Friday, December 01, 2006

Drinking in Colombo

We had a thirsty flight over from Chennai as IC has stopped serving alcoholic beverages! My colleague who came over from Bangalore on Jet had a better time as he at least got a beer. We landed in Colombo and made amends for Indian Airlines' lapses by tarrying @ Orient Lanka's brilliant duty free, where Lama picked up a bottle of Woodford Reserve and we picked up some cans of Boddingtons Bitters and Tetley's Bitter (official beer of the English rugby team) for later consumption in our hotel.
Reach hotel, freshen up and off to Odel, where the Elephant House Dawg station enticed us into buying a hot dog and a can of Elephant House Ginger Beer. Odel's prices were daunting to begin with, but a short stint @ Labels, the Wine Bar, soon settled that. Dhanushkar the friendly bartender @ Labels served us a couple of the recently launched Duvel beer (a top fermented ale from Belgium @ 8.5% alcohol and served in an eye catching Duvel glass). Without doubt, one of the best beers I’ve tasted. Duvel is the Flemish word for devil.

Lama & Vikram try saying Saudia Puram
Dhanushkar, also told us that the Sinhalese word for Cheers (or rather Tulleeho!) was Saudia Puram - hope that means what he says it means or we're in for a rude shock in front of 35 bartenders the next day when we say Saudia Puram - for all we know we may be insulting their forefathers! For that’s what we’re here for, no, not to insult their forefathers, but to train 200 bartenders in 5 workshops in Colombo and Negombo on behalf of Smirnoff and Orient Lanka.
Anyway I don’t know what Paco Underhill would say, but a glass of Duvel is definitely an inhibition buster when it comes to shopping and I would recommend that all shopping malls have a bar in the middle to lower inhibitions. Now that's what they mean by best practices. Forgive the break in theme, but I have to remark upon the pretentiousness of one of the product displays in Odel, which had the following sign - "This display unit was produced using wood from a fallen tree"
On from Odel to a drive through Colombo on a Sunday evening. The streets were comparatively deserted and boring, with roadblocks sprouting every 500 metres. There’s something unnerving about the site of seeing sandbags with machine gun sprouting soldiers behind them. Our nerves being what they were, we had no choice, but to duck into the Cricket Club, which is the go to place for Cricket teams when they're touring Lanka - filled with memorabilia and a menu with Cricketers names - we ordered some of the local Lions lager and Lions Stout - which was really excellent! I think one of the hallmarks of a civilized country is their ability to make good beer as also ensure that a wide variety of beer is imported. On those counts Sri Lanka, is easily in my list of top 5 countries. Alpha Orient the operator of the duty free has tied up with India’s The Future group (the company formerly known as Pantaloon) and has got the contract for duty free @ Delhi airport. Cross those fingers!

What really caught the eye @ the Cricket Club, however were the brilliant Carlsberg ash trays, made out of stainless steel and with the Carlsberg C, with the word "Probably" under it. Subtle. I was inspired to flick the ashtray as I remembered one of my office colleagues’ tales of the ashtrays she had flicked. Minakshi and her friends were such a menace to bars, that whenever they entered a bar, the ashtrays were all promptly withdrawn. Some countries have gone as far to ban smoking in pubs! Anyway I egged on my colleague, Biswanath, who sneaked the ashtray into a plastic bag and we zoomed off.

The gleaming ashtray that now graces the Tulleeho smoking gallery

Our next stop was a popular tourist haunt called, Beach wadiya, apparently a favourite haunt of Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar. You have to cross a set of decrepit railway tracks to reach Beach wadiya, which as the name suggests is on the beach. The waiter promptly landed up and plonked a plate on our table, which had a fish, a crab and a couple of prawns as garnish. We were perplexed as we were wondering whether we had to cook the fish ourselves or eat it raw washed down with arrack. The waiter set our doubts to rest and told us that we could have the fish, anyway we liked it, with greens and rice on the side. We promptly ordered one of each and a bottle of 3 Coins lager (again a local beer) on the side. The food was excellent. We had a hard time convincing Biswanath not to whack the large Heineken clock though, which was above a door, which had a sign on it stating that the Tsunami had reached this level in 2004!

Everybody here apparently drinks "gul", which is the local arrack. There's no pretense here and the bartenders we quizzed the next morning on their favourite drink, prior to the commencement of the training, don't pretend to have been weaned on Single Malts or wine, but uniformly admitted to the fact that arrack was it.
We shared a couple of cans of Tetley in the room before heading off for dinner @ Spice Island @ the Hilton, where we were guests of Chris Doyle, the Business development manager @ the Hilton and his wife Sharmila. We decided to start with a Watermelon martini and a Margarita, which were both disappointing and were glad that we had tanked up with Tetley. We then moved on to the locally brewed Carslberg, which hit the spot with some fiery and excellent Thai food. Carlsberg is apparently setting up shop here in India and we certainly hope that along with the beer they also bring the ashtrays!
We were invited to a Glenfiddich and Balvenie tasting @ the Hilton, the next day, which we had to regrettably decline, as we had shopping to do. There would be blood spilt @ home if we returned without the amazing selection of clothes Sri Lanka has to offer at prices which seemed ridiculous to us. There are not that many countries where the Indian rupee weighs supreme!
26th November is Prabhakaran's birthday so there’s a high alert that week in Colombo, and on the short walk over from our hotel to the Hilton, Biswanath, was snapping away pictures, which caught the eye of the patrol on the traffic island who questioned him for 10 minutes and then made him erase all the pictures in his camera.
Sri Lanka bartenders are a happy lot and we had an enjoyable 3 days of training with them. People on the whole here are far more chilled out, with no apparent agendas or attitude. If you can strike the right note, it’s easy here to build a relationship and do business. Our next stop after a hard day’s training (and shopping) was Inn on the Green, adjacent to the famous Galle Face Hotel and opposite the German restaurant. A cheery pub, with rows of beams running through the top all plastered with currency notes from different countries.

We wondered whether these were tips gathered from guests, which had been stuck up there. We had to restrain Biswanath again, as we knew that the consequences of whacking a bartender’s tips would be grimmer! Anyway, we succumbed to the temptation of a tall can of Guinness and followed it up with a pint of 3 coins lager.
Lama, Biswanath and Chanty hard at work

The chap on the bar stool next to ours was polishing off what looked like a whisky and soda with a plate of French fries. Hearing a familiar language he quizzed on what brought us to India. Neeraj (I shall call him that as I’ve forgotten his name), was an exporter of fabric and this was his 2nd visit. To bring some life to his profession, he also boasted that he also exported bra cups. Weaned as we were on drinking phrases, this threw a completely new spin on the once innocent drinking phrase, “in the cups”.
We drank in moderation as we were pub hopping and were slated to visit Cheers, the popular pub @ the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Pradeep, the vastly experienced bartender there, challenged us to name the cocktail. Impressed, we ordered a Manhattan and a Black Russian, which were both excellent, although it does take a really bad bartender to screw up a Black Russian. The Manhattan though was very good, and made with Canadian Club, as the original recipe demands.

We were going to top off the evening with a traditional Sri Lankan meal @ Raja Bhojun, and the buffet there demanded that we each finally ordered, the local brew, Arrack, which we did with a bottle of soda, and very nice it was. Disgusted as we often are with the inability of the Indian manufacturers of local spirits to refine their produce, arrack came as a welcome surprise, and I had no hesitation in spending a part of my duty free allowance on a bottle of Double Distilled arrack, which shall be opened @ the next Tulleeho party. Also in my shopping basket, were loads of beer, Stella, 3 Coins “all malt lager” and Boddingtons draught bitter!
Tulleeho! or as they say here, Saudiapuram!

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