars in the list but, for peat's sake, we couldn't let our criteria crumble.

The Library bar
The Leela Palace, Bangalore

Plush seating, a classy Art Deco style, impressive woodwork and a fine array of malts come together to create a 'palace' experience at the Library Bar. One of the finest whisky bars in India, this watering hole has a good selection of whiskies and a staff that is well-acquainted with the spirit. Indeed, its the enthusiasm and vast knowledge of the team at the bar that gives the Library Bar an edge over others. Although the place itself is not very large, the lovely ambience ensures that guests have a warm experience. The bar is popular with expats, international tourists as well as Indian corporates. The portfolio is significant, and the bar offers a selection of over 60 whiskies, including some rare and old malts. The food is good, though the selection of dishes could be more innovative. My pick of the drinks here would be a Macallan 18 YO, that holds well with a small nip of water.

Highland Nectar
ITC Royal Gardenia, Bangalore

A contemporary bar located in one of the finest destinations in Bangalore, Highland Nectar scores high on both ambience and portfolio. Besides a vast range of single malts, blends, special editions and Japanese whiskies (still a rarity in India), the bar also offers interesting whisky cocktails. The staff is well trained and displays a passion for whiskies. Regulars include business heads and lovers of the amber nectar. Food is well paired, especially with Indian dishes, capturing the essence of local flavours. While the wasabe prawns go well with Laphroaig 10 YO, the Lagavulin 16 YO, Ladyburn 1973 and Macallan 25 YO hold well on their own. A Whisky Museum allows guests to see, touch and feel whisky history. Enjoy the Nikka from the Barrel or cradle a gentle Glenlivet 21 YO.

The Polo Club
The Oberoi, Bangalore

Start your evening here with a generous dram of Balvenie 21 YO. Open, fresh and lively, the Polo Club offers guests the option of both indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the hotel gardens. Rich use of leather, wood and stained glass gives the inside the look of an English pub. Outside, the veranda is dotted with wicker chairs with cheerful yellow cushions and surrounded by landscaped lawns. This is one of the few bars in India where aficionados can enjoy an early evening whisky or a late night premium malt or even a light Speysider in the late afternoon. That's because the Club is open from 10 am to 11 pm. While the whisky list is not large, the bar is worth a visit for its ambience and some interesting whisky expressions. The food menu is a mix of Indian and international favourites like tenderloin satay, prawn tempura and Cajun spice fish fingers. Come evening, live entertainment among flickering lamps ups the charm.

Westminister Bar
Sheraton Park Hotel, Chennai

When you enter Westminster, the first thing that greets you is a sense of understated elegance and good music. This is a bar where one enjoys choosing one's poison from a wide selection of whiskies, including some elusive single malts. Set in a cozy corner of the hotel, the setting is designed to ensure privacy and intimacy. Seating 56 guests, it never looks too crowded. The service is polite and whisky appears to be the most preferred drink. That's explained when you see the impressive display and the Glencairn glasses that the spirit is served in. While there is good food on offer, most guests seem to retire to Dakshin restaurant once their 'spirit'ual journey is over. But while the restaurant is great, its the bar which is the star. The Westminster is one of those bars that is made for relaxing in with a Glenfiddich 18 YO.

Taj Coromandel, Chennai

This bar was re-furbished in 2009 and the new, stylish avatar carries a large selection of whiskies. The key strategy of Chipstead is great pricing, and that's really paid off. The bar is a clear hit with local guests. The food list is good and wholesome, reflecting the culture of Chennai, where liquor and food go hand in hand. The whisky list has over 60 selections and is well spread across all key verticals. Water plays a crucial role in the presentation of the drink, and is pre-offered with each peg. The Malt Trail and Whisky Safari are interesting offers that get you to sample a wide range of whiskies, with different palates and ages, and paired with small portions of food; a great way to get an overview of the portfolio. The Dalmore 12 YO with spicy chicken is a wicked combination. Post dinner, Chipstead attracts guests looking at enjoying the whisky experience with companions and out-of-town friends. The staff here is friendly and enjoys offering up stories to go with the malts.

ITC Windsor, Bangalore

Though named after the Irish capital, Scotch whisky forms the focal point of this bar and is the lead beverage here. It is offered here with the passion and confidence that comes when you have a wide selection on offer, a good understanding of the spirit and a regular stream of guests to enjoy it. Dublin is one of India's leading bars in offering premium vintages, with a whisky list that includes the ITC Private Vintage range and some rare single malts. Food is largely pub style, but the selection goes well with the drinks. Set in the lobby area, Dublin is the first sight that greets visitors to the hotel. Much like its counterpart in New Delhi, Dublin is tastefully furnished like an atmospheric old-school cigar bar. Largely frequented by expatriates, the bar stays popular even post dinner. I'd recommend starting with a bottle of Girvan 1964, accompanied by a robust cigar, before stepping out to the poolside, as the evening wears on, to enjoy the quiet with a 27 YO Ladyburn 1973.

The Blue Bar
Taj Westend, Bangalore

An island bar, it reflects the mood of old Bangalore: swinging, cheerful and open minded. The Blue Bar gets busy on weekends with spirits flowing liberally with the music. The whisky collection is well selected and includes some interesting labels. Here, you'll find brands that are not easily available in India. From Scotch whiskies to American bourbons, they're all there on the menu. Whisky paired dinners are held regularly. The liquor display is cleverly arranged, inviting guests to cosy up to the new whiskies that are positioned close to the counter. The staff enjoys regaling patrons with whisky stories and dishes that are a mix of Asian and Indian. Post drinks, most guests go off to dine at the Blue Ginger, and then return for a late night dram. Share a large dram of the JW Gold Label Fffrozen... Enjoy Responsibly.

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