Yangdup Lama, co-owner of Sidecar bar in India, dives into the spirituality and innovation behind his illustrious career

The mixologist and entrepreneur also founded Cocktails & Dreams in 2003, a mobile bartending company and beverage consultancy.

The superstar bar impresario of Sidecar in New Delhi (Photo: Patrick Goh/The Edge)

It is perhaps man’s design to be in constant pursuit of meaning and fulfilment. To discover one’s calling is arguably the achievement of a lifetime, made even more coveted by the fact that few are lucky enough to discover what “purpose” means to them. That does not stop us from being fascinated with success stories, however, whether these allow us to feel inspired or live vicariously through others.

Yangdup Lama, the superstar bar impresario and co-owner of Sidecar in New Delhi, India, has one such tale. From his early years as a server working in hotels, the mixologist and entrepreneur founded Cocktails & Dreams in 2003 — a mobile bartending company and beverage consultancy that later expanded into a speakeasy and school — and most notably co-owns Sidecar with business partner Minakshi Singh. Since its opening in 2018, Sidecar is unshakeable as India’s best bar and proudly counts itself among Asia’s 50 Best Bars.

The several accolades in Lama’s portfolio are only the stuff of dreams for most other mixologists. That said, while engaging in conversation with him, it is impossible to not quickly notice his sincerity and modesty, as well as an aura of genuineness.

These striking characteristics stem from Lama’s childhood in Darjeeling. Descended from a line of monks (hence his surname), he and his family lived a humble life influenced by the traditions and beliefs inherited from their ancestors. “I think simplicity is nice,” he says. “When you come from a humble background, it keeps you grounded. It has been 27 years since I moved from my hometown to Delhi, and now I live a very cosmopolitan life. But despite all that time, I feel like a more mindful being and that is purely because of my roots. It’s always great to have the best of both worlds.”


Sidecar proudly counts itself among Asia’s 50 Best Bars (Photo: Sidecar)

While Lama and his father never entered monkhood themselves, spirituality never lost its meaning. In fact, he credits his unassuming childhood for his ability to keep his feet on the ground in the glitzy, whirlwind high-end hospitality industry. But how do piety and bartending go together? Can the two truly mix? Well, he assures that one need not be “in a place of worship to attain Nirvana”, and that executing one’s actions with passion and earnestness is most important.

“For me, the path to enlightenment is to be able to be happy within that environment of a bar with the wonderful people around me and to discover the way to Nirvana from there. If you do something that is straight from the heart and it brings you happiness, I think that in itself is spiritual achievement.”

These fundamental principles are channelled into Lama’s work, which serve as love letters to his origins and motherland. “I love storytelling and bringing cultural heritage and originality to a drink,” he smiles. And he does so by highlighting flavours he grew up with in India and knows like the back of his hand.

The mark of a good cocktail is balance between taste, scent and appearance. This harmony is precisely what he aims to bring into not just the beverages he crafts, but the experience of entering his bar, thus enabling him to cater to all tastes. “What I try to do is bring in inspirations and flavours and convert these in a way that meets the needs of the customer. I want to make sure that if there are 20, 15 drinks on a menu, there is something for each person who comes into the bar, be it in terms of flavour, aroma or presentation.”


A twist on Sidecar’s namesake drink, the Toast to Myrtle cocktail combines cognac, myrtle leaf cordial and lime (Photo: Ananth Kumar/Sidecar)

Even after so many years, Lama continues to find newness in his creations and routine. While this is partly due to his zeal for bartending, it means his job “never really feels like work” and that his enthusiasm for nurturing and collaborating with the next generation of mixologists is what keeps the wheels turning. “I do not like to implement just my thoughts,” he mentions, expressing his joy at helping juniors fine-tune their basic techniques to do their grandest ideas justice. “I have a lot of young people working with me, so when we create a menu, it is not just Yangdup Lama — it is all of us.”

As a celebrated personality in the international bartending field, Lama’s profession allows him to travel all over the world and experience different cultures, communities and drinking scenes (Seoul is his favourite city for bar-hopping). One such trip last October saw him in Scotland for the extraordinary honour of being inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich — an esteemed group of individuals whose work have outstandingly contributed to the Scotch whisky industry.

At the ceremonial dinner, Auld Lang Syne, a Scottish tune primarily heard on New Year’s Day but also at graduations and birthdays, was performed, which Lama notes was a special touch that brought him back to his boyhood in Darjeeling. “In Bengal, there lived a renowned literary figure named Rabindranath Tagore,” he explains. “He had taken the original Auld Lang Syne and converted it into a Bengali song, which I sang in my schooling days. So as the song was sung at dinner, I was up on my chair singing along with everyone.”


The Titepati features vermouth infused with Darjeeling mugwort (Photo: Ananth Kumar/Sidecar)

Still, nothing compares to home for Lama, where his core work and aspirations remain for the foreseeable future as Sidecar continues to grow. “Recognition is great, but it brings bigger responsibilities. The one thing we never want to compromise or dilute are Sidecar’s standards. We want to make sure that every guest that enters gets not only the best cocktails but also warm hospitality. We want it to be there for a very long time, not just as the top bar in India but also as an iconic establishment. We hope it creates history in the long run and brings cocktail culture in the country forward.”

The horizon holds no shortage of exciting happenings, new flavours and interesting people for Lama. Yet, it is the simple things in life that never lose their appeal — be it a visit to Darjeeling where family and memories call him back to after all these years, or an honest glass of whisky (“always on the rocks”, at least when he is drinking alone) that never fails to satisfy his soul.

This article first appeared on May 13, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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