Perseverance pays off, and the Countertop India team knows that well. The year 2022 has been nothing short of extraordinary for the duo, Arijit Bose and Pankaj Balachandran, founders of the beverage services company. You will know them better as the men behind the global success of Goa’s Tesouro By Firefly (currently closed for maintenance). Most recently, the drinkery has been ranked as one of the top 100 bars in the world and Number 4 in Asia. The bar opened in the middle of the lockdown in 2020 and instantly perked cocktail connoisseurs because it was part of the new breed of establishments that took their drinks more seriously than their food.
After winning accolades, successfully completing guest shifts and exchange programmes across the world, Countertop India introduced Ready-To-Drink cocktails under the moniker of Mr Jerry’s. It has five variants, including the party favourite Long Island Iced Tea as well as newbie cocktail enthusiasts’ delight Espresso Martini. But, Bose and Balachandran aimed for even greater heights. That it came at a cost of diluting their majority stake in Countertop was not a hard decision because they sourced funding from equally passionate drinksters at Third Eye Distillery.
My conversation with Arijit Bose, co-founder of Countertop India, was in late August over Google Meet. Since then, team Countertop (and Third Eye Distillery) launched a spirit brand, Short Story, with vodka, white rum and gin. They also took over the bar on the reopening of The Bombay Canteen and helped introduced a new spirit in the country.
The frenetic pace at which Bose and Balachandran are growing their business comes as a surprise, especially keeping in mind the biases and taboos that the Indian alcoholic beverages space suffers. But their growth has been years in the making. Countertop India Beverage Services and its previous avatar BarBack Collective for the last seven years have been responsible for setting up some of the most reputed bars in India, including PCO in Delhi and Neuma in Mumbai.
If that doesn’t set the preamble for an unbridled passion to be the best, these excerpts of a no-holds-barred hour-long conversation with Arijit Bose will. He talks about the slow but necessary change in Indian bars, the importance of balancing passion and business, and the crucial necessity of training for floor staff.
1. What makes India relevant in the global cocktail scene today?
The focus is finally on quality. Previously, people were trying to sell whatever they could or were imitating without really understanding what it takes to make a good quality cocktail. In 2010, when I used to work for other bars, the extent of creativity was limited to a watermelon martini; an old-fashioned and a whiskey sour was the same thing in an Indian bar. Very few people understood or cared about the nuances. At the same time, Indian spirits were not up to the mark, so we were always looking for international spirits, which were expensive restricting profitability.
With the gin guys coming into play, excise laws easing up and other stakeholders in the bar business getting clever, a lot of things started working in tandem. Plus, social media was a great help. And as more owners started travelling across the world, trying new bars, they realized that setting up a good bar is not that difficult.
2. How has this change physically manifested in Indian bars?
If you look at bars in India now — whether it is the Living Room, Sidecar or us at Tesouro — our prep begins at 9 in the morning. There's someone cutting ice, another in charge of getting ingredients. We now know how to activate people, optimise Instagram plus sustainability is also part of the equation. None of this was being done previously. We're learning from what happened in the Asia market.
Everyone tended to think that just because you make a great cocktail, your bar is awesome. It’s more than that — there is lighting, music, loyalty. It is not about getting drunk but imbibing the experience properly. Homegrown spirits brands have come into the fore with Stranger & Sons, Greater Than and others. There are a number of people trying to get into this space and they are competing, stepping up the game. Now, even international brands want skin in the game. All this is combining to produce an ecosystem where bars can exist at the same level that's happening in Asia.
3. How did the partnership between Countertop and Third Eye Distillery come about?
I think it's just our love for bars and good drinks. Pankaj and my way of navigating the world has never been tourist sites but bars. It is where you meet others in the profession and how they're pushing the industry forward. I’ve had the opportunity to work at bars in Singapore and garner first-hand experience. Our whole deal was how do we get more of our bars and more of our bartenders to pursue the same excellence. The team at Third Eye Distillery shares the same view. They understand that for them to be able to survive, the whole village needs to work together. It just can’t be about a gin or a bar or a bartender. We must be relevant; not high society drinking, but about just enjoying drinks.
We were worried because we had built this ecosystem and wondered whether somebody else would understand the vision. Would the money change our way of operating? Will we have to run programs that we don't want to? But when we all sat in the room, it was amazing. Everyone understood what we were talking about.
The whole idea is to help more bars and bartenders improve the quality of cocktails and that ‘real recognizes real’. We are bartenders and Third Eye Distillery has a corporate structure that is a lot more organized. They are helping us organize it in a better way, to reach larger targets.
4. What is your biggest motivation to keep pushing the limits of good bartending?
What Pankaj and I have tried to do is make sure that bartending is viable, so that we get paid more than doctors, engineers and other professions that our parents used to push us towards. It may seem capitalistic, but unless we can show that we are living that life, we will not be able to convince others.
There is a difference between a great cocktail and a great cocktail and bar experience. You can have a great cocktail experience once a month, but you need a great bar experience twice a week. It takes a lot of conviction. Right when we did PCO, everyone said ‘don't do an egg cocktail’. I was adamant because it impacts quality. If I have three people buying it a month, I would have been happy. We started selling 3,000 of those. If you do it properly, you follow the rules and you make sure it's presented every time, consistently.
Naysayers will always be there, but you have to be extremely confident and have belief. If you want to do what you want to do, you have to kind of read through that traffic and find your niche.
5. Where does the consumer stand in this entire conversation?
The consumer is an important part of the ecosystem. So, that's why we're talking about the vibe of a bar. And if you can educate the consumer without being preachy, you’re good. Consumers have become very smart. We are not in the 1980s-90s middle-class era. Everyone has understood that travel is the real currency. Consumers are going for the experience, and they come back and say, ‘I had this drink, it was simple. Can you guys make it?’ That's what's been pushing us.
Also, no one goes to nightclubs anymore, but when you come to bars, where we exist, you will have engaging conversations. It’s the floor staff’s job to ensure people get the right drink — our aim is to train them because the maximum drinks are sold by them. So, for years when you would be telling somebody, ‘listen, my drink is sweet’, they would just give them something else. If you don't enjoy cocktails yourself, you can't sell them. If you don't enjoy wine yourself, you will not be able to sell it.
6. How does Tesouro achieve all this?
It is who we are. We were not trying to be anything. We were creating a neighbourhood bar and we get to do what we have always wanted to do without somebody telling us. I will cut ice, I will give a bunch of people free shots and have a great time with them. Our aim is to bring back the hospitality in the business. But I can't say that to a guy who's not making money. I have to show him. It has to be about enjoyment rather than showing off. And when somebody decides to spend a little bit more money, the drink that's coming to them better be worth that value.
Tesouro opened during Covid, so we knew it was a place of solace. We had to put down a lot of things to ensure we came across as a pure bar and not a restaurant bar. In effect, it is about the ethos. Not just doing a lot of things right, but a lot more about not doing the wrong thing. From a very technical point of view, we wanted our team to have all the tools.
7. Where does sustainability fit into the equation?
We are not a sustainable bar but we do have practices that lead towards sustainability. A lot of great sustainability plans work outside and on paper but are not practically possible in a bar. Plastic straws are a perfect example. Everyone had it at a point of time, but today it means nothing. Sustainability is small battles that you fight every month.
We work with a company called WeRecycle in South Goa. They process garbage properly and segregation was the first part of it. We use cans instead of PET bottles just because soft drink cans can be recycled numerous times.