New dawn in Delhi: how one young bartender is pioneering a more representative hospitality sector

Josh Ong - 23/11/2023

From 600 applications down to just one: Apoorva Kohli is the winner of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship as part of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2023.  Read about how this year’s recipient is trailblazing a path towards a more equitable bar sector

“Until 2007, you weren’t even allowed to be a bartender in India as a woman!” says Apoorva Kohli. “So when I applied, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would make it through the first stage. Then I was in the top 25; then the top five; then the top three...”

Finally, on 17 October in Singapore, the young Indian’s name flashed across the screen at the ceremony for The World’s 50 Best Bars 2023, sponsored by Perrier. The 21-year-old Kohli, a native of New Delhi, was named the second-ever recipient of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship. “I didn’t even process what happened for the two days following the ceremony,” she adds, still in something of a state of shock weeks later.

Rewind many months to when 50 Best, in partnership with The Blend by Beam Suntory, started its sophomore search for the next generation of bartending talent. With more than 600 applications received, budding bartenders from across the globe each put forward their #FuturePositive vision to build a better hospitality sector. Ultimately, one candidate emerged as the deserving winner on the back of a pioneering philosophy built on platforming her contemporaries.
Apoorva Kohli from New Delhi was named the winner of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship 2023

In her short time in the industry, with only three-years’ total experience behind the stick, Kohli is already giving back to her community and laying the groundwork for a new generation of under-represented aspiring professionals to follow in her wake.

Answering the call

Kohli’s heart has always been in hospitality, she explains. “Being from India, you’re very used to being hospitable, hosting people in your own home frequently. So it all came very naturally to me.” Chasing her calling, she enrolled in a hotel management course, but with no knowledge or intention of pursuing a life of cocktail creation.

Her first exposure to the bar world came when she encountered the annual India Cocktail Week festival, which was a novel experience for her. It was at the event that she met her self-professed mentor, Rohan Matmary, then head of beverage operations at Sidecar (No.18 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023), now bar manager of Kuala Lumpur's Bar Trigona (No. 36 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023).

After a few short conversations about the craft, Matmary identified a spark in Kohli, and invited her to be Sidecar’s first ever female intern. “She was so curious” says Matmary. “She had a bold way of questioning the status quo and that’s a part of me I saw in her.”

Kohli was next-to-clueless behind the bar when she started, she admits: “I didn’t even know how to make an Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour!” Being thrust behind India’s most highly regarded bar was a baptism of fire. Kohli recalls one particularly busy shift from the earliest days of her internship, where she required Matmary to bellow recipe instructions over the top of the saturated bar’s Saturday night crowd. Her tenacity and desire to learn meant it didn't take long before she was up to speed and able to deliver the stellar service and creations Sidecar is renowned for.
Kohli started as an intern at lauded bar Sidecar, before later returning as a full-time bartender

After graduation, the dynamic Kohli received numerous offers of employment from hotels, but her heart was now set on a career behind the bar. “I felt like I belonged more at Sidecar than I ever did at these hotels,” she says. With little hesitation, she returned to India’s leading drinks establishment as a full-time bartender.

Driving for change

Kohli rapidly cemented herself into the DNA of the bar, travelling with its team to spread the word about Sidecar and the wider Indian hospitality sector. When she saw the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship reopen for applications, it was an opportunity to further that ambition.

Within her application, alongside her goal to showcase her home country’s under-recognised bar scene, she identified the need to redefine and represent women in India’s hospitality community. “I thought that if I made a name for myself here, it would not just be for me, but to help inspire more female bartenders to rise up in India,” she says. Regardless of how far she progressed in the process, she wanted to prove that people like her – whether Indian, a woman, or both – could excel in the field.

“When I started in the industry, I could count the number of Indian female bartenders on one hand. Even in New Delhi, which is meant to be metropolitan and open-minded, I could only name one woman. It was heartbreaking,” says Kohli.

“People say that you see it so often in India that you just get used to it. I just didn’t want to get used to it,” she affirms. “There was a lot of talk on the matter, but never any action.” The scholarship was her chance to effect tangible change and shape the future of India’s bar sector.
The three scholarship finalists pose with The Blend team at The World's 50 Best Bars 2023 in Singapore

Kohli and her fellow finalists - Demitria Dana Paramita from Indonesia and Germany’s René Karthäuser - travelled to Singapore in October to attend The World’s 50 Best Bars 2023 events. Kohli recalls her time in Singapore, even prior to her coronation, very fondly. Any feelings of overwhelm were quickly quelled by the bartending community’s warm embrace. “We would walk into random bars and people would be celebrating us, saying they were rooting for all three of us,” she says.

Back home, her achievement was also greeted with pride. “I felt like the whole country celebrated for me more than I did myself,” she laughs. True to her original mission and philosophy, this win was not hers alone, but rather for the whole country to share. When she had processed her achievement, she saw it as a commitment to the current and next generation of hospitality workers that the future is bright.

It was no empty promise, either. Just a short while after her whirlwind few days in Singapore, she returned to Sidecar to host its first ever ‘Young Guns’ event: an evening showcasing six of India’s rising stars. “Without the scholarship, I don’t think the event would have happened,” she says. “We wanted to show that there are so many young bartenders out there who deserve the limelight.

“I may not have believed I would win [the scholarship], but since I did, I’ve seen so many people now open to getting that dream themselves. That’s really my cause: to give back.”

Looking ahead

As this year’s 50 Best Bars The Blend scholar, Kohli is set to experience two stages at world-leading bars Alquímico in Cartagena, Colombia, and Sips in Barcelona, newly crowned as The World’s Best Bar, in early 2024. After meeting her upcoming hosts across the festivities in Singapore, helmed by people she already idolised, her anticipation for the coming months has only deepened.
In early 2024, Kohli will enjoy stages at Sips in Barcelona and Alquímico in Cartagena

She notes the community spirit of Alquímico, curated by the indomitable Jean Trinh, and technique-focused approach of Sips’ Simone Caporale and Marc Álvarez as offering a totally rounded educational experience that will enhance her understanding of cocktails and hospitality. Her scholarship experience will conclude with a third educational stage with The Blend by Beam Suntory team in Madrid.

As for the direction of her career beyond the programme, Kohli sees the world as her oyster. “I really want to travel more and see the world. But even if I do end up leaving India, then New Delhi and Sidecar will always be my home,” she adds.

Despite her juniority in the field, Kohli is already making her mark on the Indian bar sector. With wisdom and proficiency beyond her 21 years, she is set to be an international role model for a brighter future in hospitality.

The 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship will reopen for applications in 2024 for all aspiring bartenders across the world over 21-years-old with under five full years’ experience.

Miss the ceremony? Watch the highlights here:
The 15th edition of The World’s 50 Best Bars, sponsored by Perrier, was announced on Tuesday, 17th October 2023 in Singapore. To stay up to date with the latest news and announcements, browse the website, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on X and subscribe to our YouTube channel.