Legendary bartender Aki Wang on Indulge Experimental Bistro’s story and how he helped develop the cocktail scene in Taiwan

Giulia Sgarbi - 02/07/2020

Taipei bar Indulge Experimental Bistro has been a mainstay of Asia’s 50 Best Bars since its debut at No.5 in 2017. Now one of the best-performing venues in the history of the ranking, Indulge was named Heering Legend of the List at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2020. Its charismatic owner and head bartender, Aki Wang – sometimes known as ‘the Godfather of Chinese cocktails’ – talks passionately about the terroir of Taiwan as his main source of inspiration, the stages of his career and his advice for young bartenders  

Congratulations on Indulge receiving the Heering Legend of the List Award! How does it feel?

I just couldn’t believe it. It really means a lot to me and my whole team. Indulge Experimental Bistro has been open for 10 years, and it hasn’t been an easy journey. Our time has been mixed with laughter and tears, and full of bittersweet emotions, but we have faith in our vision for the industry we have chosen. This is an incredible honour that we never dared to dream was possible.

Allow Wang to introduce you to his bar and drinks philosophy:

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into bartending?

When I was 16 years old, my family went bankrupt. I started to work four part-time jobs, all in the food and beverage industry – I was a kitchen porter, a cleaner, a waiter… At this time, I trained for almost three years to become a bartender. During those years, I never felt tired, I was always so interested to learn everything about bartending. This made me feel confident that I could work in this industry forever.

After I came back from mandatory military service, I was offered an opportunity to work in Japan. All the experience I had gathered so far became the foundation of my core spirit in my career as a bartender.
Wang at Indulge Experimental Bistro in 2018

How was Indulge Experimental Bistro born?

After three years working in Warsaw, Poland, London, UK, and New York, US, I had learned so many new and modern concepts. These helped me create a whole new philosophy to think about my future. I wanted to be someone who could share the story of their country and feel proud of their nation.

So I moved back to Taiwan to spend my life discovering its natural and environmental resources and to turn them into cocktails, concepts and stories, and deliver them to the world. I wanted the world to see how beautiful Taiwan is and what Indulge Experimental Bistro was creating.

What is the philosophy behind the bar?

It’s reflected in its name. Indulge – all humans deserve a better life and we know that delicious cocktails and food are like a magic potion to cure people’s minds when they feel down. So when people come to Indulge, they will better understand Taiwan’s environment and feel the indulgence.

‘Experimental’ means that every 12 to 15 months, we completely overhaul our drink list and food menu. Each new menu takes between 15 to 18 months to be created. These experimental works then become the experiences that people can have at Indulge.

With regards the ‘Bistro’ element, we are not only serving cocktails and food, but also passing on the story, heritage and art behind them to our guests. Welcome to the Indulge Experimental Bistro.
On the wall of Indulge Experimental Bistro

For your 10-year anniversary, you created a special menu. What is its concept?

I’m so lucky to be born in Taiwan. Just like Alice in the story, I jumped into a hole and found my wonderland. The concept of the current menu is based on authentic ingredients from the different regions of Taiwan. Every month, I leave Taipei for a week to visit other places and discover the people, products, habits and seasons of other regions, to learn and be inspired to create new connections in my cocktail and food creations.

Taiwan is a unique island at the heart of Asia and one of the most beautiful and attractive countries in the world. The regions of Taiwan, including the North, Central, South, East, and Outlying Islands, comprise a total area of 36,193 square kilometres and are covered by six types of unique and rare vegetation that grows at varying altitudes, distributed among the 268 mountains that are over 3,000m high. Taiwan’s distinct seasons and 24 solar terms are the inspiration for our creative drinks and cuisine.

For Indulge’s 10th anniversary, my team and I integrated the idea of five elements – metal, wood, water, fire and earth – into the humanities, terroir and ingredients of the different regions. The result is a profound memory for your five senses and a symphony of delicious flavours, paying tribute to history, discovering the possibilities of the moment, and reconciling the future.

What is one cocktail that represents your style?

It would have to be Scent of Woman. It was the very first cocktail I created with Taiwanese ingredients back in 2007. It also changed my life, as it helped me become a well-known bartender and win the biggest cocktail competition in London. 

The ginger lily flower from the North represents the feminine beauty and elegance of Taiwan. The green plum from the Central region represents our preserved food culture from the 1950s. The tropical fruit from the South represents Taiwan as a well-known fruit kingdom in the world. The fresh lemon from the East, with its refreshing fragrance, represents the beautiful wild forest. The green apple from the Outlying Islands represents the special umami flavour that grows surrounded by sea. So you are not drinking a cocktail, you are drinking the terroir of Taiwan.
The cocktail 'Earth No.1' from Indulge's 10th anniversary menu

Over the decade you have spent in Taipei, how has the bar scene changed?

Around 10 years ago in Taiwan, not even bartenders knew exactly what a cocktail was. Most people thought that cocktails were just fruity and colourful things made with muddled fresh fruit and liqueur, so you can imagine how bad business was for Indulge in our first year!

Around this time, I started working with several big drinks companies as a special project consultant or regional brand ambassador. Through these experiences, I started to educate bartenders and consumers in Taiwan. Over the next few years, bartenders started to learn more about classic cocktails and how to use modern techniques to make homemade specialities – then they could introduce their stories and creativity to the consumers. In turn, consumers became more interested in cocktails and asked for higher-quality ingredients and unusual presentation.

I trained many young bartenders, who in turn educated consumers, and year after year things developed, until now, when the bar industry in Taiwan is growing exponentially. People are excited and expectant for what’s new and coming up next. After so many years of hard work by our whole industry, finally Taipei is one of the respected cocktail cities in the world, and I’m so proud of this.

Training young bartenders has always been important to you, as well as sharing your passion through initiatives such as the International Bartender’s Week Taiwan. What do you hope to pass on?

It’s all about hope and heritage. We are not only training young bartenders to have more knowledge or better techniques, we also want help them have the right mentality, philosophy and life values, and give them a chance to be brave and one day make their dreams come true. This is why we invited the world’s most famous and successful bartenders to come [to Taiwan] and share their stories and life experiences to inspire our young generations. If they work as hard as those legends, one day they might become like them.

What advice would you give to young and ambitious bartenders in Taiwan and beyond?

Know who you are, where you’re from and what are the authentic things that represent your nation. Try to connect all these and create a balance, while staying humble to learn new things in life.

What is the most important thing you have learnt over your career?

Bartenders are storytellers. We need to keep passing on our great and touching stories through cocktails from generation to generation.

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