Inside India’s hidden dens and prohibition cocktails

Feb 7, 2024


In October, Riya Dastidar, 32, and Mainak Sen, 33, a couple based in Mumbai, explored Kyoto’s speakeasy scene while on holiday there. The finance executives were taken aback by the abundance of bars between the Takase and Kamogawa rivers in Japan, some cleverly concealed from plain view. Their quest led them to a unique establishment tucked behind a bookcase adorned with an array of liquor bottles. Mainak reflects, “This speakeasy didn’t demand a password; a simple proof of identity sufficed.”

A snapshot of ZLB

A snapshot of ZLB
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

As the night unfolded, the couple conversed with fellow patrons, all foreigners sharing similar interests. “We later discovered that the speakeasy exclusively catered to tourists. Although no one explicitly guided us, the bar employs individuals in the vicinity who approach locals and inquire about their interest in visiting the establishment,” Riya says, adding that the India’s new wave of speakeasies fail to replicate a similar experience.

Modern-day allure

While the concept of a speakeasy has gained widespread popularity, owing in part to New Delhi’s PCO (Passcode Only) — possibly one of the country’s first speakeasies, where guests enter after punching in a constantly-changing four-digit code, capturing the true essence of a speakeasy has proven to be a challenge thereafter. However, ZLB 23, a clandestine speakeasy bar discreetly located within The Leela Palace Bengaluru, has effectively recreated the authentic speakeasy experience through its concealed entrance (tucked away in a kitchen) and vintage aesthetics.

A drink at ZLB

A drink at ZLB
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Launched in 2023, it transports patrons back to the Prohibition era, offering exceptional cocktails — think classics like the Paleman, inspired by the well-known Halloween monster, or Kyoto Sunrise, which pays homage to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Madhav Sehgal, The Leela Palace Bengaluru’s Vice President and General Manager, says the experience is exclusive and aspirational. “It’s open to all, although reservations are obligatory, with a designated number connecting patrons to someone facilitating the process. While the decision to grant reservations ultimately rests with the authorities, we strive for an exclusive atmosphere without conforming to the traditional members’ club model.”

The modern speakeasy

The speakeasy bar, which gained popularity during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s when the sale of alcohol was illegal in the United States, has found a new iteration in the contemporary drinking scene in India. While the prohibition on alcohol sales is no longer in effect, speakeasies in the modern day have evolved into bars that emphasise exclusivity.

10 Speakeasy is a plush, 150-seater bar in Bengaluru’s Ashok Nagar,

10 Speakeasy is a plush, 150-seater bar in Bengaluru’s Ashok Nagar,
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

In keeping with this spirit is 10 Speakeasy, a plush, 150-seater bar in Bengaluru’s Ashok Nagar, which began operations in May 2022. The promotion strategy for the speakeasy relies solely on word-of-mouth, limiting its presence to Instagram, where glimpses of the establishment are shared, including its art-decor inspiration. A stacked cocktail menu offers a mix of brilliant concoctions with notable mentions, including the Yuzu Derby, 4 am, and various classic options. 

A snapshot of 10 Speakeasy

A snapshot of 10 Speakeasy
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“Typically, speakeasies worldwide are characterised by their intimate size. Our establishment boasts a larger capacity, comfortably hosting up to 200 people,” says Chetak Athani, founder and owner of Kyra Hospitality, the restaurant’s parent company.

The anti-speakeasy

With his anti-speakeasy bar concept called 1960, housed in Cirqa (which began operations in September last year), a cocktail bar within a former mill in Lower Parel, owner Pankaj Gupta pays homage to Mumbai’s historical roots while looking towards the future. “I have a deep appreciation for speakeasies and wanted to create a space within a space that feels frozen in time, reminiscent of Bombay of the 1960s, where individuals engage in meaningful conversations,” says Pankaj. 

Given how easily the speakeasy concept could get diluted into an anti-speakeasy, Pankaj chose to label it as such to distance himself from the pretentiousness often associated with traditional speakeasies. The anti-speakeasy is perched on a hidden floor within Cirqa, with access granted through a secret door. 

Cirqa, a cocktail bar within a former mill in Lower Parel,

Cirqa, a cocktail bar within a former mill in Lower Parel,
| Photo Credit:
Assad Dadan

Pankaj says speakeasies typically abstain from showcasing classics on the menu since it is assumed that patrons entering a speakeasy are already well-versed in the basics of cocktails. “Our bartenders, well-versed in 45 classic cocktails with accompanying recipes, engage with customers by inquiring about their preferred spirit and then crafting cocktails,” he says. 

Truth of the matter

Pankil Shah, co-founder and director of Mumbai-based Neighbourhood Hospitality, the parent company of Woodside Inn, believes genuine speakeasies haven’t caught on in India. “A speakeasy is intentionally hard to find — a space for conversations. Unfortunately, the adoption of this culture hasn’t been as seamless in India, given the absence of a deeply ingrained cocktail culture,” says Pankil. 

After hours

Anand Virmani of Goa-based NAO Spirits & Beverages, which produces Hapusa, a contemporary Himalayan Dry Gin, and Greater Than, says the term ‘speakeasy’ is a loaded one. So, he has given patrons another reason to visit his newly opened cocktail bar, MTW, in Goa’s Panjim without the pretentiousness of labelling it a ‘speakeasy’: a place to kick back and relax. Given that the bar serves as the NAO headquarters by day, Anand has ensured the office theme lingers until the wee hours of the morning (the bar is open between 7 pm and 1 am between Mondays and Saturdays). 

MTW, in Goa’s Panjim serves as the NAO headquarters by day

MTW, in Goa’s Panjim serves as the NAO headquarters by day
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“It’s called MTW because we’re open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays when most bars in the area are closed. It’s an intimate space for friends and people from the industry. The focus is on it being a bar, not a restaurant, so we offer around eight to nine well-made cocktails and limited food options like four sandwiches, specifically toasties. It’s a place you can visit right after work or after dinner,” says Anand, who acquired the space, which used to be a hotel called Mayfair, in August last year and converted it into a bar by night in December. 

Diners at MTW

Diners at MTW
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The drinks also stick to the office theme, categorised into ’long days’, which features a refreshing highball called ASAP, ‘tough days’, which have a martini and negroni (called ‘End of Day’); and ‘half days’ are more fun, like ‘The Best Regards’, their take on the picante. “We want to reclaim cocktails by focussing on good technique and balanced flavours,” concludes Anand.

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