So here I am, an East coast craft bartender, practicing my
trade in Taipei, Taiwan. A stranger in a strange land, making Sazeracs and
Corpse Reviver #2's for the groups of ex-pats, lo-pats and the local cocktail
nerds, all eager for a taste of western style cocktails served in the Far East.
My name is Aaron and I am the fortunate head bartender of a
craft speakeasy style bar here in Taiwan known as OUNCE.
I am trusted to run my cocktail program with little influence from our
I have a clientele that is mostly unfamiliar with a large
amount of the classic pre and post-prohibition cocktails. In fact, this area
(and most of Asia) has yet to see spirits that many of us would take for
granted in my years bartending on either coast. For example, Amaros, Mezcal and
most importantly Rye are almost entirely unavailable in Taiwan. Only a few
representations of these spirits exist in Asia in a small handful of prized bottle
shops like “Liquor, Liquor,”
an amazing shop above the Hong Kong speakeasy known as “001”.
With so many bottles missing from my vendor lists, I faced a major challenge
contemplating my role at OUNCE: how can I best represent my talent as a
bartender without a reliable source for reliable product? First, I think it
best that I explain the random series of events that brought me 6,000 miles
from home just to make a proper Old Fashioned and learn to swear in Mandarin.
I guess it all started back in my hometown of Boston,
Massachusetts. I was apprenticing under the mastercraft mixologists Sam
Treadway and Joseph Cammaratta at the acclaimed Backbar in Union Square. For over a year I learned from the best, getting deep into the
vast world of the Tiki cocktails and perfecting my Ramos Gin Fizz. I delved
into the history of the drinks I was serving and began to master my techniques.
In my personal life I had the most amazing community of
friends who supported and inspired me in every way. At first glance, even to
myself, I was content and even fulfilled. It was, however, not true. I grew
restless that I had not realized the extent the challenge of the craft bar
presents. I had a grating feeling of inertia. I felt like I was standing still
and could not shake the effect this feeling was having on me. So, I gave four
weeks notice to Sam at Backbar and the same with my apartment (an amazing
artist loft with many awesome roommates and fond memories, easily the best spot
I have ever lived in). Opening and being a part of Backbar was one of the most
rewarding experiences of my life. But all good things must come to an end.
One month later I was on the road, roaming the country and
visiting every pig-out dive, boastful beer garden and craft-claiming cocktail
establishment the internet could find. From Boston to San Francisco, I took the
long way around and stopping for every distraction. I was accompanied by my
faithful travel companion, Rebecca Buck. Together we dined on authentic cheesesteaks
in Philly at both Geno's and Pat's to compare the great competitors and decide once and for all who had the true
cheesesteak (l.s.s. Gino's). We danced in front of a grand piano to a singer
whose Billie Holiday was breathtaking at the beautiful Molly Fontaine’s in Memphis. Then we ate Elvis sandwiches in front of Graceland while being serenaded by an Elvis Impersonator (mainly because we were the only
people under 70 in the room). We tipped Sazeracs and compared Ramos's all over
New Orleans. We drank deeply through the beer gardens in Austin, roamed the
desert and lived in Earthships for a few days then finally landed in San Francisco, at Bourbon and Branch.
With our journey behind us, I still felt lost. So I left Ms.
Buck to her own journey to Oakland (her final destination) and headed back East
thinking that Boston was the destination all along. Being short one tiny dog
and a pair of ruby slippers, I started an eight day journey back to the
Massachusetts Bay with “there's no place like home” as my mantra. The
transcontinental train had little to offer in the way of amazing food or
cocktails, however, with a step or two and a little ingenuity, an Old Fashioned
of respectable nature was born. A bottle of Old Overholt later, I arrived back
Despite the fact that I felt even more in doubt and
confused, I accepted a job at the AMAZING Hawthorne Bar with Jackson Cannon.
Was this it? Was this the center of gravity drawing me back across a continent?
Learning more about cocktails from a great bartender and friend like Jackson
Cannon seemed to be the perfect answer. Alas, once again I was wrong. There was
just something about the timing that did not fit. After two nights working at
The Hawthorne, I sat down with Jackson and had the talk. I explained as openly
and honestly as possible how I felt. After a great conversation, Jackson made
me feel good about knowing when the fit was right or wrong and acting
immediately. I left regretting my decision and doubting myself for weeks.
And then, the job posting that to all appeared to be too
good to be true. On ShakeStir (shout out, but true!) was an ad for “bartender
partner needed abroad,” “live and work in Taipei,” “Craft cocktails,”
“Speakeasy.” GET IT!! I am not someone to get my hopes up about an opportunity
that could easily be a total pull. So I responded with my resume complete with
cover letter and letter of recommendation. I fully expected never to hear back
or to receive an email asking for money in some kind of poorly conceived scam.
Instead, my cell phone rang about 5 hours later. One of the owners, who lived
in NYC, was the first to call, asking questions like “how would you make an Old
Fashioned and tell me about the history of the Manhattan.” After that call (and
a little Internet vetting), I was convinced of the legitimacy of the job. Long
story short, after five phone calls, three international skype interviews and
two trips to NYC, I had the job. I had a plane ticket in hand and little time
to settle my affairs in the states......
And now I am on a plane to Asia. Seventeen hours to prepare,
seventeen hours to think about the girl I left behind, but that’s another
story, as it just so happens to be loosely intertwined with this tale. Perhaps
For now I arrive in Taipei. It's morning here but my jet lag
says something else. Either way I am met by my new boss and owner on the
ground, an American Born Chinese,
“Yee.” He leads me to a traditional Taiwanese breakfast. I
am half-awake but come out of my lethargy to the smell of eggs and green
onions. I am about to discover dann bing, my new love, a fried egg wrapped in a
scallion pancake. This common breakfast food can be found everywhere, but with
a huge variance in quality. It is also made deep fried like a piece of fried
dough from the fair, but with a fried egg and sweet chili inside. Dann bing is
one of the most amazing things I have ever put in my mouth.
Following a bit of sleep, I awoke just a few hours later to
explore my new stomping ground. Charting my backyard would be a necessity - my
contract says I will call it home for at least the next year. There is no
zoning in Taipei so OUNCE finds itself in a quiet neighborhood that is mostly
residential about a block from Togn Hua Night Market. Nearby is a true gem of
Taipei - the only authentic Mexican food around. Dos Chino’s is run by a pair
of ABC gentlemen from NYC and they can make a taco using imported spices so a
small taste of the west coast can be achieved.
OUNCE Taipei, a hidden speakeasy is tucked behind a coffee
shop just blocks from a night market. It boasts a hidden door that is seamless
with the interior decor of the coffee shop, “Relax: the espresso place.” The
only way to enter as a guest is to decipher which button on the wall triggers a
light on the bar side to let us know that they have arrived. It is all too
entertaining for me, as first time guests have no idea where the door is but
can hear the special music made only by cocktail shakers. Tucked securely away
in an ordinary storefront, OUNCE can be so elusive to find that law enforcement
here still has no idea we even exist.
Only a few months old when I arrived, OUNCE was in trouble
as the head bartender was leaving to pursue other ventures. This left this tiny
but well equipped speakeasy without a knowledgeable barman. All that remained
was a young French barback who we affectionately called Frenchie. Frenchie had
no prior bar experience before joining the establishment when it opened the
previous fall. He had, however, been a chef for some years and already had an
amazing aptitude for cocktails. I was to continue his education in the world of
the cocktails as his mentor, a challenge in my mind that I was unsure I could
live up to. So here we are. Three men, a Frenchmen, an ABC and a Scottish-Jew
from Boston living together and running a speakeasy in Taiwan. Sounds like the
start of a bad joke.
“We serve cocktails here!” “Fresh fruits, quality spirits,
clean sugars and love” Four months later and I now have three apprentice
bartenders who all speak Mandarin and are getting very proficient in the ways
of the cocktail. There is no menu at OUNCE. We serve every guest individually,
zeroing in on their spirit of choice and the style of cocktail they would most
enjoy. Then we tell a story with the drinks, and we hope to never tell you the
same tale twice.
Now let me wax about the emerging cocktail scene here in
Taipei. Taiwan has a lot of Japanese influence. The best spots are all Japanese
whiskey bars and the talent is amazing. It’s difficult to have a drink in this
city without being served by a Diageo World Class winner. Agus Zou at Alchemy Bar is an amazing bartender whose knowledge is vast and a personality that is warm
and welcoming. We also have Kae Yin at Marsalis in the Home Hotel Taipei.
This man is one of the most technically skilled craftsmen in our trade, with a
level of precision and detail going into every single motion from stirring to
just moving across the bar that is inspiring. There are whiskey bars with
collections of Scotch from around the world the likes of which I have never
seen with my own eyes. The Backyard carries more rare whiskey than any one man
could drink in a lifetime, with knowledgeable barmen who will guide you on your
peaty journey. I also must mention my favorite spot, called “Speakeasy.”
This is not a craft bar but an Irish pub with classic Irish cuisine accompanied
by a vast collection of Irish Whiskeys and the best pint of Guinness I have
ever had outside of Dublin.
All that being said, the other half of the Taiwanese
drinking coin is not so pretty. It is littered with horrible night clubs
serving the worse kind of super sweet, hangover-guaranteed cocktails comprised
of cheap booze, sour mix and dirty sugars. The culture in these places is
scary. You drink until you can’t stand and need to be carried out in a vomit
soaked semi-coma by your loyal friends and tied to a buddy's scooter to be
dropped off at your parent’s door. Which is seen as “winning” in the eyes of
the youth drinking culture here (the drinking age is 18 and not strictly
Then we have OUNCE. The only western style craft bar in Taiwan.
How did we create this in a place with no Rye, no Amaro, and no Mezcal? The
unavailable bottles I need account for 80% of my stock. When I first arrived, I
flew with 15 bottles in my suitcase, all my favorites that I knew I would want
to use. After a week, they were gone. The rye had run dry. Luckily, a plan
formed. OUNCE has a specific clientele of people who travel for business and
are loyal friends of OUNCE. Through the kindness of my patrons and a lot of
email coordination, I regularly receive bottles from all over the world. This
has given me access to amazing and random spirits that never make it to the
states. Our collection is now vast and always evolving, from rare bootleg
absinthe from the Swiss alps, Amaro that is only available in small towns in
Italy and finally some of the best rum I have ever tasted directly from the
Now, after 5 months, we have OUNCE, a bar focused on being a
comfortable oasis for travelers and curious locals. A place where we can share
our knowledge of western cocktail culture with those who desire to listen to us
get nerdy about cocktail history and current trends. Every guest is a puzzle
here. I train my staff without a menu. We must truly get to know everyone to
help them find their cocktail grail, the one drink that ruins them for all
others. Everyone has one, a drink that once they find it, they will order it as
often as water. That’s our goal, to discover who you are, to learn enough so
that you’ll never need to order again. We’ll know your taste, we’ll know where
you lay your hat.... You lay it right next to your drink, on the bar.
I am the only western trained bartender in Taiwan. A cocktail minority, with an
amazing opportunity to introduce new spirits and ways to play with them as well
as an amazing opportunity to learn the eastern cocktail approach up close and
personal. My undeniable pull and random series of events finally proved
serendipitous. I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
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