Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Cocktails and Whiskey in Taipei - Caffe Libero, Marsalis, Fourplay

Souvenirs from Taipei - Kavalan Concertmaster, and vintage glass from Nostalgic Future
When I tell people I'm planning my wedding, they naturally ask about the person I'm about to be married to. "Is he a foodie too?" is probably the most common question, and my answer is always "absolutely not".

So a month or so ago, when I caught up with G in Taipei (he had already been there a couple of days), I was more than surprised when he suggested we go bar hopping after dinner. He said this knowing that my kind of bar hopping involves more whisk(e)y and proper cocktails than party scenes and bottle service (and in many cases, beer). Needless to say, I took that license to drink and ran.
Kavalan Solist, sherry cask finish, in almost complete darkness at Cafe Libero
Caffe Libero
In the rather hip Yongkang Street area, Caffe Libero is a cafe by day, and despite arriving close to 11pm, they handed us the coffee, tea and snack menu, and told us to let them know if we wanted something stronger. They don't do cocktails, but have a selection of beer, whiskey and spirits. Immediately, G asked about beer, and was taken to a fridge filled with global craft beers (he asked if any of them were made in Taiwan, the server said no - I wonder, is anyone making craft beer in Taiwan?). While they were gone, I perused the petite yet crowded bar, and spotted what I wanted to try - the Taiwanese whiskey brand that has rocked (geddit?) the world - Kavalan. They had a few of them on hand, including all of the Solist collection. I chose the sherry cask, and in short, it tasted like sherry that was ramped up with alcohol and it was hard to get it to open up. To me, it seemed to have very short length - there was a deep burn (it's 57%) and then nothing. G chose a Yuzu beer, presumably from Japan, but frankly I was so upset by the whiskey I didn't really care. (At the airport, I decided to give Kavalan another go, and picked up one of their cheapest bottles - the Concertmaster - see opening pic. For NWT$1700 (around US$50), it actually gives a lot more satisfaction than the fancy ones)

Just days before the trip, I was invited to watch a short film about the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year 2012. World Class is an annual bartenders' competition, and in 2012 it was held in Rio de Janeiro.

Tim Phillips (photo courtesy QNMPR/Diageo)
During the 1-hour film, we were treated to 2012 winner Tim Phillips's cocktails, including his now-famous Reincarnation Flip, which is not only a cocktail, but a bit of a magic show! Tim's used to work at Sydney hotspot Hemmesphere, but has since opened a bar of his own, called Bulletin Place. I'm definitely popping onto my list of things to do next time I'm in Sydney.

So what does all this have to do with Taipei? One of the finalists, Kae Yin, was from Taiwan, and I soon found that his HQ is Marsalis, in the newish Home Hotel in Taipei. In the film, I remember one of the judges being truly impressed with his creation, and saying, I paraphrase here, that it was technically perfect and immaculately balanced.

Kae Yin
The streets were quiet as we were approaching the hotel - the gargantuan LCD exteriors of Xinyi were animated, flashing for nobody in particular, but things changed as we trotted towards the street where Home was. We heard the thumping echoes of nightclubs ("Oh yeah, we were there on the weekend, with the guys" remarked G - no-one can convince me that the weekend before I arrived was not some sort of a pre-bachelor party, ahem), then, we saw terrace cafe seating, and up the elevators and through some heavy doors was Marsalis. For a Tuesday night, the place was busy - probably 80-90% full at around 10.30pm, and we were seated promptly by Kae Yin himself. Momentarily starstruck (I stage whispered to G, "I saw him in the movie!"), we took our menus and began reading.

Black and Blue at Marsalis
I chose a classic, Black and Blue, and G got a Macallan. For someone who doesn't like blackberry liqueurs, I probably chose the wrong drink (sometimes I take strange risks that I myself don't understand) - the first couple of sips were a little hard. But as I got into the drink - the fresh orange juice, the twist of peel that tickled my nose every time, the touch of bourbon - everything fell into place. It was very well integrated, balanced and dangerously easy to drink. I wanted to order another drink, but (and this is my only gripe) it was a little hard to wave anyone down for service, so when I finally got someone's attention, we decided to get the bill.

A super minty mint julep at Fourplay
When I explained to G that the name of this bar came about because it was set up by four friends who love cocktails, he seemed genuinely impressed by the pun. Possibly to test my theory, he watched diligently as they made our cocktails. "They really look like they enjoy what they're doing," he told me, satisfied with my claim. (Unfortunately their Facebook page and press make them look cheesier than they really are.)

There's no menu at Fourplay, and the first thing our bartender asked was if it would be ok to speak in Mandarin (G is a nerdy white guy). We nodded, and he continued to ask us what we like. Whiskey-based for both was our answer (I think you can sense a theme by now), and seeing the huge platter of fruits and herbs on the counter, I randomly gestured at them and said, "maybe with a bit of what you have over there," (I was purposely vague in my request because I was at a loss as to how to say "fresh" in Mandarin without making it sound like I was ordering fish). When the bartender returned and asked if it was ok to serve me crushed ice, I was a little nervous, but said yes anyway. I ended up getting the mintiest mint julep I've ever had - not too sweet, fresh, and the crushed ice miraculously didn't melt all that quickly - nice. I could not, for the life of me, make out the name of the drink G had, but it had whiskey, rum and a spirit, and was topped with the cutest ice boat thingy filled with berries. 

It seemed that a lot of people were there for dinner too, but to be honest none of the food looked very enticing (Asian Western, if you know what I mean).

For fear of the ice diluting my perfectly balanced drink, I slurped mine pretty quickly, and G, feeling a sore throat coming on, decided to gulp his strong beverage down too, to "kill everything". As a result, we toppled out the place before midnight (the bar closes then), managed to keep our eyes open while lazily waving our arms about to catch a cab (which appeared out of nowhere in no time, flat), and soon enough, stumbled happily into bed.

Caffe Libero
No. 1, Lane 243
Jinhua St
Daan District
+886 2 2356 7129

3/F Home Hotel
90 Songren Rd
Xinyi district
+886 2723 6278

67 Dongfeng St
Daan district
+886 2 2708 3898

View e_ting in Taipei in a larger map


  1. I went to Fourplay when I was in Taipei and they were way overcrowded. A pity really. Now I wish you did this post before my trip!

  2. I've been to Taiwan several times, but I never discovered the drinking culture there! I will definitely check out these places the next time I'm there :)