19 May 2014

At once open and intimate

In three years of working as a features writer (for a broadsheet and a few magazines), the Diageo Reserve World Class Bar Crawl on May 12 (yes, on a Monday!) is by far the most enjoyable event I have ever had the privilege of being invited to.

Spotlight on the bartender
It's one of those rare instances wherein I can actually say I feel like I'm not working.

A brief background for the uninitiated: Diageo Reserve World Class is an international cocktail education program and bartending competition. Last year the Philippines made its debut in the event with bartenders from five bars joining. This year, bartenders from eleven different bars participated. Reserve Luxury Manager for Diageo Philippines Marie Ona attributes the jump in number to the mushrooming of bars that 2013 saw.

In celebration of this blossoming cocktail scene in Metro Manila—and I guess as an occasion for the four Filipino bartenders who qualified for the regional finals in Singapore to warm up and keep their spirits high—Diageo Reserve organised the bar crawl. Each of the finalists got to showcase how they create a world in a glass, so to speak, right on their home turf.

Rian Asiddao & Long Bar, Raffles Makati

Charles in Manila is sprinkled
with chamomile and gold flakes
The Long Bar concept has never been exported until now. Long Bar in Raffles Makati (1 Raffles Drive, Makati Avenue, Makati City) is the first outside Singapore, where it originated.

Taking control of the bar is Rian Asiddao (photo above), whose favorite spirit is Gin. He candidly shares that in the heats where they had to use vodka and whiskey as base, he didn't fare so well.

He, however, made it with 'Charles in Manila'—a nod to Charles Tanqueray and the local favorite Gin Pomelo, featuring Manille Liqueur de Calamansi.

The Long Bar is designed much like the original in Raffles Hotel Singapore. There are the lazy fans lining the wooden ceiling and a reproduction of the painting of a bartender 'in action'.

A reproduction of the painting in Long Bar, Raffles Hotel Singapore
Guests are even encouraged to throw nutshells on the floor as how they do in Singapore. Me being me, I'd like to put my garbage neatly in one area, but I was quick to recall the wisdom: honor the codes of your host. I obliged and the custom, as many pronounced, was indeed liberating.

Syrian Ebdane & Le Bar, Sofitel Philippine Plaza

Afternoon tea ni ritual served
with the herbs in glass tubes
When I checked my notebook, I had zero notes on Le Bar. Upon reflection, the reason for this is that after having a couple of drinks at Long Bar, I loosened up and began having fun.

By the time we got to Le Bar at Sofitel Philippine Plaza (Barangay 1, CCP Complex, Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City), I behaved like how people normally do in bars: spontaneously connecting with their fellow human beings. I made friends with other writers in the group and had a proper chat with Sofitel Manila head bartender Syrian Edbane, who was wearing a suit and Chucks and, unlike Rian, likes vodka and whiskey.

Syrian served his 'Afternoon tea ni ritual' (a play on Afternoon Tea and Martini). The best way to drink it is: (1) rub rosemary in your palms; (2) sniff the scent from your palms; (3) take that sip. And if chance allows, I suggest that you also (4) gaze at the sunset. Le Bar affords a splendid view of Manila Bay.

View of Manila Bay from Le Bar, Sofitel Philippine Plaza
I must admit that the place is too big and wide for my taste. But then that's the whole idea. Le Bar is a bistro, patisserie, and library rolled into one. If you want your varied hungers satisfied in a single room, this is for you.

Ed Yonzon & Niner Ichi Nana

Drop of life:
vodka, guyabano, calamansi
Ed Yonzon, head bartender of Niner Ichi Nana (Ground Floor, The Globe Tower, 32nd St corner 7th Ave, Bonifacio Global City), reminded me of two things: (1) why vodka is the first spirit I learned to love and (2) how delicious guyabano is.

His 'Drop of life' is the most memorable glass I've had in the entire bar crawl. It tasted weird in the beginning—no, not bad; but somehow in every cocktail served to me, I was prepared to instantly discern something familiar and here it wasn't the case. So I took another sip, and then another. That sense of groping turned into admiring new sensations. Midway into the drink, all I felt was delight in slow rediscovery.

Guyabano has a lot of benefits, Ed shares, and one of it is lowering cholesterol. He offered us a shot of its extract and, to be honest, it was my second favorite drink of the night. It got me to thinking why I haven't been having as much of this fruit as I should.

Ed mixes, we watch and learn
We also sampled 'Eurasia', which is a mix of whiskey, cucumber, and chili, with lots of crushed ice. The first sip was like a head-on collision. I thought it was too strong for me to finish, but that's what the ice was for, to temper the whiskey. In the end, it's one of the most refreshing cocktails you can have; in fact the word I associate with it is 'light'. Pair it up with the foie gras nuggets, which has a little crunch on the outside, softness on the inside, and a mild spice. I imagine sharing this cocktail and bar chow combo with an office buddy or an acquaintance, perhaps to celebrate something as mundane as four o'clock.

Joma Rivera & The Curator

Joma Rivera's 'Win or go home' was named as such because during the Philippine leg of the competition, it's either he wins with this cocktail or go home. That simple. Well, he won and the greater news is he was crowned World Class Bartender of the Year – Philippines 2014 a couple of days ago.

The 23-year-old reports as principal bartender at The Curator (134 Legazpi St corner C Palanca St, Legaspi Village, Makati City), which just opened last December.

Raw is how I'd describe the establishment. It struck me as a space for the unhurried and those who demand and provide perfection in a glass. Except for some bread to go along with your coffee for breakfast, they don't serve food. Not because they're being selfish, but because its location restricts them to.

This is our last stop and in an ideal world (where I didn't need to go to work early the following day), the night would've only begun.

If the 'Eurasia' was a head-on collision, The Curator's 'Beckinsale' was a big bang explosion—in a good way. "They don't scrimp on their alcohol," notes Marie. Aside from this generosity, the team's passion for libation is apparent. You can taste it in their beverages and they will engage you in a conversation about it.

I got to talk to co-founder David Ong, who taught me what a speakeasy truly is. He intro-ed: "Those who claim to be a speakeasy aren't." He also advised that I visit his other project, EDSA Beverage Design Group in, where else, EDSA. It's in the far far North but if what I experienced in The Curator is any indication, it must be worth the long commute.

Additional notes
EDSA BDG map sketched by David
  • When I asked the bartenders what their favorite cocktail is, most of them said it's the Old-Fashioned. Rian prefers Bee's Knees.
  • On the right is a map of EDSA Beverage Design Group.
  • So why was I so happy with the bar crawl? Because we now have these bars that inspire openness and intimacy, serious craftsmanship, and knowledge of cocktail culture. These drinks didn't come from nowhere. It's earth and memories distilled in a glass, and you share this small world with another, it doesn't matter whether there are words exchanged or none. There are no strangers here.

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