New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru may be frontrunners in India’s cocktail culture, but the country’s smaller towns and cities are no longer mere spectators — they are fast catching up and turning the tide. At the 30 Best Bars India 2022 Awards held in January — the definitive list for the best bars in the country — four of Pune’s top restaurants and bars were crowned winners in three categories: Elephant & Co. (People’s Choice Best Bar 2022), Toit (People’s Choice Award for Best Microbrewery/Taproom), and Malaka Spice, and Cobbler & Crew (Best Work in Sustainability 2022).
In 2021, Pune Metropolitan Region officially became the largest in Maharashtra by area, with a geographical area of 7,256 square kilometres. For several decades, the city has been popular as a top-ranked educational destination and military centre, and today, it’s Pune’s vibrant food and beverage scene that has exploded beyond recognition. Unlike earlier, the city no longer lives in the shadow of Mumbai and has come into its own.
Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho (a drinks training and consulting firm), and 30 Best Bars India, believes the ‘secret’ of Pune’s growth in F&B rests in the dexterous hands of the city’s talented tribe of entrepreneurs. It is also encouraging that the upscale neighbourhoods of Koregaon Park and Kalyani Nagar, or Baner and Balewadi, where consumers are concentrated, are enabling the rise of concept restaurants and cocktail-first bars.
“Whether it’s the people behind Cobbler & Crew or Soy Como Soy, or even the older establishments like Malaka Spice, everyone is passionate about F&B. That’s not all — Pune is way ahead of the curve when it comes to beer in India. The tap rooms and microbreweries here continue to push the envelope,” he shares. While the liquor laws in Pune are no different from anywhere else in Maharashtra, Vikram believes the State benefits from the availability of a large selection of brands.
What sets Pune apart
There are several other reasons why the city has a flourishing ‘eating out’ culture. Praful Chandawarkar, founder of popular southeast Asian restaurant Malaka Spice, who has closely witnessed the evolution of Pune attributes the city’s thriving economy to the rise of large-scale automotive engineering and IT hubs. “Pune’s high GDP served as a catalyst for all related businesses in luxury, especially the restaurant business in the early 2000s. Also, the rents here are far more affordable than Mumbai, Delhi, or Bengaluru,” he adds. The city’s consumer prices, including rent, are 27.2% less expensive than Mumbai’s, according to a NoBroker forum.
Interestingly, students from across India and other smaller countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, and Iran migrate to the city, making it a melting pot of cultures. In the absence of their families, these youngsters are always looking for reasons to step out and have adapted to nightlife fairly quickly. This, in turn, has been the reason for a heavy churn in bars in the city, shares Nicky Ramnani, managing partner at Broski Hospitality LLP that runs Pune’s popular The Daily All Day and Tsuki.
Besides, the emergence of big corporates in Pune has created a society of professionals who are well-travelled and curious about the food and drinks they consume. This is what has also pushed restaurateurs to stay ahead of the curve, believes Sandy Singh, co-founder of Iceberg Hospitality that’s behind some of the most recognised restaurants in Pune, including Prem’s, Swig, Kinki, Euriska, and now Soy Como Soy. “Previously, only a handful of chefs would pursue courses at top culinary institutes like Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America. Today, there are many more who return to the city, armed with knowledge on what’s trending around the globe,” he adds.
A fine palate
According to State excise, the Pune district had 2,792 restaurants and bars before the pandemic — the numbers are only going to rise, believe the city’s restaurateurs. While Pune’s hipsters have always been on the radar, the trend is gradually shifting towards appeasing a section that’s more evolved in their dining choices.
Toit, which was instrumental in creating a craft beer culture in Bengaluru and Mumbai, chose Pune for its next outpost in 2019. “Over the years, we’ve witnessed a steady growth of customers patronising craft beer over other commercially manufactured beers and spirits,” reveals Kevin Tellis, Head of Operations at Toit “There’s also a major shift in the palate — patrons are willing to experiment with different styles of beers, apart from the regular wheat and lagers,” he adds.
It is not just craft beer, cocktails are also making Pune’s population heady. Vijeta Singh (of Elephant & Co. fame), co-owner of the chic Cobbler & Crew that started its journey in September 2022, is of the view that their primary audience, which falls between the age group of 25-35 years aren’t whisky and water drinkers. “They are cocktail lovers who hop from bar to bar to explore different tastes and flavours,” she says.
Thecha in your cocktail
The bar programme at Cobbler & Crew has 16 cocktails, the most popular being the ones that have tequila as their base. Their popular Oh Temptation has tequila, aperol, grapefruit juice, and homemade strawberry wine with a unique garnish of bhakarwadi (a savoury snack). Another bestseller is Golden Lady, a tequila-based cocktail with Kolhapuri chilli, basil, and black cardamom, interestingly garnished with thecha (a Maharashtrian condiment with green chillies) .
“Most of our staff, except my partner Mayur Marne, is not from Pune. Our bartenders go through an hour of brainstorming sessions every day, where they explore different ingredients,” says Vijeta, adding that their food menu, curated by chef Amit Kumar (sous Chef at the two-Michelin star Boury in Belgium) focusses on smaller portions that pair well with drinks: Togarashi Prawns, Chicken Katsu and Srilankan Sea Bass feature.
Another interesting player in Pune is Tao-Fu, nestled in the sprawling JW Marriott on Senapati Bapat Road. The restaurant that highlights Chinese heritage recipes has a unique cocktail menu that pays homage to Chinese zodiac signs, with an additional section of tea-infused craft cocktails. The five tea cocktails range from Rose Chamomile, Oolong Tea, Jasmine Tea to Hibiscus and Earl Grey Tea.
An eye for collaboration
Pune’s openness in collaborating with top names in the alco-bev industry is commendable, but it ties back to the city’s unending appetite for new concepts. Whether it’s Soy Como Soy that serves Nikkei cuisine or Tsuki, a food-forward concept focussing on Thai, Japanese, and Cantonese food, both have had their bar programmes curated by stalwarts like Yangdup Lama (of Sidecar fame) and Gurung Tanka (ex-PCO). “Being a blend of Peruvian and Japanese, Soy Como Soy has six variants of Pisco Sour on its menu. Whether it’s the Sakura Pisco Sour or the one with blueberry and lavender, our patrons have well-appreciated these drinks,” shares Sandy
At Tsuki that was born three months ago, the bar programme is technique-forward. From pre-infusing flavours like tamarind and yuzu in liquors to having more clarified drinks, they have done it all. “It’s all about taking flavour profiles from the kitchen and marrying it into your cocktails. One of my favourites is a wasabi-infused tequila drink called Wabi Sabi,” mentions Nicky.
The old favourites in the city aren’t far behind — Malaka Spice which opened in 1997 reinvented its bar programme last year to become more cocktail-centric. Their menu was previously focussed on homegrown wines and pure spirits, shares Ilvika Chandawarkar, project manager at the restaurant. “Until recently, most outlets offered overly sweet drinks. Our new menu which has been developed in collaboration with Countertop is more ingredient-driven and technique-forward. We use a lot of fruit — from water apples to star fruits, and southeast Asian ingredients like galangal and bird’s eye chilli. Moringa is another favourite,” she shares, adding that the response has been phenomenal from the age group between 25-45 years.
Spotlight on sustainability
Sustainability is another philosophy that is gradually getting embedded into bars today. Hence, the team at 30 Best Bars India deemed it fit to constitute an award, lauding the efforts of those who have been more ecologically responsible. Yet again, Pune was the star of the show, with Malaka Spice and Cobbler & Crew jointly winning the Best Work in Sustainability 2022.
For some, like farm-to-table restaurant Malaka Spice, their commitment to being responsible goes back a long way. After growing produce on their friend’s farms for a long time, they set up their own farm, Cherish, to organically grow a large selection of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Praful Chandawarkar highlights that Pune’s accessibility to good farmland and water resources has helped their case.
Cobbler & Crew is equally serious about adopting sustainable practices in everyday operations. “All the cocktail stations at the bar have pre-rinsers with low water flow to save water during operations. These rinsers use just a sufficient amount of water, enough to clean the equipment without any wastage,” concludes Mayur Marne, partner at Cobbler & Crew, adding that they have also devised strategies for ice management and the reuse of chipped glasses. They also collect waste surplus, including bubble wrap and empty plastic, converting them into disc-shaped coasters that are used at the bar.