While on his dying bed, my grandfather wrote his last wish on a tiny piece of paper and gave it to his favorite child, my mother. The scribble read “beeeeeru” in English.
Grandpa was born during the Japanese colonization period, and like most people of his generation, he thought of himself as Japanese until World War II ended in August 1945. Suddenly Japanese was no longer the official language; moreover, it was banned in public since it was the language of the “enemy” of the new regime.
Nevertheless, Grandpa was so profoundly Japanese that his favorite pastime was sumo matches on NHK in the afternoon. When I spent my summer vacations with him, he would tell me the principles of bushido as well stories of Yamamoto Isoroku, the Harvard-educated Japanese World War II admiral. As Grandpa was an avid baseball fan, we watched Koshien (甲子園), the Japanese national high school baseball tournament every August, and he would tell me stories of Kano (嘉農), the legendary high school team from southern Taiwan that won second place in the 1931 Koshien tournament.
In the evening, while dining on fresh sashimi in the neighborhood Japanese restaurant, he would always have his favorite beeru. Japanese culture is widely shared amongst the Taiwanese people of that era, as I once discussed at length with former president Lee Teng-hui at a wedding. The Japanese period had significant influence on Taiwanese culture, diet and of course, on alcoholic beverages. Afterall, it was during the Japanese colonization period when beer was introduced to Taiwan.
Infused Shochu Cocktails
In modern Taipei, Japanese cuisine is extremely popular, and drinking sake and Japanese beeru when dining is normal among local Taiwanese. However, in 2013, Tomo-san, a Japanese bartender who wished to broaden the scope of Japanese alcohol to Taiwanese consumers, opened Washu (和酒). Tomo-san started his career in Tokyo’s hustling and bustling Shinjuku district. From there Tomo-san went on to bartend at Zuma London and served as an apprentice in the famous Ardbeg distillery, which explains his British/Japanese accented English.
Prior to moving to its current Zhongxiao East Road location, Washu resided on Linsen North Road, an area of town that mainly catered to Japanese businessmen, and is also known as the red light district of Taipei. I would usually get appalled stares when I told female acquaintances that we are going to Linsen for a drink, but after tasting Tomo-san’s crafted cocktails they were all impressed.
When you enter Washu, you will be intrigued by the infused liqueurs sitting in the back fridge: the flavors range from chocolate, cedar, bacon, plum, shiso, oolong tea, basil, cardamom, and more. The base for most of the liqueurs is Japanese shochu and all of the liqueurs are made in-house with Washu’s own distiller. Each flavor is then made into Washu’s signature cocktails. The notable cocktails include cedar old fashioned, Japanese Moscow Mule, margherita with basil, and togarashi (chili) lemon drop. If you enter without knowing what to order, you can just pick a flavor that intrigues you, but keep in mind with shochu as their base, these cocktails may knock you out fairly quickly.
On top of these liqueurs, Washu has one of the most extensive Japanese whisky and shochu collections in Taipei, and if you are lucky you might be able to taste vintage Hakushu (白州) whisky. From time to time, Tomo-san will invite renowned Japanese bartenders to Washu for a guest bartender event, like the 2015 Diageo World Class Champion Michito Kaneko, Noriyuki Sato of Ginza’s Little Smith, and Hiroyasu Kayama from Shinjuku’s Bar Benfiddich. To top it off,Washu provides an interesting food menu with many smoked items, including smoked almonds, smoked chikuwa (fish sausage) and smoked bacon pizza!
Japanese Hospitality in Taipei
Five minutes away from the original Washu location sits Bar Otani, a cocktail bar that epitomizes the Japanese aesthetic idea of wabi-sabi, which incorporates simplicity, economy, modesty, roughness and intimacy. After entering through a bamboo sliding door, you’ll find yourself surrounded by pitch-black walls and a wooden bar counter. There is no music in Otani, only the b-flat white noise emanating from the fridge and air conditioner to accompany the sound of Otani-san’s shaker.
Otani, similar to Washu, provides crafted cocktails with a Japanese twist. You will find wasabi bitters alongside the increasingly popular Japanese-crafted gin. Due to its limited space, Otani does not provide a full food menu; however, Otani-san’s comprehensive cocktail repertoire should satisfy your palate.
Heading north on Zhongshan North Road in the alleys behind Ambassador Hotel is Bar Turning Point. The owner Masa-san is actually a trained French chef, who then ventured into the mixology world. As a matter of fact, he is actually Otani-san’s sensei (master) of mixology, and Otani-san considers Masa-san the best Japanese bartender in Taipei.
Watching Masa-san make a cocktail is like watching a sculptor mold his masterpiece. Masa-san chills the glass with ice, then diligently crafts your drink of choice. For certain drinks, he even uses a frozen strainer in order to keep the cocktail at the right temperature.
Once I craved a rum-based cocktail, so Masa-san made a “Jack Tar” for me. The name Jack Tar is a term used to describe a Navy or Merchant sailor. According to Masa-san, Jack Tar was first made in a Yokohama Chinatown bar named Windjammer, and it consists of dark rum (preferably Ronrico 151), Southern Comfort and lime juice. Most importantly, Masa-san emphasized that Jack Tar should be made with crushed ice.
Aside from classic cocktails, Masa-san also utilizes Taiwan’s seasonal fruits in his cocktails, like the watermelon and mango in season right now. While you will be unable to taste Masa-san’s cuisine at Bar Turning Point, he will surprise you with all types of Japanese snacks such as wasabi pistachio.
From the national fascination with baseball, to widespread interest in beer and now craft cocktails, we can see the subtle influence Japanese culture has on Taiwan, especially in the finer things in life.
Many may argue the Japanese influence is mainly due to Taiwan’s colonial history and Japan’s geographical proximity. However, I say that Taiwan, as an island nation located in the center of East Asia, readily accepts and adapts to foreign cultures. In the past 400 years, Taiwan had encountered numerous cultural influences, and current day Taiwan is simply a wonderland of mish-mashed tastes from different parts of China, Japan, and all over the world. In the next article, I will discuss the recent global craft beer boom in Taiwan.
(Feature photo by W. Ted Chen)
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