Tales of the Taiwan Cocktail

by ShakeStir Staff

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 investors.


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 in Boston.


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 next time.


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 enforced).


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 Philippines.


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.


-AaronJ. Feder

Read more from Editorial.