"Have you thought about what flavor you would like to try next?" the bar back asked.
It was all I HAD thought about since ordering my first cocktail, an Old Fashioned made with a house infused smoked whisky. Dan had been the one to originally ask about the bottle labeled "Smoky" but after hearing the description of the cocktail he turned to me with a questioning look, knowing it was right up my alley. Next he asked about the cedar bottle which it turned out was used to make a Manhattan. These are each our cocktails of choice, so we were immediately off to a good start.
"Ummm" I tore my eyes away from the collection of Japanese whisky bottles three deep behind the bar, covering shelves around the room and snuggled into roof beams.
"Is that one Jalapeno Pepper?"
He furrowed his brow.
"Japanese Pepper?" Dan chimed in.
Even better. He left to consult with the bartender over what kind of drink would be made with the Japanese Pepper whisky. Dan chose a Taiwanese Basil house distillation.
My smoky Old Fashioned bordered on just a little too much smoke, especially since the bite the friendly Taiwanese bar back had suggested with it was a smoked chocolate caramel that seemed a little too matchy matchy. The chocolate caramel with the pine infused Manhattan on the other hand, tasted like campfire in the best way imaginable.
He came back over.
"The Japanese Pepper we will use to make a sort of whisky sour. For the Taiwanese Basil we will also make a sour with a little bit of spice. After this drink, all our customers ask for fried chicken because Taiwanese chicken is made with a lot of this basil and spicy peppers"
We laugh and also ask where we can get some of this chicken because fried chicken with basil and spicy peppers is all I want to eat all day every day.
"Oh you know, just from the side of the road"
We have clearly spend our days in Taiwan on the wrong roads.
For this drink the Japanese bartender/owner comes over to prepare the drink in front of us. Until this point he's been busy with the business of setting up the bar for the evening, as we were the first customers. I thought maybe he didn't speak English since the menu was offered in Japanese and Chinese and we were relying heavily on the bar back who didn't seem to know the purpose of each liquor yet but I was wrong.
"Do you know what Japanese pepper is?" he asked.
"Is it sansho?"
"Yes," he gave a slight approving nod, continuing to pluck basil and mix efficiently while speaking with us. "It will leave a quite distinct flavor on your tongue, do you like it?"
The mixing continued, stirring in two cocktail shakers and then into a blender with some ice.
"Are there any bars like this in New York?" a note of pride in his voice.
The owner had been listening to our conversations with his employee. As always, we had explained that we were from New York but live in Seoul.
"No. I don't think so. There are bars that do maybe five or so of their own infusions, but nothing like this."
"They don't do their own distillations?"
"I don't know any. I don't think so"
"Tokyo the infusion are quite good but not so much the distillations"
He sets our drinks on the counter and I make a mental note to ask him for Tokyo bar recommendations for whenever we find ourselves there next. A mental note I will completely forget until we're on our way home.
I'm happy to not that my sour has the foam indicative of being made with egg white even though I hadn't been paying enough attention to see him put one in. The blended ice adds even a bit more thickness but not so much that it would qualify as a frozen drink. The cocktail is tart but creamy from the frothed white and the sansho pepper is strong but not overwhelming. I definitely get a bit of tongue tingle. Dan is happy with his basil sour but doesn't love it as much as he had loved his Manhattan.
For our next round I choose Yuzu Salt Shochu and Dan chooses Raspberry Whisky. These are also both made into sours, mine with the added addition of a salt rim and a slice of dried yuzu on top. Dan's was a bit a sweet and syrupy for our taste, the only major miss of the night, though I'm sure for somebody who regularly drinks fruity drinks it would be delicious. I loved my Yuzu Salt Sour and it's a hard call between that and the Japanese Pepper for my favorite drink of the night. I really loved the sansho, but I could probably drink more of the yuzu, though I can't imagine ever going to Wa Shu and not wanting to try yet another concoction.
We discuss another round and I'm torn between wanting to try another flavor and my love for the Japanese whisky hidden in every conceivable nook and cranny in the bar. This may be the only place able to ride out the Japanese whisky shortage without have to significantly raise prices, there's so many bottles.
"Are you ready for just whisky?" the bartender asks us.
I let Dan choose first because I'm still thinking.
"Do you have the Hakushu 12?"
Nothing crazy, but I've gone to Japan three times in the last year and never managed to get my hands on a bottle of Hakushu with an age distinction, even at the Yamazaki Distilery.
He thinks a minute then turns to the bottles directly behind him and pulls out one of the green bottles hidden in the back. He looks at me.
"I'll have the same"
"You are able to get this in New York?" he asks, surprised.
"Oh no, well maybe you can find it but it's very expensive now. We live in Seoul though so we have to go to Japan for good whisky"
He nods and pushes our pours across the bar before getting an order from the bar back for the large group that had arrived shortly before. A wealthy Taiwanese man who we've been told always travels with a posse and has recently become a regular customer.
"It's ok if there's one of these guys but I don't want two in here. I don't want arguments over who is the bigger man, you know?" he puffs up his chest in slight mockery before lining up a row of glasses and taking out what looks like two glass vases. Next a small torch and a tool I don't recognize with a hose attached.
He pours alcohol into the vases, lights something and then fills them with smoke. He caps each for a minute before pouring them into the glasses and bringing them over to the table and then returning farther down the bar to mix more drinks. I regret that we don't speak Japanese or Chinese so can't read the actual menu to find out what this drink is.
We sip our whisky. In one hour I will be thirty and I think that I miss the friends we would be celebrating with if we lived in America but this is still a pretty good way to end my twenties.
We finish our whisky and ask for the check, without having seen the menu, we're not quite sure what we're in for, especially with our pour of whisky and we're shocked when we see the bill.
Every drink was about US$10, including our pour of whisky which seemed incredibly reasonably priced for such unique creations and conversations with a bartender clearly knowledgeable and passionate about his business. At the good speakeasies in Seoul, drinks start at $25 for a classic cocktail and are usually just okay (which is why we never go to them). We were pretty sure that wasn't going to be the situation in Taipei where other cocktails and craft beer we had already had was priced like New York, but we weren't expecting as low as ten dollars. It's probably a good thing we don't live in Taipei because this would quickly become my favorite bar and I would want to go until we had tried every infusion and distillation, not to mention what had to be hundreds of bottles of hard to find whiskies.
We pay our bill and make our way back to the subway, hoping for the last train.
Wa Shu is located at 忠孝東路四段101巷39號, Taipei, 106, Taiwan (No. 39, Lane 101, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106) for more information check foursquare, their facebook or their website (not in English)