The man in charge, Angus Zou, is a rising star in mixology. The Taiwanese was first in the spotlight in 2009, when he won the Diageo World Class Taiwan. His later appearances in various cocktail competitions all ended up with splendid results.
In the recent years, he made frequent trips to the bars in Tokyo and London to take in as much inspiration as possible. These ambitious expeditions culminated in Alchemy, a bar that put the speakeasy culture on the map in Taiwan.
It was an empire centred around the bar table, which was ruled by Zou. Everything in Alchemy was about him and him alone. “I had always enjoyed the spotlight cast on me behind at bar table,” he admitted.
Many of the people sitting across the table and interacting with him were his most loyal customers. On another level, they were his close companions. They knew of his fame and his achievements in the field of mixology.
Yet, after a pause, Zou continued: “The mixologist is surrounded by all these people day in and day out. One day, this would become his whole world.”
Deep down, he was exhausted. There had been hardly a break in his career for more than a decade. In this seemingly invincible domain, he outdid himself in technique, imported new ingredients and experimented with multi-sensory mixology to elevate the cocktail tasting experience. But in a way, he was confined in a circle. The busier he got, the lonelier he felt.
A New World Away From the Bar Table
Zou made a decision to quit Alchemy in 2016. In the following two years, he received many invitations to be a guest instructor or consultant in Russia, Spain, India and other countries. He was granted a newfound sense of freedom to visit bars in various parts of the world. The life away from the bar table and the spotlight couldn’t be more different than before.
“When I got further away from the bar table, I saw a broader world and I realised something had gone wrong,” Zou said.
He thought if beer could be drunk standing, so could cocktail. He wanted to change the sombre, unapproachable image of bars.
Half a year later, Draft Land opened its doors in an alley in eastern Taipei.
These days, his bar takes the Asian market to a new direction on experiencing cocktail. Within a year of its opening, Draft Land had crossed the strait to open a branch in Hong Kong. The change he has wrought on the cocktail scene is the better answer to those who had doubts about his career choice.
We caught up with Zou on one of his numerous trips between Taiwan and Hong Kong.
1. How did you come up with the Cocktail on Tap concept?
It actually began with a collaboration project with Taihu Brewing. Its owner Duke invited me to create several craft beer-based cocktails for his bar Driftwood in Ximending. I was supposed to make six types of cocktails, but I could only come up with three because I was too busy (laughs).
But I really learnt a lot from that experience. From my on-site observation, people really would come together for good products. They chose the drinks purely based on its good taste, without knowing those were created by Angus. That episode changed me. I learned something technical as well, like the way to preserve flavours. It was very different from my work in the past, mixing drinks on the spot.
The biggest difference is that to put a beverage on tap, you have to first deconstruct all the flavours, for instance, using various kinds of acids (malic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, etc) to control aftertaste and to manipulate how they set off the changes of flavour in the mouth. That experience opened up a new world for me. Duke is now one of the shareholders of Draft Land.
Yes, I call them draftenders. Their mission at the bar is no longer mixing. They become presenters beside the customers. In the past, bartenders liked to act cool. But we don’t do that. We spend more time and effort to equip our driftender with professional knowledge and message delivery skills. The customers got back to us saying they liked this kind of “warm” service, and the draftenders were very professional. The draftenders would provide recommendations to the guests and encourage them to taste the beverages. Tasting is another new element.
3. Draft Land Hong Kong has garnered a lot of attention due to the partnership with another celebrated mixologist Antonio Lai. How is the market reacting to it?
As a brand, Draft Land has certain guidelines from service to design to offerings. The main difference is that the Taiwan branch has 18 kinds of beverages, while in Hong Kong, there are 24. This is because Draft Land Hong Kong is twice as big as Draft Land Taiwan.
The grand opening of the Hong Kong branch took place in March. The reaction so far has been pretty positive. We’re prepared to fix certain shortcomings caused by cultural differences. For example, in terms of people’s taste, we’ve added something typical of Hong Kong, like yuenyeung and iced lemon tea, blending these classic local drinks into mixology. Hong Kong is a developed commercial city and the market there is quite accepting to new influences. These products could be launched in Taipei the next season as a kind of taste exchange.
Antonio and I are both revolutionaries. We met in London eight years ago. In Hong Kong, everyone in the business has to call him the
“big brother”. We both like to experiment with things like multi-sensory mixology and molecular gastronomy in the world of cocktails. But having broadened our horizons, we agreed that, to make a change in the world of cocktail, the only way is to change the way it appears in our lives.
5. The Cocktail on Tap concept is well received by the industry and liked by customers. How do you think it would affect the drinking culture?I often say Draft Land doesn’t compete with the other bars, but with other drinks. In Taiwan, we mostly focus on the people who aren’t used to going to bars. That is to create new demand and a new market.
Soon after Draft Land opened, I received lots of proposals from cities all across Asia, like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok and Seoul. They all thought the new Cocktail on Tap concept was suitable for their cities. The first Hong Kong bar has just opened. I believe we can open two to three more shops.
Apart from that, the newly opened Baan Taipei wants to work with Draft Land. The collaboration with the Thai restaurant, which is run by chefs from one-Michelin-starred restaurants in Taiwan and Thailand will be our first crossover with a restaurant. We have subtly changed the cocktail culture. There should be a lot more possibilities waiting for us to explore.
This article was written by Veronique Chou and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original version of this story.