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Delhi's speakeasy

Where the drinkin' is easy


With waitresses in flapper dresses and clandestine entries, India's new speakeasies recall Prohibition-era drinking establishments.

A new bar called PCO recently opened shop in a posh alley in South Delhi. To say it's hard to find is an understatement. The usual indicators are pointedly absent: signboard, bouncer and blaring music. What you will find, skulking in the shadows is a black phone box. For those in the know (all very Bond-ish we may add), there's a code that must be punched into the phone and voila, you're at PCO - Delhi's first speakeasy.

Speakeasies are not some 21st century invention. They date back to Prohibition America of the 1920s, and are clandestine establishments for the consumption of forbidden juices. The appellation derived from the custom of speaking discreetly about these joints in public, and keeping it low key inside. To that effect, the entrances were well hidden so as not to draw attention to their disregard for the law.

Modern-day speakeasies pay homage to the style and spirits of that era, as well as the attendant secrecy of those times - but with all the licenses in place. While the fad for password-protected cocktail bars seems to be on the wane that side of the Atlantic, the trend is somewhat catching up in India with two bars opening in Delhi, within weeks of each other.

The man behind many of Delhi and Mumbai's favourite eateries, AD Singh, has opened The Dirty Martini, a nod to the classy 1920s, replete with jazz music and waitresses in flapper dresses. "We feel that era had so much mystique, excitement and character and we've tried to bring a slice of that time to Delhi, " says Singh, who runs the popular Olive Kitchen and Grill. The Dirty Martini opened its doors to the Delhi public earlier this week.

PCO, like most post-Prohibition speakeasies, appropriates the more intriguing markers of the traditional establishment, like unmarked doors, and the need for a password. Being furtive and mysterious is a big part of what constitutes a good speakeasy.

Built to resemble an underground 1920s jazz bar, PCO can only be accessed through referrals and invitations. Patrons can either learn of the address through friends who have already been there, or they get it, along with the entrance password, through a text from one of the owners. The password controls the gate.

"We want like-minded people around us, " explains one of the owners, Vaibhav - who wishes to withhold his last name, like PCO itself wishes to keep its location under wraps.

Vaibhav clarifies that he and his partners, Radhika and Rakshay, don't want PCO to be the "talk of town". "We don't want to be seen as a trendy place, " says Vaibhav, a highly qualified bartender. "My partners had seen the trend in cities like New York, Chicago and London and we thought the time was right to open something like this in Delhi too. There's no place in this city where you can hide yourself and have a great drink. We wanted to change that, " he adds.

According to Singh, The Dirty Martini is meant for customers who're looking for better, newer experiences. Given the gentry that usually frequent his establishments, Singh will bypass the password. But he's keeping the music and liquid offerings very much in the speakeasy sphere. "There will be a lot of smoky jazz, a place where people can chill and hang out, but no loud music, " he adds.

One of the newer entrants in swanky Colaba, Ellipsis, opened by Rohan Talwar and Ranbir Batra, is yet another bar that serves sexy cocktails in murky surroundings, exuding the "speakeasy" vibe.

Speakeasies did more than offer refuge to the parched. Both Singh and Vaibhav highlight the role these joints played in the history of cocktails. "It was a landmark decade for bar tending and pretty much saw the evolution of cocktails, " points out Vaibhav.

Not always for the better, points out William Grimes, author of Straight Up On The Rocks, a seminal history of the American cocktail. In a 2009 article for The New York Times Grimes wrote: 'Prohibition, which took effect in January 1920 and finally ended in December 1933, was the worst cocktail era in the history of the United States, for obvious reasons. Half the liquor was homemade or adulterated, forcing the great classic drinks of the early 20th century to exit the stage. In their places appeared cocktails designed to mask poor ingredients, like rye and ginger ale, or the Alexander, a repellent mixture of gin, creme de cacao and cream. Real cocktails fled the country, along with a lot of professional bartenders, who took up residence at American bars in Havana, London and Paris. '

In a city where getting a good French 75 is next to impossible, few are likely to be deterred by this back story.

Reader's opinion (1)

Anand DubeyJan 31st, 2013 at 18:22 PM

what a wonderful idea!!!!!

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