East End sees Nick Wu team up with Ueno-san to create a local cocktail culture. By Seamus Harris.
Born from a partnership between Gloria Hotel Group and drink entrepreneur Nick Wu, East End, set behind the Sogo Department Store at the heart of Taipei’s fashionable east district, is already being called the best in town. No mean feat for a new venue accessed through a bakery, and into a lift to the third floor. But if you’re thinking another speakeasy, think again – you have to skip across the modest hotel lobby serving Proverbs Hotel Taipei before confronting the sumptuous bar. The venue is intimate, but a lofty ceiling and surrounding views of the Taipei night give a spacious feel. There is elegance aplenty in the details, with hammered tin panels adorning the back bar, woven copper lampshades, and a faux-marble bar top that glows from soft backlighting. There is even a sheltered balcony for cigar smokers.
The boutique hotel watering hole concept seems to be working, with bodies piling in for classic and creative cocktails, starting at TWD500 (¥98). The focus is on concoctions familiar to Harry Craddock. But there are lots of nods to later inventions, from the Mai Tai to the Espresso Martini. There is also innovation – said Espresso Martini opts for Irish whiskey as a base. But the real fun begins when Wu goes deep diving to explore twists on classics. A clutch of Old Fashioned variations stick with bourbon but play with a longan infusion, a butter wash or a duck fat wash – with the dry-aged duck coming from TK Seafood and Steak, the hotel’s restaurant. For the most adventurous Old Fashioned fans, there is also the Duck and Don, in which anejo tequila meets a duck fat wash. Elsewhere there are nods to Taiwanese flavours, such as the Dong Gua Mojito, which sweetens oolong tea infused rum with a winter melon syrup sourced from an old family shop in Tainan.
But the real twist to this Taipei opening is the involvement of Hidetsugo Ueno of Bar High Five fame, who explains his first overseas venture came about because long-term friend Wu asked at the right time – rather than any desire to open in Taipei. Still, Ueno-san is quick to point out that this is not a spin-off of his Tokyo hotspot: “Nick wanted it to be called High Five, but that would have been a huge risk and responsibility for me. Nick understood. So instead I simply consult for East End, and Nick takes care of everything.”
Prior to opening East End, Wu was importing specialty liquors and supplying Taiwan’s cocktail bars. He admits he would have liked to see Bar High Five in Taiwan, but is happy with his craft bar in a boutique hotel, a concept he admits that was rooted in necessity: “It’s difficult to open your own place. There are many barriers. It’s also difficult to approach big hotels, but boutique hotels are easier. They have money, and also close relationships between the bar and management. It’s just easier to make it happen.” Wu pauses, then adds: “But there is another thing that made it easier to make this happen. Ueno-san is a very important teacher. The younger generation in Taiwan very much believe in teachers and experts. Having Ueno-san with us makes the staff more willing to learn.”
Ueno-san makes quarterly visits to train staff and help develop cocktails, though Nick is the brain behind the more unusual drinks – such as the Mist, a vodka sour scented with marigold leaf that tastes oddly like passionfruit. Ueno-san explains: “I’m an old man. I can’t do like Nick does. I focus on teaching the bartenders the basics, including hospitality. A warm welcome makes a drink taste better. Usually you can’t do this in a hotel bar, but at East End we can give you that more personal touch.” The old man gets behind the bar himself on his visits though, so with some lucky timing you might get the ultimate in personal touches, and a Ueno opinion on the industry: “Japan had 100 years to create its own style, which is influenced by having been isolated from the rest of the world until the rise of social networking, ten years ago. Taiwan is mostly just influenced by Japanese and Western style, though I believe Taiwan will develop a unique style much faster than Japan did. It won’t need 100 years.” Ueno-san also has a fair bit to say about the younger generation and how they are influenced by Western bar culture: “Taiwanese and Chinese bartenders need to learn the importance of staying in one place. If you believe in someone, learn from them. The money comes later. In Western countries it’s all about the money. It’s about “double shake, double stir” and the quality gets lost. I admit that even Japan is still struggling to make bartending a respected profession with status. Old Japanese bartenders, in their 70s or even 80s, are looked down on by society. But Taiwan? It doesn’t even have any old bartenders!”
What of this old bartender’s own future? “I have been coming to Taiwan for seven years now. I worked for Diageo Taiwan before I ever worked for Diageo Japan,” he says. “In four years’ time, I think my next plan here is to run for president.”
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East End / 56, Section 1, Da’an Rd, Da’an district, Taipei City, Taiwan / +886 903 531 851 / fb.com/eastendbartaipei