Exploring Taipei’s Speakeasies

Photo: Matthew Fulco
Photo: Matthew Fulco

The drink of choice is usually Japanese whiskey, sometimes in innovative cocktails.

Nestled deep in the labyrinthine lanes east of AnHe Road, a luminescent sign in the shape of a target glows red, white, and blue. Look closer and you’ll see that the sign indicates the entrance to a partially hidden bar. Push open the heavy glass door, walk straight in, and the first thing that will strike you is the buzz. The long wooden bar is packed with patrons chatting with the smartly clad bartenders, who effortlessly mix French 75s, Sazaracs, Sidecars, and other classic Prohibition-era cocktails.

The patrons converse with the bartenders as if they’re old friends. There are nods of understanding, handshakes, and the occasional high five followed by a shot. A number of the patrons keep whiskey bottles with their names on them on the shelves in the bar – a Japanese custom – from which they pour a drink or two before moving on to something new.

The whiskey selection is encyclopedic, with an emphasis on hard-to-find products from Japan, like Suntory’s award-winning Hibiki 21-year or 30-year blended whiskey. If you can find either of those in a store, a bottle is likely to cost more than US$1,000. There are more modest offerings too, like Nikka Taketsuru 17-year and Hakushu 12-year.

We wanted to bring the high quality of the Japanese bar experience to Taiwan, in terms of service, atmosphere, and drinks,” says MOD co-founder Hsiao Da-bao

The name of this place is MOD, and it’s the oldest whiskey bar in Taipei, long pre-dating the “speakeasy” craze that swept through East Asia over the past five years. Co-founder Hsiao Da-bao and his partner Shao Lin founded MOD in 1995 in a bid to bring Japanese bar culture to Taiwan.

“At the time, Taiwan had karaoke bars, British pubs, and the places in the old Combat Zone [a neighborhood once filled with hostess bars], and that was it,” Hsiao says. “We wanted to bring the high quality of the Japanese bar experience to Taiwan, in terms of service, atmosphere, and drinks.”

“We were able to do it in part because my partner had spent five years bartending and managing a bar in Yokohama,” he says.

The name MOD is derived from the 1960s British subculture focused on music and fashion and reflects Hsiao’s affinity for UK performing artists like The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.

Photo: Matthew Fulco
A Bartender at MOD prepares a cocktail (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

Over the years, MOD has adapted to the local market, he says in response to a query about the wide selection of Taiwanese late-night snacks on the menu. These include thousand-year-old eggs with tofu and an assortment of small dishes stewed in soy sauce: pig’s ear, firm bean curd, hard-boiled eggs, and thick-cut seaweed. “It’s true, in traditional Japanese bars there is less food and the emphasis is on drinking,” he says. “But we want MOD to be a Japanese-style bar for the Taiwan market.”

That strategy helped MOD evolve into one of Taipei’s first bars that is a destination unto itself, a place locals – and increasingly, savvy tourists – seek out for socializing and enjoying high-quality drinks and food rather than entertaining clients.

The eclectic and well-lubricated crowd may be the most fun of all. On recent visits, I rubbed elbows at the bar with a Chinese dissident residing in Taiwan (who told me I needed to relax and poured me a drink from his whiskey bottle), a manager at Audi Taiwan unwinding after work, a trio of merry-making Hongkongers, and two Singaporean businesswomen bar-hopping on the final night of their Taipei trip.

Vanishing Japanese whiskey

 Thanks to long-established relationships with suppliers in Japan, MOD has been able to maintain a wide selection of rare Japanese whiskeys that have all but disappeared from the retail market and the shelves of many Taiwan bars. MOD’s Hsiao notes that prices have surged in the past few years, but says a dedicated market remains for the prestige products from Japanese distilleries.

My philosophy is if I’m able to eat something, I also should be able to drink it,” says Tomoaki Inaba, owner of Washu.

One of the best of these whiskies is the decorated Yamazaki 18-year, a complex, silky single malt with an aromatic fruit and floral bouquet that continues to unfold on the palate long after the final sip. A glass of it at MOD costs more than a bottle of ordinary whiskey in a retail store, but it’s hard to put a price on that taste.

“The popularity of Japanese whiskey is a global trend, but it’s especially strong in Taiwan as Taiwanese people have a real fondness for Japanese culture,” says Otto Lai, a local whiskey expert and former deputy managing editor of Next Magazine.

Tonic Liu, owner of the Motown bar across the street from Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei, notes that Japanese whiskey sales skyrocketed globally after Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the 2015 World Whiskey of the Year by Jim Murray, one of the world’s top connoisseurs of the spirit. Demand spiked to the point that Japanese distilleries sharply curtailed production of whiskey with age statements, opting instead to offer less labor-intensive products without age statements to the mass market at higher prices than 10- and 12-year-old whiskies sold for in the past.

“The Japanese distilleries have succeeding in just a few short years in significantly raising sales and making their products household names,” Liu observes. “It’s a remarkable turn of events if you consider that a decade ago, nobody took Japanese whiskey seriously.”

At Motown, Liu says that the best-selling products are non-age-statement Japanese whiskies. “People ask for Japanese whiskey. Most of them don’t pay attention to whether it has an age statement,” he explains.

The shortage of Japanese whiskey in Taiwan has compelled bar owners to use creative methods to import the products. Tomoaki Inaba, owner of Washu, one of Taipei’s few authentic Japanese bars, says he has been stockpiling Japanese whiskey at his home in Japan for two decades. His mother mails him a few bottles per month as gifts.

The art of the cocktail

While Washu offers an impressive selection of Japanese whiskies, its innovative cocktails are the real draw. Inaba, who worked as a bartender in London before moving to Taipei in late 2011, originally wanted to open a bar in Tokyo. But in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, “the time wasn’t right,” he says. “My wife is Taiwanese, so I decided to open the bar here.”

The popularity of Japanese whiskey is a global trend, but it’s especially strong in Taiwan,” says Otto Lai, local whiskey expert.

Inaba distills his own shochu (a Japanese spirit typically made from barley, rice, or sweet potato) and whiskey, and infuses the spirits with a wide range of flavors – everything from cedar to bacon. “My philosophy is if I’m able to eat something, I also should be able to drink it,” he says. “I needed to figure out how to turn a meat into a liquid” in the case of the bacon beverages.

Photo: Matthew Fulco
Photo: Matthew Fulco

One of Washu’s signature drinks is the shiso shochu, which is infused with shiso, an herb of the mint family, along with mint, parsley, and basil for one month. The grassy flavor of the leaf imbues the drink with a rich herbaceous quality.

Another unusual but delicious drink is the fragrant cedar whiskey, served in a rocks glass and garnished with a real block of cedar. It is the first beverage to ever make me want to drink wood. The key to making that drink work is the use of premium imported Japanese cedar, Inaba notes.

“It’s not like I’m the first person to experiment with these ingredients. I’m not Thomas Edison. I can’t create ideas from zero,” Inaba explains. “But I can do something with Washu that is not easily copied, and that’s very important to survival in this market.”

At Washu, many of the customers are female. In recognition of that clientele, the bar has rolled out a wide variety of fruit-infused shochus, making use of both local and Japanese ingredients. The top sellers are passion fruit, shochu, and a jasmine-apple blend, Inaba says.

“Taiwanese people are very curious about new things,” he says. “But in the bar business, the curiosity typically only lasts a few months, and then they want to see something different. The customers give me pressure, and that keeps me on my toes.”

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