When you spend three and a half months in a place like India, as I just did, you begin to notice some trends. It’s not like you’ve really become a “native,” but you do start to get a sense of how things work.
Consider alcohol. The mainstream opinion of alcohol in India is “it’s bad.” Most adults do not drink. It’s forbidden in Sikhism and Jainism, and strongly discouraged in Islam. It’s not especially encouraged in Hinduism either.
That said, people do drink. Ads for Kingfisher beer are ubiquitous, as are ads for Royal Challenge, which is the best-selling premium whisky in India. In Tamil Nadu, alcohol was only sold in restaurants/bars and state-run “TASMAC” stores. Generally the TASMAC stores cater to the average Indian, which means from a Western perspective they sell really cheap, really bad stuff. Single-malt Scotch is not to be found in most TASMAC stores. It seems to me that most folks hanging around TASMAC stores are drinking to get drunk, not to enjoy it on the way down.
Alcohol is very heavily taxed in most parts of India. At restaurants in Chennai we were charged 59% liquor tax on top of the already-high prices for alcohol. At one place, we paid about 4,000 rupees ($60) for a bottle of wine that would have been around $20 in the US, only to find out about the 59% tax when we received our bill! We also found that most of the wine we were served in India ranged from “musty” to “corked.”
This led us to order more cocktails, which are their own adventure in India! Every bar has a cocktail list, and most decent bars were well-stocked with all the usual liquors and mixers. However, even if it was obvious the bar stocked all the ingredients you might request, in most cases, you could not ask for any kind of substitutions. Want a martini? It comes with gin. Even though you can see four bottles of vodka right there behind the bar, you cannot under any circumstances get a martini made with vodka — unless it’s on the menu, which it was in one place in Delhi where we enjoyed several “vodkatinis.”
Want a drink on the rocks? You can’t have it, unless that’s the recipe for the particular drink you’re ordering. Margaritas were always served blended, martinis always straight up, mojitos always on the rocks.
Every bar serves liquor straight up, and sometimes they will put that on the rocks if you ask. You can also order some basic drinks like a gin and tonic in this way, but you’ll pay separately for the gin and the tonic. We went lots of places where elaborate drinks on the cocktail list were priced at a flat 500 rupees ($7.50) but a G&T would cost 500 for the gin plus 200 for the tonic.
The cocktail list was always a surprise. There were some drinks you could find almost anywhere, but occasionally even something as basic as a martini would be left off the menu. Most commonly seen were mojitos, margaritas, martinis, and Long Island iced teas, with frequent guest-appearances by whisky sours. Preparations varied widely from bar to bar, so a “safe” drink in one place couldn’t be counted on in another.
Waiters were generally shocked at how much ice I wanted in my drinks. I prefer to still have some ice in the glass when I finish the drink, but that counts as “way too much” by pretty much everyone in India.
While cocktails were always a surprise and often fun in India, we got tired of them quickly. Typically, once we had a cocktail or two we switched to Kingfisher. And we nearly always stayed away from the wine. The best bang for your buck is probably to buy a bottle of the best whisky you can find at a liquor store and drink in your hotel room…but it’s more fun to see what novelties you can find at the local watering holes!