Alcohol has always been an irreplaceable part of the Taiwanese diet. Indigenous tribes have been making millet wine (小米酒) for more than 400 years and Fujianese immigrants to the island started to make red yeast rice wine (紅露酒) in the 17th century.
Millet was considered the major food source for Taiwanese indigenous peoples, and during harvest festivals, most tribes would prepare millet wines as an offering to the Millet God, who was thought to have blessed them with a successful harvest. While the details of the stories may vary, each tribe in Taiwan has mythological stories about millet wine. Millet wine is always the beverage of choice during festivals, weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, religious festivals, and often considered a special treat only for honored guests.
As Chinese immigrants began coming to Taiwan in the 17th century, they brought red yeast rice wine with them from Fujian. During the Japanese colonial period of the early 20th century, Taiwanese gentlemen who frequented restaurants in Tua-tiu-tiann (大稻埕, also known as Dadaocheng) preferred red yeast rice wine over sake from “mainland” Japan.
At the same time, beer also began to gain popularity among local Taiwanese drinkers.The colonial government established the Takasago (高砂) beer brand, and built the first and only beer factory in Taipei in 1920. After the war, Takasago became Taiwan Beer. The beer is an amber lager with ponlai rice added during the fermentation process. After the war, the influx of Chinese immigrants and soldiers brought along with them the baijiou (白酒) culture, where gaoliang (高粱) became a staple during military outings.
The drinking scene in Taiwan has also always been influenced by Japanese, European, and American cultures. When the United States army was stationed in Taipei, there were bars all along Shuangcheng Street (雙城街) in the northern parts of Taipei, close to the US army base. At these bars, American music was played, American food was dished up, and of course popular American cocktails were served. It was also this bar scene which led to the establishment of the restaurant Shin Yeh (欣葉), which got its start by selling midnight porridge snacks to the bar hoppers.
Moving southbound on Linsen North Road, just south of Nanjing East Road is the area that Japanese businessmen referred to as tiaotong (條通). During the Japanese colonial period, most of the people who resided in the area were upper class Japanese bureaucrats, hence when Japanese companies returned to Taiwan after the war, their businessmen chose to dine and wine in the same, familiar area. Unlike the bars near Shuang Cheng street, bars in the tiaotong area served mostly beer and sake along with Japanese delicacies.
A Slice of the Drinking Scene in Taipei Today
Fast forward to the present day, a series of lounge bars began opening up on Anhe Road in the late 90s as the cocktail culture began to pick up in Taiwan. There were lounge bars all over the city serving Long Island Ice Teas and a wide variety of signature cocktails.
In 2005, the nightclub Barcode Taipei invited Pete Kendall from the bar Milk and Honey to serve as a consultant—Milk and Honey was consider one of the bars that revolutionized craft cocktail worldwide. Similarly, Barcode revolutionized the bar scene in Taipei. In 2009, one of the world’s largest multinational alcoholic beverage company, Diageo, established World Class Competition, where bartenders around the world compete for the title of Bartender of the Year. The competition pushed Taiwan’s cocktail bar scene to a new high as renowned bartenders like Angus Zou, Nick Wu, Mark Huang, Kae Yin, among others, represented Taiwan on the world stage.
In 2012, a new kind of cocktail bar began to impact Taipei’s bar scene: the speakeasy. Located in the residential Da-an district within walking distance from Anhe Road, a speakeasy named Ounce sat quietly behind a hidden door within a cafe. A group of college friends who are cocktail enthusiasts from New York decided to create a proper speakeasy in Taipei. Their idea was to bring established mixologists from the US into Taipei and show off popular craft cocktails to the local audience. A proper old fashioned, Manhattan, Ramos gin fizz, and others can all be found at Ounce.
Since its establishment, Ounce had brought numerous bartenders to Taiwan and even invited world-renowned bartender Jeff Bell from PDT for a guest event, which widened local bartenders’ breadth of knowledge about the art of mixology. Unlike local cocktail bartenders, whose palates tend to be on a sweeter side, Ounce introduced Taiwanese bartenders to a popular flavor in the craft cocktail world—bitter—which has taken the beverage world by storm just as buzz around the taste umami has in the culinary world.
A few alums from Ounce have since then established their own cocktail bars around town, most notably R&D Cocktail Lab. Situated in a quiet alley within walking distance from Taipei 101, this spacious bar restaurant offers authentic western food with an Asian twist, such as duck tacos, beef short rib with shaoxing wine (紹興酒) and seared tuna with yuzu sauce. Their cocktail menu is as adventurous as their food menu. On it you will find ginseng-infused moscow mule, smokey plum whisky sour, kumiso sour (rum with kumquat and shiso leaf), hawthorn apple, among other drinks.
Another interesting bar open by an Ounce alum is Tropical Itch, a tiki bar located in the heart of traditional Taipei lounge bar scene on Anhe Road. It is the first of its kind in Taipei serving tiki drinks such as three dots and a dash, pina colada, dark and stormy, and of course, tropical itch. There are always special fun drinks from the genius behind the bar, for example the “Tinder in Taipei”, which consists of pisco brandy, aphrodite bitter, lime, passion fruit, egg white, and aperol. Foodwise the menu is not as comprehensive as the menu at R&D, but there is also plenty of finger food for one to nibble on while enjoying the tropical ambience.
Taiwan, Drinks and the World
In a way, we have come full circle in Taipei. The streets of 1920s Tua-tiu-tiann were filled with new and exciting music, fashion and culinary culture changed by the wave of modern Western influences. In Tua-tiu-tiann’s bars, Ravel’s “Bolero” played while men sipped on red yeast rice wine and read Karl Marx or Edgar Allan Poe. Nearly 100 years later, we again sit in a chic Taipei bar on Anhe Road, waiting for the bartender to make Ramos gin fizz while she explains her take on this 19th century New Orleans cocktail.
Taiwan has always been connected to the the world through its alcoholic beverage culture, freely taking trends from abroad and even more freely transforming them into something uniquely Taiwanese.
(To be continued: Next, cocktail bars with significant Japanese influences in Taipei)