When people go out to drink in the United States, they usually order one drink at a time. Once in a while, you might order a pitcher of something to share (like sangria). But drinking in Taiwan is all about bottle service. A group of friends get a table or a 包廂 (VIP booth/enclosed seating area/room…) and just order bottles of expensive Scotch whisky, Cognac or Champagne, which everyone shares. Of course, the service is usually quite excellent, but I’m just not very used to drinking bottle after bottle of straight liquor…at least not anymore. I much prefer having my own individual drinks and enjoying variety between drinks.
Although the Taipei bar scene/night life consists of mostly bottle service, I found out that good cocktail bars do exist. On Wednesday night, my friends took me to the downtown bar Trio, close to the Zhong Xiao Dunhua metro station.
Unlike most upscale bars in the area, Trio is cozy, with a relaxing and intimate atmosphere. It was not overly fancy or decked out with unnecessary bling. It was not pretentious. It was comfortable. Familiar. The size and feeling of the bar is somewhat similar to that of Taste Bar in St. Louis, but the décor was just a little bit more modern and the lighting was a little brighter. There were two floors, each with a bar area.
Trio has no drink menu. Instead, I was told to just tell the bartender what kind of drink I wanted, in the “bespoke” style of cocktail-making. Typical of the Asian service industry, the bartenders were friendly, courteous and professional and…”親切” – a kind of friendliness that’s hard to describe in English. I suppose a combination of “close” and “personable” will have to do.
Technique and execution were paramount. The bartenders were meticulous in following directions and were eager to learn about new drinks and new ideas. I even saw the main bartender, Cody, casually reading Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail!
That night, I had a total of six drinks. Below, I will present the first two drinks of the night, and perhaps I will slowly include the others later on (as the memories return to me).
Betel Nut Shot
We started out at the bar downstairs because the bar on the main floor was full (it has a seating capacity of about 10). My friend suggested opening with something different, something out of the ordinary…a special house-invented shot. As I’m not in the habit of taking shots, I was a little uneasy. But what I was served was really quite something.
- Thin-sliced lime wheel sprinkled with sugar and fresh ground coffee.
- Chilled shot glass of chilled Tequila (I think it is a Reposado, but I don’t know what brand it is)
Hold up the lime wheel preparation like a taco and put it in your mouth. Chew for about 5 seconds or so. Take the shot, and swallow everything together.
The Betel Nut Shot is an innovative riff on the traditional Tequila shot. The lime wheel preparation is supposed to evoke the act of chewing on betel nuts, a habit that is common among taxi and truck drivers in Taiwan.
The colors, textures, and even the feeling of “ghetto-ness” as you chew on that lime provides a unique experience. I thought the combination of lime, sugar and coffee was a stroke of genius – something I never would have thought of. The intensity of the lime was tempered by the sugar. Instead of being overwhelmed by the acid, it’s the lime’s fragrance that comes through most prominently. This lime flavor was somehow harmoniously blended with the bitterness and of course the soothing aroma of the coffee grounds.
My taste buds were confused, but pleasantly surprised. The texture of the actual act of chewing brings another dimension to the enjoyment. The graininess of the sugar and coffee with the fruity pulp and the lime rind helped to accentuate each moment of the experience. As I took the shot of Tequila, I sensed a bit of smoke as well as some vegetal/herbal notes. In a split second, I swallowed everything down…Tequila, sugar, coffee, lime, everything.
The shot was smooth and soothing; cool and refreshing down the throat and warm in the stomach. There was no heat and no harshness on the palate, just the lingering fragrance of lime and coffee.
Yamazaki Rob Roy
After the fancy Betel Nut shot, I wanted something a little more basic and down to earth. I wanted something brown and stirred. At first I wanted to ask for a Manhattan, but I realized that there was almost no availability of American whiskey…at all. The only two available were Jim Beam (which I detest) and Jack Daniels. So I asked for a Rob Roy instead.
- Yamazaki 12 yrs
- Cinzano Sweet Vermouth
- Angostura Bitters
Stir with very large ice cubes. Serve on the rocks in an old fashioned glass. Garnished with orange zest.
Although I typically prefer my drinks up when given the choice, I was glad that I forgot to specify in this case. After the bartender added the ingredients to her mixing glass, she proceeded to produce (seemingly out of nowhere) a huge block of ice and a large meat cleaver. She cut out two large ice cubes of about 2” by 3” by 1” each and placed them in the mixing glass. After she stirred the drink, she placed a few drops on the back of her hand to taste-test. Classy.
I don’t know what exact proportions went into this “Rob Roy”, but it was well balanced. The Yamazaki clearly played the central role, but its lightly oaky and smoky flavor was appropriately bolstered by the herbal and mild dried-fruits quality of the sweet vermouth.
The Rob Roy, like the Manhattan, is a basic drink; a mainstay of the drinking world. However, that doesn’t mean that it is easy to make one well. Representative of my overall experience there, the Rob Roy I had at Trio was spot on.
More drinks to come…