Behind the Bar Stick People

How to Build a Charming Bar. One That Seats Only 20 People.

When Niks Anuman-Rajadhon opened Teens of Thailand (ToT) in the narrow streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown in 2015, he created a drink destination for discerning adults. He also kicked off a neighborhood revival within the same couple of blocks, as the charming Tep Bar arrived, then at the end of 2017, ToT’s sister bar, Asia Today.

A nod to the history of the underserved neighborhood that was once dominated by glue-sniffing teenagers, Teens of Thailand delivers low-key, intimate bar charm in a space that seats just 20 people. It’s the kind of bar previously nonexistent in Bangkok (or Thailand, for that matter), offering the country’s largest gin selection and a range of Gin & Tonics served Spanish-style in goblets.

Teens of Thailand. Virginia Miller

“Back in 2015, it was not easy to find a good Gin & Tonic or any decent gin drinks in Thailand,” says Anuman-Rajadhon. “So we decided to open one in the heart of Chinatown where you have numerous spice shops nearby. The street has the scent of cinnamon and anise.”

Anuman-Rajadhon seeks out and imports gins otherwise difficult to find in Southeast Asia, showcasing the spirit’s far-reaching styles in cocktail specials. The bar’s tagline? “Welcome all useless teens and midlife crisis people.” Anuman-Rajadhon’s sense of humor is apparent. “The heart of Teens of Thailand is that we serve good gin drinks and the toilet has to be clean,” he says.

Gin & Tonic at Teens of Thailand. Virginia Miller

Down the alley is Asia Today, small with a lofty ceiling marked by a giant shark hanging from the rafters (a childhood obsession of co-owner Gun Leelhasuwan). Above the bar, these words glow in neon red lighting: “This bar is better than Teens of Thailand.” Focused on Thai ingredients and local products, it’s the kind of bar that’s shockingly missing from Bangkok, a city whose burgeoning cocktail scene is more intent on following international bar trends than creating its own.

At Asia Today especially, Anuman-Rajadhon’s local vision shines. “The bar is based on the challenge of a non-supermarket cocktail bar,” he says. “We grow ingredients ourselves, go foraging and work with local organic farmers.”

Asia Today.

Creative themes encompass Asia Today’s offerings. Think a cocoa menu of cocktails featuring cocoa wine or local chocolates, or a honey menu sourcing a honey library from apiaries and bee keepers around the country—even cocktails served in a honeycomb cup. He tastes ingredients and plants on his Thailand travels, looking for the unusual and unique.

“We’re famous for the wild honey we’ve been collecting, since we believe that every beehive gives a different flavor profile,” says Anuman-Rajadhon. The Wild Honey Daiquiri utilizes wild honey from Khao Yai National Park, while the Vino Cocoa combines local cocoa wine, Worthy Park single-estate reserve rum, Issan rum, Worthy Park Rum-Bar silver rum, lime and sugar, garnished with a rice cracker.

Vino Cocoa at Asia Today.

Anuman-Rajadhon also knows his rums, a spirits category not as deeply explored in Thailand given frustrating laws that only allow a few approved brands to call themselves “rum,” while every other rum must be called “sugar cane spirit” or “engineered spirit.” Anuman-Rajadhon is outspoken and well-versed on the hoops bars must jump through. “Thailand’s rules and regulations on alcohol are a joke,” he says. “But the upside of this is that we learn to not read the label and start putting more focus on what is inside the bottle.”

In Thailand, it’s an uphill road for small-batch distilling and creative cocktail bars. “On the production side, there’s a long battle to go for local producers,” says Anuman-Rajadhon. “Here, it’s actually illegal to prebatch drinks and infuse or barrel-age spirits, not to mention rotavaping [using a rotary evaporator]. Since the laws on alcohol are very strict and leave little [room for creativity], you get more creative where it doesn’t concern alcohol. Some wild honey, anyone?”

Eastern Honey Bee, made with Gin Lane 1751 Old Tom gin, wild Apis cerena honey, lime and wild honey foam in a beeswax mug, at Asia Today.

Most Thai bartenders haven’t even begun to tap into their country’s rich produce and resources as they stir up Old Fashioneds or experiment with Tiki for the first time. Other than bar manager Jamie Rhind at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s legendary Bamboo Bar—he digs deep into Thai regions and ingredients with his wonderful “Compass Thailand” menu—you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone showing off Thailand in drinks the way Anuman-Rajadhon and his team does.

“This country has so much to offer,” says Anuman-Rajadhon. “The culture and seasons between each region are massive. We’re still learning. The only tool we need is the heart to learn. The rest will come along.”