Head to Taiwan to Test Out Their Cocktails

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relax coffee shop taipei

On Tuesday night around 10pm I find myself traveling via taxi from the Regent Taipei to the Daan District of Taipei, known for its trendy nightlife and restaurants. I’m specially looking to check out Ounce, a speakeasy-style bar that I’m told by locals is a must-do in the city. Little did I know my real journey wasn’t the cab ride from my hotel or my international flight to Taiwan, but the one that would be experienced by my palate.

Is This It?

The taxi pulls up to a charming little coffee shop called Relax and pulls over, signaling me to pay him.

“Is this the place?” I ask, grabbing for my map. He nods his head with a big smile. I shrug, hand him the money and get out.

Wandering the streets, I search for anything that appears like it may possibly be a bar. Luckily, I have the address of Ounce written in Chinese on a piece of paper, and am able to stop locals walking around the streets to inquire where it is. Every single person points back to the coffee shop.

Inside, the cozy venue is filled with tables of chatty young people sipping coffees and laughing. A barista stands behind the bar serving cappuccinos and tea milks, and I can see a bathroom tucked into the corner. One wall acts as a small art gallery, adorned with pop art, posters and framed wall hangings.

relax coffee shop

Artwork on the wall of the Relax coffee shop. Photo courtesy of Ounce.

When I show the barista the piece of paper, she points to a wooden door next to the artworks. Because I don’t want to seem stupid, I nod and act like I understand. Despite the fact people are staring at me, I begin feeling up the wall, trying to find a hidden opening. I tug on wooden panels, try to find shaky floorboards and even try knocking. Just when I think I’m in the wrong place, I hear the distinct sound of a cocktail shaker.

Finally, my eye catches one of the works of art. It’s a buzzer. I push it and nothing happens. Then I spot another artwork that looks like a door knocker. I tap it and nothing happens. That’s when I see the painting of a finger pointing downward, beckoning my sight to a black outlet cover with two buttons. I press one, and magically an attractive young man dressed in a button-down shirt and vest opens the door.

“Two?” he asks, looking at my friend and I. We nod and he goes to see if there is seating available. He comes back and apologizes. “I’m so sorry, but the bar is completely full. If you come back in an hour we should have space.”

Coming from New York, I’m shocked by how apologetic he is about being at capacity. Because I’m feeling clever about solving the puzzle of how to open the bar’s hidden door, I feel an overwhelming need to experience this bar. So my companion and I head around the corner to a trendy yet intimate looking bar called Trio.

Trio

While not a speakeasy, Trio is all about handcrafted cocktails suited to your tastes. There’s no menu, but you can tell the bartender what kinds of flavors and aromas you enjoy and he or she will create something outstanding. I tell my bartender I enjoy sour candy, spicy food and whiskey and he immediately begins squeezing fresh lemon juice, shaking, stirring, muddling and adding spirits in with an eye dropper for extreme precision. In the end, I’m served a drink that makes me bite my tongue in a way that some might wince at, but fits my drink style perfectly. Not only that, but once I’m finished the bartender buys a round shots of Sailor Jerry spiced rum for the entire bar to help everyone get acquainted through drinking. I’m not usually a shots girl, but I find myself sucking on my own tongue to savor every drop of cinnamon, vanilla and toffee flavor.

Ounce

Ounce

Ounce. Photo courtesy of Ounce.

Trio proves to be the perfect appetizer for Ounce, and I’m excited by the time we go back around 11:30pm. The room is dimly lit with candles, a few small tables and a polished bar adorned with fresh squeezed juices, natural syrups, clean sugars, glasses of all shapes and sizes, muddlers, shakers, mixers, strainers, spoons, pourers, blenders and other essential cocktail tools, all set out before mahogany shelves lined with top quality spirits from around the world — 80% of which can’t be found anywhere else in Taiwan.

The philosophy behind Ounce is education and cultural exchange. We came to learn and we came to teach. We like to say ‘pretentious cocktails, not pretentious people.’

Ounce was the brainchild of a group of American born Taiwanese men living and working in New York. Their love of NYC’s craft cocktail scene and intense passion for well-made drinks made them want to introduce it to Taiwan, and thus, the speakeasy venue was born. And while Taipei is home to a number of great Japanese-style whiskey bars — some of which include Alchemy, Marsalis and Indulge — where the method of cocktail making is rigid and precise, Ounce is the only truly high quality Western-style speakeasy. At Ounce, bartenders have their own unique cocktail-making approaches and do things their own way based on what they learn and experience on a daily basis.

During Prohibition, speakeasies were hidden venues known for their social atmosphere, relaxed ambience and handcrafted cocktails made with fresh ingredients and scientific precision. Bartenders of these establishments didn’t think of drinks as a means for a quick way to get drink, but as high-quality works of art to be savored and appreciated. Moreover, the cocktails should reflect the individual customer instead of simply being thrown together from a recipe.

“The philosophy behind Ounce is education and cultural exchange,” Aaron Feder, Head Bartender and Beverage Director at Ounce, explains. “We came to learn and we came to teach. We like to say ‘pretentious cocktails, not pretentious people.’ We hope to find the best cocktail for the guest in front of us and hopefully make one perfect for their current mood.”

If handcrafted cocktails are works of art, than the people who make them are artists. Aaron greets my companion and I with two perfectly placed napkins on the bar. “The way it works is there is no menu. You tell me what types of flavors you like, maybe something a bit spicy or sweet, or maybe more earthy or bitter flavors, and I’ll create something for you.”

Once again, I talk about my love of all things spicy and sour, as well as bourbon (they have three types of Buleit!).

“I have the perfect drink for you,” responds Aaron. “It’s called ‘Don’s Little Bitter’ and is a creation from my mentor, Don Lee in the New York. The cocktail is very well balanced, and is actually a great digestive with lots of herbs from the bitters.”

Ounce

The bartenders of Ounce working their magic. Photo courtesy of Ounce.

The cocktail features a precise mixture of Orange Bitters, Peychaud Bitters, Angostura Bitters, fresh lemon juice, all-natural simple syrup, Fernet Branca and Barbancourt Rhum. Watching Aaron and the other bartender — whom they call Frenchie because he’s from France — create cocktails is better than watching a Broadway show. Every movement, from the way they shake the jiggers (Aaron’s apparently a fan of the four-point shake) to the way they infuse glasses with cinnamon smoke is done in a precise manner with a specific outcome in mind. My cocktail in particular is shaken with ice and double-strained into a coupe glass, where it settles into a deep opaque red color with a thin foam on top.

It very much depends on the person. I try to take every guest as puzzle to be figured out. When I find their palate with the perfect coktail for them here and now I am proud and satisfied in my career.

As I had told Aaron of my love of powerful yet compatible flavors, this bitter-heavy libation is the undoubtedly the ideal drink for me. Not only are bitters composed of spices and herbs, they also add depth and complexity. And while the Fernet Branca specifically is a potable bitter meant to be drank on its own, this Italian libation enhances the delightfully herbal essence of the drink while adding a hint of mint. From there, the 0.5 ounces of simple syrup and ounce of rum give it a touch of sweetness, which is further rounded out by the tart of the lemon juice. In the end, I’m left with something that reminds me of cinnamon and orange spice with a pleasant lingering effect. That being said, because of the cocktail’s complexity it almost has a flavor-changing quality, making sure I am never bored throughout the experience.

When I ask Aaron how he goes about choosing someone’s perfect cocktail, he responds, “It very much depends on the person. I try to take every guest as puzzle to be figured out. When I find their palate with the perfect coktail for them here and now I am proud and satisfied in my career.”

gin fizz

Ramos Gin Fizz. Photo courtesy of Ounce.

My companion’s drink is a Ramos Gin Fizz, which contains gin, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange flower water and soda water. While neither of us are gin fans, it tastes surprisingly delicious.

“You just haven’t tried the right gin,” smiles Aaron, pulling out two shots glasses and a bottle down from the shelf. “There are many styles of gin. Juniper is in all of them. The level of juniper vary from style to style as much as from label to label [so it's sometimes overpowering].”

He pulls out a bottle of Ransom Gin by Old Tom, a barrel aged gin with light juniper notes and a smooth cognac body, and pours us each a sampling in a tall shot glass.

While I wouldn’t say I would choose it over a whiskey or bourbon, I also wouldn’t turn it down if it were offered to me. The Ransom Gin noticeably lacks the overpowering bitter and burning of the juniper botanical. That’s the difference between a thoughtful mixologist and your everyday bartender churning out quick drinks — these guys don’t just dismiss an entire style of spirit from their menu, they look for worthy alternatives.

Ounce

Aaron of Ounce creating a handcrafted “The Third Day” cocktail. Photo courtesy of Ounce.

Despite the fact I’ve witnessed Ounce’s magic firsthand, I still can’t leave without asking the most obvious yet important question of the night: What goes into making a great handcrafted cocktail?

“Quality product, carefully measured with an expected result in three stages,” Aaron responds. “A great cocktail is like a great story. It has a beginning a middle and end. The beginning is the nose, what you smell when you first lift the glass, lemon, lavender, peaty scotch and so on. The middle is the body of a cocktail. The spirit, the bite of citrus and even a spicy chili. The finish is after you sip. You could have crisp cucumber of a smoky camp-fire finish. Having three distinct parts that all play well together and take the tastebuds on a traveling journey of flavor.”

I have to admit, these cocktails have certainly taken us on a journey. And even after I brush my teeth and lay down, flavors of tangy lime and spice, and essences of energetic peppermint retreating from my palate, the memories still linger. For many travelers, exploring culture through the tongue is one of the most interesting ways to get to know a place, and at Ounce, you’ll be immersed in the handcrafted cocktail culture of Taiwan.

Featured cocktail image via Ounce