Bar Talk: Bespoke bars a treat in Asia, so rare here

Bespoke bar J. Boroski in Bangkok, Thailand.
Courtesy photo

What is it about the bespoke cocktail bar experience that seems to be thriving in Asian countries while barely on the map in America?

My past three, far-flung adventures have been to Asian countries — Japan and Thailand — and on each trip, I have found myself on multiple occasions trying to articulate what I am in the mood to drink without ordering from an actual cocktail menu.

These bars claim to deliver one-of-a-kind drinks custom made to the patron’s tastes. All you as the patron have to do is tell the bartender a spirit preference, aka drink base, and then spout words like fruity and sour or sweet and spicy, let them know if there is anything you won’t consume or are allergic to, and wait to see what you get.

You can, of course, give them a drink to emulate, such as if you’re a big fan of an old fashioned, you could say, “I like whiskey, spirit-forward drinks, a balance of bitter and sweet, like an old fashioned.”

My first bespoke cocktail bar experience was J. Boroski, behind a nondescript door at the end of a brick alley in the Thonglor neighborhood in Bangkok.

It was dark and moody inside, dozens of small votive candles line the bar and what looks like a library of wooden drawers behind the bar holding untold cocktail-making treasures.

The bartender asked if we’d been there before and then explained the concept. My partner and I got down to the business of ordering. I asked for something refreshing, made with local flavors, not sweet, and watched with delight as our bartender moved with deliberate and meticulous care, opening drawers to grab herbs and spices, cutting fresh fruit, creating cubes of ice, and more.

Once crafted, our cocktails were passed from one side of the bar to another, accompanied by a detailed description of what went into them and how each ingredient met with our order.

The flavors were spot on, and it felt like a truly unique cocktail made just for me. But the proverbial cherry on top of that experience was we got into a good conversation with a guy at the end of the bar who turned out to be J. Boroski himself — the master mixologist and self-proclaimed mixsultant who is behind the bar programs at some of the top bars and hotels around the country.

Bespoke bars are more common in Asian cities. J. Boroski, Bangkok.
Courtesy photo

The next bespoke speakeasy my partner and I found ourselves in was in Kyoto, in a long, narrow bar with bartenders dressed like they were straight out of the 1920s. It was a totally different experience from J. Boroski’s and got me curious about what types of training the bartenders at these types of establishments have to go through to be able to craft a bespoke cocktail on the spot.

It’s possible they are well-trained in the basics and flavors and understand how to make variations of classics tailored to each order. Or it’s also possible they are at the top of their game, have an excellent palette like a sommelier, and truly are just having fun creating new combinations each night.

It was by the third bespoke bar I ended up in — just a few flights up some stairs following a non-descript graphic sign and then crawling through a hobbit-sized door in Osaka — that I started to realize this seemed to be a trend in big Asian cities, which got me thinking about why I wasn’t stumbling into them in the American cities I was visiting.

To be fair, I don’t frequent big cities a ton. So while I know there are a few bespoke bars in New York City — Attaboy, voted one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2022, for example, which also has an outpost in Nashville — I haven’t yet found any on this half of the country. If you know of one in Denver or on the West Coast, please don’t gate keep. Let a cocktail columnist know!

So back to the point: Why are bespoke cocktail bars seemingly peppered all over countries such as Thailand, Japan, and Singapore but harder to find in America?

Is it that those countries craft a culture of patience that Americans simply don’t have?

Is it that the cost of owning one of these establishments that by the nature of the bar caters to a smaller crowd that lingers longer is too high in America, where volume is king?

Or is that we are always pioneering new styles of bars in America, and the bespoke trend has come and gone, and we’re on to the next big thing?

I think the answer is perhaps an amalgamation of these and the fact that in order to thrive, this type of bar experience would have to exist in the right city for the right client base.

In theory, Aspen could be a prime spot for a bespoke bar. People who visit like to have unique, one-of-a-kind experiences and clearly are willing to pay top-dollar for that. The year-round locals like to support small businesses turning out top-quality products and are always looking for a good bar to cozy up to.

However, in practice, it simply couldn’t fly in Aspen, as rent is too impossibly high and crafting a lower amount of bespoke cocktails a night compared with the large volume of alcoholic beverages other bars are slinging … it’s just not going to pay the bills in a high-price town like Aspen.

But a cocktail columnist can dream, right?

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