The cocktails at Check-in Taipei are full of surprises
No sooner have I walked into Check-in Taipei, heralded by a few dry coughs courtesy of one of this year's superhuman cold strains, than Shin Chiu serves a hot winter melon tea sweetened with a hint of the house-made sugar syrup he makes fresh daily, and, of course, pearls - Taiwan's famous tapioca balls.
Comforting and soothing, it is made with winter melon-infused cane sugar that comes from the island in rich, dark slabs. "We call this sugar black gold ( hei gin) in Taiwan," says Chiu, who has spent 20 years in the drinks business.
Along with sugars and teas, Chiu is undoubtedly the most significant Taiwanese ingredient that owner Tom Huang has imported for his venture, which is located on Hollywood Road in Central. Hong Kong-born executive chef Leung Nga-fung presents a reinvented contemporary Taiwanese cuisine, and Chiu does the same with the cocktails. Chiu's creations are full of surprises, whether or not you are familiar with Taiwanese ingredients.
The Check-in Taipei team have nicknamed the bar owner (who owns Lomi Lomi in Taipei), bartender and bar skills instructor the "drink architect", which initially sounds as highfalutin as "mixologist" did back in the 1990s.
"I want to make drinks with different layers, so they call me the drink architect," he says. "But on my name card, my real title is Chief Drink Officer - CDO. No, that's not a normal title, either."
He presents a tray with a shot-sized cup of smoking liquid, a cup of what looks like milk sprinkled with red bean, and a ceramic frog propping up a wooden spoon.
Deconstructing what he calls his "dessert cocktail" called Tofu of An-Ping, he says the Taiwan Hometown High-Mountain Tea Liqueur (which has more than 30 per cent alcohol) is mixed half and half with High-Mountain Tea and garnished with dry ice.
Sip this first, then taste the cocktail of Baileys, Oolong tea, almond tofu and soya bean milk using the spoon.
"An Ping was the first city to be developed in Taiwan. They make a lot of soya bean milk, tofu and other bean products," he explains, adding, "There are many frogs in the rivers there."
Introduced after the opening, the menu of non-alcoholic milk and fruit teas is perfect for sipping during the day, or at their just-launched lunch. One of the most popular is the flossy cream tea. For this, he whips the cream into an airy layer and sits it above the tea, sprinkling crushed peanuts on the top, a little salt increasing the sweetness of the tea.
Like a duvet of cream above a chilled fruit tea, it is bizarre but absolutely delicious, giving you the inevitable white moustache as you drink.
Almost all his drinks have an infusion of Taiwanese tea. "I love tea. In Taiwan, we drink lots of kinds of tea, and if you want to be a professional bartender you need to know everything about drinks," he says.
"For the first five years I studied tea and coffee. I went to the mountains to learn how to pick tea and make tea on a farm. Then I spent five years studying wine and other alcohols."
He's also a member of the World Flair Association, which organises competitions that focus on a bartender's moves. But when I ask for some cocktail shaker acrobatics, he says, "I don't want this to be a circus. My focus is on the drinks here."
Erasing the pictures in my head of a Taiwanese Tom Cruise, I obediently focus on the drinks. But he then confesses his favourite cocktail on the menu is the showy signature shooter 101 Fireworks, made of absinthe, High-Mountain Tea Liqueur, blue Curacao, pineapple juice and Shy jih chuen tea, and served on fire.
"When you drink it you don't feel its strength until after," he says, smiling.