Bar Surfing Taipei Cocktail Festival Unveils the Uniqueness of Taiwan’s Cocktail Scene

By James Lo

Marching into its second year, Bar Surfing – Let’s Go is an international cocktail event which aims to introduce the uniqueness of Taiwanese cocktails and the skill of local mixologists to international and domestic patrons alike. Led by Jeffery Chang (2014 recipient of the World Class Bartender of the Year Award from the internationally renowned Diageo Reserve World Class organization), the team behind the event consists of a mixed group of mixology experts and cocktail connoisseurs.

Taiwan Scene recently sat down with Fay Chen, spokesperson of the Bar Surfing team to learn about the creation of this celebratory social event, as well as the history of cocktail making in Taiwan.

The History of Taiwan’s cocktail Scene

“The history of Taiwan’s cocktail scene can be traced back to the (nineteen) fifties and sixties,” Chen explained. “We first developed cocktails to tailor to the tastes of American soldiers stationed in Taiwan.”

According to Chen, signature Taiwanese cocktails first took shape in establishments known as Rock Houses, places emerging as a result of the increased presence of American military personnel in Taiwan. Thirsty for booze, music and a taste of home, servicemen would frequent these establishments to enjoy a few drinks and fellowship while listening to rock music performed in English.

Taiwanese cocktails:A fusion of alcohol and tea 

Crafty bartenders began combining recipes for American-style cocktails with the drinking culture adopted from the Japanese during their colonization just a couple of decades earlier. This fusion led to the discovery of the unique flavors that became the blueprint for Taiwan’s modern cocktail scene.

taiwan scene_bar surfing_Fourplay
image source: GQ

These days, Taiwanese cocktails feature flavors drawn from local fruits, herbs, spices and even teas. Famed local bar Fourplay has mastered the use of these ingredients, creating blended drinks specifically customized to the whims and tastes of individual customers. For this reason, there’s no set menu at Fourplay, making every drink served at the bar a unique experience.

“The skills of Taiwan’s mixologists have increased dramatically in the last ten years,” said Chen, citing Fourplay and other bars as examples. (Read more:A Tale of Cocktails: Five of Taipei’s Freshest Bars)

So what was the driving force behind the creation of Bar Surfing?

The idea behind the Bar Surfing event

According to Chen, the idea came about after organizers observed a recent trend in Taiwan, namely the emergence of modern-day speakeasies, small bars usually opened by master mixers returning to Taiwan from studying cocktail making abroad.

Though such individuals would have found their services in high demand at any of the larger bars and clubs throughout Taiwan’s major cities, they instead opted to open smaller establishments providing a more intimate service focusing on quality over quantity.

taiwan-scene-bar-surfing-榕RON Xinyi
image source: GQ

But such spots tend to fly under the radar, making them hard to find for local patrons (let alone foreign connoisseurs visiting Taiwan for the first time). So the Bar Surfing team created the event with the aim of shining a spotlight on lesser-known spots, as well as introducing more worthy bars to visiting cocktail lovers.

Since consumption of spirits is part of many social gatherings in Taiwan, Bar Surfing also provided the team with a platform to introduce new creations to locals who might not be familiar with the newer creations of Taiwan’s master mixologists.

“In addition to introducing local and visiting connoisseurs to all the great drinks being created around Taiwan, we wanted to bring our friends and family into Taiwan’s emerging cocktail scene,”

said Chen.

In designing the event, organizers found examples in other cocktail events held overseas. Cocktail-loving countries like Japan often hold week-long festivals throughout the year in which the art of mixology and the consumption of local cocktails are celebrated.

“Unlike other countries, we didn’t really have a platform to show off our progress on the world stage. We felt it was high time that Taiwan had its moment in the spotlight,” Chen told Taiwan Scene.

Bar Surfing collaborates with GQ magazine

The first five-day Bar Surfing festival took off last year to rave reviews. So successful was the event that popular men’s magazine GQ partnered with this year’s celebration. This partnership enabled the team to expand the event from five days to a month-long extravaganza. Participating establishments increased as well, from 26 in 2016 to 40 in 2017.

taiwan scene-bar-surfing-GN&FAYE
image source: GQ

The organizers also invited six esteemed mixologists from abroad as guest speakers and bartenders, including two Taiwan-born bartenders currently work in the United States. All six master mixologists took turns bartending this year’s three-night opening event at the famous Woobar, located inside Taipei’s swanky W Hotel. The event attracted more than a thousand participants on opening night, much to the surprise of the organizing team and the management of the popular venue. (Read more:Giving “High Tea” a Whole New Meaning)

When asked their thoughts regarding the progression of mixology in Taiwan, the masters unanimously agreed that the quality of Taiwan cocktails has significantly increased, citing the frequent hiring of local bartenders to work as bar managers in China as but one example.

The prestigious Pride of Taiwan

To better help participants navigate organizers’ recommendations, the team grouped all 40 bars into 10 different themes. A corresponding map was designed to help drinkers navigate the city’s featured bars with ease. Interested bar surfers can choose from routes like Hidden Secrets, Solo Adventures, For Foodies and The Pride of Taiwan, as well as six other unique categories when embarking on their own unique bar surfing adventures.

Among these routes, perhaps the most prestigious surfing path is Pride of Taiwan, a route featuring bars tended by mixologists who have secured recognition and accolades within the world of cocktail mixing.

taiwan scene_bar surfing_AHA Saloon
image source: GQ

AHA Saloon is one such example, home to the organizing teams very own Chang, as well as bartender Kae Yi, third place winner of the 2012 DIAGEO World Class Global Bartender Award. With two champions under one roof, it’s safe to say that AHA Saloon fits the bill as flagship bar of the Pride of Taiwan route. Visitors to AHA can experience the flavors of everything from international classics like the Old Fashioned to unique Taiwanese blends created by a local champion.

Whether you’re a local novice trying to embark on your very own journey into the world of cocktails or a seasoned aficionado from abroad, Bar Surfing Taiwan is definitely a festival worth attending. Thanks to the meticulous planning of the organizing team behind the event, you’ll have the option of choosing between 40 establishments on 10 unique routes within Taipei.

What are you waiting for? Join MyTaiwanTour Limited Edition GQ Bar Surfing Tour and get ready to surf between the best speakeasies and cocktail bars offered in Taipei!

You might also be interested in: Things Every Drinker Should Know about Taipei’s Bar and Nightlife Scene