In 2014, Nagpur-based writer Saloni Dhar (25; name changed on request) moved to Mumbai for a new job. A South Mumbai resident, Dhar often found herself visiting Gokul, Lalit or Sunlight in Fort, in search of an affordable drink, after a long day.
“I would go to Gokul at around 9.30pm. Sure, the alcohol is cheap — Rs 100 for 90ml vodka, but the place is dingy, and dimly-lit. I’d grab a drink and walk out,” says Dhar.
Things changed, however, in January 2016. The Bar Stock Exchange (TSBE) — a high-end bar that functions like a stock exchange, where the price of a drink depends on its demand — opened in Colaba and offered, for instance, 30ml of Bacardi White Rum at prices as low as Rs 50.
Dhar now has access to affordable alcohol at a well-lit bar. “It’s a safer, classier option,” she says.
She isn’t the only one. In fact, she’s part of a brigade: 20-somethings with steady disposable incomes, looking to go out for a drink or two, at pocket-friendly prices. And now they have a wide range of bars to choose from — Social (across the city), Bar Bar (Kurla), 99 Bar (Khar) and Pop Tate’s (Lower Parel), all offer drinks affordably priced between Rs99 to Rs150.
In stark contrast to dive bars, which often offer questionable food, the new-age bars not only offer low-priced alcohol, but also promise fancy food and décor. “Alcohol prices have dropped globally to make drinking more accessible. You no longer have to belong to a particular income bracket to go drinking and partying. As a result, consumption of alcohol has gone up a healthy 40% over the last year, in Mumbai. There has also been a 50% increase in the consumption of international alcohol brands,” says Mihir Desai, co-owner, TBSE.
It’s important to note, however, that the great décor — the comfortable couches instead of chairs at Bar Bar, or quirky elements such as a shipping container and beer bottle chandeliers at Social — or the basic real estate, come at no cheap cost. How then, do these new-age bars cope with selling cheap alcohol and maintaining their fancy interiors?
“We have the support of alcohol brands, thanks to an increase in volume. They offer us affordable deals from the supply end of the chain,” says Desai, choosing not to elaborate further on the wholesale deals TBSE has struck with alcohol brands.
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However, Pragnesh Rai, co-owner of SamBar, a new pub at Khar that offers affordable alcohol and south Indian bar bites (fries with gun powder chutney, for instance), says that it is only the bigger chains that lift bulk stock of alcohol. “For smaller, up and coming pubs, it is not the most prudent option. Sure, there is an option of cutting on the percentage of profit, but it is unfeasible in the longer run,” he says.
Food for thought
As a result, smaller bars choose another option to keep their profits afloat: offering quality food leaning toward the higher end of the spectrum — Rs 200 for a platter of idli at SamBar, and a plate of egg bhurji, at 99 Bar. “Taxes on mixer rates have increased too, due to the additions — Swacch Bharat Tax, Drought Tax on top of the VAT,” he says.
However, both Desai and Rai argue that food pricing constitutes roughly 30 to 40% of their total revenue, and a special effort is made to source local ingredients, in order to experiment with bar bites. “The customers we cater to are well-travelled. That gives us the freedom to explore world cuisine. Asian food, for instance, is currently popular in the city, thanks to the spices used and its resemblance to Indian cuisine,” says Desai.
The patrons, too, seem not to mind investing a few hundred rupees extra. “I have more choice at these bars. I also have the guarantee of the food being healthy, for which I am willing to spend the money I have saved on inexpensive alcohol,” says Dhar.