In the vibrant city of Taipei, the cocktail scene isn’t exactly in step with thriving movements going back years in nearby cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore or the elevated realms that are Tokyo bars. But Taipei does claim a recent and growing cocktail movement—evident at bars like Ounce, Alchemy and R&D Cocktail Lab—where camaraderie and community play center stage with classic and innovative cocktails.
Taiwan offers the unique aspects of an island country whose residents often bear family roots in neighboring China, but the country was under Japanese rule for decades, leading to a range of influences. Taiwan’s own whimsical culture is the breeding ground for edible trends like bubble tea, Din Tai Fung dumplings and Taiwanese snow (a shaved ice dessert) that take off around the world.
Though East End just opened in 2015, bar manager Nick Wu has been a pioneer in Taiwan’s cocktail bar scene for years, first making a name for himself as a flair bartender, winning competitions from Las Vegas to Melbourne. Eventually starting his own training and consultancy company, he became an accredited WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) educator and was involved in training staff at Taipei’s refined cocktail bar Alchemy. After winning the Taiwan World Class Competition in 2016, he placed third in Diageo’s Global World Class Finals.
When it came to opening the sleek yet welcoming upstairs space that is East End, Wu smartly brought on Tokyo’s legendary Hidetsugu Ueno (of Bar High Five) to consult and bring a collaborative ethos to a bar that is Japanese in precision (and its stellar whisky selection), American in its methods and Taiwanese in its playful experimentation (think yuzu or shiso plum Mojitos, duck-fat-washed cocktails and vibrant house-made ingredients like pickled green mango juice).
As East End just celebrated its one-year anniversary in September, with lively parties and a visit from Ueno, Wu reflects on Taipei’s rising cocktail scene and how East End marries various cultures and styles in a bar that feels particularly Taiwanese.
Getting Into “Craft” Cocktails
“I had worked at TGI Friday’s [in Taipei] for four years. I left in search of something different. In 2008, Diageo Taiwan asked for my help organizing and running the World Class competitions. This is when I realized that cocktails are becoming more and more exquisite, and I have worked to improve in this aspect ever since. This is also when I met Mr. Hidetsugu Ueno.”
The Cocktail “Scene” in Taipei
“There isn’t so much a cocktail ‘renaissance’ in Taipei, as the cocktail culture here only started to happen about three to four years ago. I must say that Diageo World Class has a big impact on Taiwan, as in the early days, not many distributors were willing to invite internationally famous bartenders to come and give seminars and be part of World Class. People who compete in this competition are willing to work hard and better themselves so that they, too, can stand up there with the masters some day. What is unique about the cocktail culture in Taiwan is that it’s being pushed by a group of enthusiastic, mostly self-taught bartenders continually promoting and educating customers, so that nowadays, more and more people here enjoy cocktail culture.”
Gleaning from the Past
“The larger history of cocktail culture in Taiwan is very short, only about 30 to 40 years. About 15 years ago, people would come to a bar and ask for ‘something special’ or ‘whatever you think suits me.’ Afterward, Long Island Iced Teas, Vodka Limes and other alcohol-heavy cocktails were the most popular. About eight years ago, cocktails made with fresh fruit came into fashion. In the past three to four years, many guests in Taipei started to enjoy classics such as the Old Fashioned, Gimlet and Negroni. They now may even discuss and try these drinks at different places.”
The Concept Behind East End
“East End [was named] East because it’s situated in the east district of Taipei, and End because no matter where you have been during the day, you can always come here and enjoy quality drinks and service to end the day.”
Collaborating Between Cultures
“We have a contract with Ueno. He comes to East End every three months to do a guest bartending shift and train the staff. Sometimes he brings recipes from his own bar and explains how to maintain balance and why these flavors work. He also helps our staff brush up on their cocktailing techniques. So although the current menu at East End is mainly my creation, the spirit of Ueno is always there.
Although I am very much influenced and inspired by Ueno and his Japanese ways, I myself am more than that. I have been a flair bartender for a very long time and won quite a few international competitions. I learned the American approach to cocktails and free-pouring at TGI Friday’s. I learned even more with the Diageo Bar Academy, such as the concepts of molecular cocktails. Therefore, I am able to apply my own methods to those of Ueno’s, like maintaining Japanese quality while saving time with the American way. Plus, we use ingredients and flavors that are rooted in Taiwan at East End. All of this creates a fusion that many guests enjoy.”