Sandeep Arora goes walkabout in North India, and hunts out the best watering holes for discerning tipplers. The first in a series.
So what makes a good bar a great bar? What gives it the pull, the power and the propensity to deliver each time? These are questions that invite debate, which becomes even more frenzied when it comes to choosing a 'good whisky bar'. Whiskies-be they blends or malts, Scotch or bourbon, young or old-offer a great deal of complexity and opportunities for engagement. The connoisseur's questions never end. How big is the bar portfolio; are there more malts or blends; does it also stock private labels? We've considered those points as well as the glassware, staff expertise, food pairings and ambience. And this is what we've found.
Hyatt Regency, New Delhi
You could call this a happening bar, with a high frequency of in-house guests. The Polo Lounge's whisky selection, glassware and display are all contemporary. Single malts move well here, and the service is easy and relaxed. The whisky range seems to be ever expanding and includes some rare labels as well. The key offering really is the ambience, which is cheerful and warm. The food is quite basic, which is surprising considering that the Hyatt has some of the city's best restaurants. But then, the hotel's probably counting on your moving to one of the restaurants once you're done partaking the pleasures of whisky. Which is not a bad idea by any means.
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra
Romance the single malt ever so gently; take a generous sip and, as the flavours open up, enjoy a grand view of the Taj Mahal. Raise a toast to one of man's finest creations, with a legend from Scotland. Spend a moment with the sight, silence and Scotch. The Bar offers a rare experience that is best enjoyed in solitude. The whisky collection is small, but carries some good labels, both for connoisseurs and new entrants. Old-fashioned glasses cradle premium blends, that are appreciated by in-house guests as well as locals. The Bar at Amarvilas is divided into three sections: the main bar area, the lounge and the open terrace. We recommend that you opt for the third, as it offers the finest ambience of all.
Taj Bengal, Kolkata
In a city where most people hang out in clubs and good bars are difficult to come by, Junction provides a comprehensive whisky offering and great food. The bar houses a wide selection of whiskies, with a focus on single malts. The rare whisky selection is well stocked too. With over 40 whiskies on offer and an easy, lounge feeling, this is the perfect place to unwind in, over a drink. Frequented by corporates, local whisky lovers and international guests, Junction is a must-visit in Calcutta.
ITC Maurya, New Delhi
Voted the finest whisky bar in India by Icons of Whisky two years ago, the Golf Bar has an impressive range of whiskies, including the ITC WelcomGroup Private Vintage 1975, the only such in India. The range is large and malts are offered in original whisky glasses, called Glencairn, with a wee drop of water. You can often find guests in conversation with the staff, which takes pride in the collection that covers Scotch, American, Japanese and Irish whisk(e)ys. Interestingly, this is a bar that's full even post dinner.
Taj Palace, New Delhi
The uber-contemporary look is the first thing that strikes you as you make your way to the bar across Blue Ginger, the Vietnamese restaurant at Taj Palace. A fine collection of over 50 whiskies is on offer, including some great single malts, luxury blends and iconic whisky cocktails. The staff is well-informed and ever-eager to make suggestions. The glassware is nice, although a bit on the traditional side. Whilst the bar inside is stylish, true romance is unleashed when you step out onto the terrace. Green surroundings, a nip in the air and a generous dram of Talisker 18 YO with a few close friends; sweet dreams are made of these.
The Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon
A long corridor showcasing premium spirits leads you to Rubicon at The Leela Kempinski in Gurgaon. This is one of the few bars in India to offer whiskies from 12 YO to 50 YO. It houses the Glenfiddich 50 YO, for instance, with a single dram priced at `60,000. Even though the bar is relatively young, its collection, display and service are top-notch. The glassware is contemporary, the staff polite, the whiskies good and the selection of global cuisine rather interesting. Perhaps the credit goes to the chain as much as this particular property, since the Library Bars at the Leela Udaipur and Bangalore too are well presented and offer great ambience.
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
Sitting at a bar that's housed in a palace in the middle of a lake makes the whisky hold well and gives you a truly 'spirit'ual feeling. Offering perhaps the finest collection of spirits in Udaipur, Amrit Sagar is a very stylish bar with a great view. Both private settings and long tables are available, as is a good selection of spirits, with whisky taking centrestage. Whilst the glassware is old fashioned and its selection limited, the service and food alone are worth a visit. In the evening, whiskies are offered with fine cigars and small snacks that complement the drink. Without a doubt, it's the ambience which is the tipping point in this watering hole.
Le Meridien, New Delhi
A recent addition to the whisky bars of the capital, Nero has very distinctive and stylish interiors. Located at the lobby level, it stocks over 60 whiskies that include premium malts, blends and rare whiskies. Heavy leather, ornate interiors, fine glassware and polite service makes a visit here a remarkable experience. Since the bar is still new and hence little-known, you can enjoy your whisky in a relaxed environment. It is frequented by corporate executives for a pre-dinner social drink as well as for post-prandial pleasure.
The Taj Mahal, New Delhi
A favourite with Delhi's chatterati as well as corporates for a long time now, Rick's offers a fun ambience for whisky aficionados, with its range of 80-plus whiskies, that include some rare single malts. (For that matter, the entire hotel scores high on whisky, having cemented its reputation with the introduction of Japanese whiskies in India a few years back.) Rick's staff is consistent in its approach, and the menu is interesting. With some of the city's best barmen behind the counter, the whisky cocktails here are innovatively and impeccably presented. Cluster seating and soothing music enliven the environment and make the experience of enjoying single malts with friends, a pleasurable one.