The ethical cocktail model: how Nick Wu brings sustainability to award-winning drinks

Giulia Sgarbi - 26/05/2022

When Nick Wu opened Bar Mood in Taipei in 2017, he had a simple dream to create a bistro serving great meals alongside quality cocktails. Instead, he has had huge success in five years, including: four inclusions in the annual Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, the status of ambassador of Taiwanese flavours to the world, and most recently, the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award 2022. Wu talks to 50 Best about the intersection between Taiwanese pride and sustainability and offers his tips to make more sustainable cocktails at home

With a burgeoning food and drink scene, Taiwan isn’t only carving out a place among Asia’s top gastronomic destinations – it’s also emerging as a pioneer in the field of sustainability. Where five years ago plastic straws and single-use packaging were the norm, now stainless steel and fabric are making for future-proof replacements, at the same time as Taiwanese hospitality venues are becoming global references in the discovery and promotion of new ways of repurposing waste and leftover ingredients.

At the forefront of this movement stand a handful of ground-breaking businesses whose efforts are being recognised internationally. At the end of March, Mume was recognised with the Sustainable Restaurant Award for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, and only four weeks later it was the turn of Bar Mood – 15 minutes’ walk from the former in Taipei – to pick up the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022.

The two venues share a strong pride in the cultural, gastronomic and agricultural traditions of Taiwan, which inspire and inform their menus, as well as a heartfelt desire to change the narrative and showcase them to the world. “When people think about cocktails, they immediately think it’s a Western thing,” remarks Nick Wu, the founder of Bar Mood and other innovative venues across Asia such as the recently shuttered Mu and Bangkok's #FindTheLockerRoom and #FindThePhotoBooth.

“Cocktails are not often associated with Asian ingredients or anything we have locally," says Wu. "At Bar Mood, we incorporate a lot of Taiwanese components as a way of showing people that by using our local produce, we can shine in the cocktail scene simply by being ourselves.”
The interior of Bar Mood, winner of the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award 2022, located in the centre of Taipei 

Despite sounding deceptively simple, the way this concept is applied to Bar Mood’s cocktail offer is not to be underestimated. Wu and the team have put in a serious amount of research into creating both their drink and food menus, finding parallels between Eastern and Western ingredients and building cocktails that showcase both the similarities and differences between them.

On the drinks list, opposite a cocktail called Blossom of Sea whose hero ingredient is chrysanthemum – a symbol of purity and elegance in oriental cultures – is Sea of Islands, a concoction based on chamomile, a traditional ingredient in Greek and Egyptian cultures with similar flavour and cultural associations. Osmanthus and elderflower, edamame and chickpeas, scallion crisps and butter – all are examples of East-meets-West ingredient parallels that function as cornerstones for Bar Mood’s cocktails.

The eureka moment came to Wu a while after opening Bar Mood. “I realised that I could do more,” he says. “Not only could I share my knowledge and passion for cocktails, I could also show more people the beauty of oriental and local ingredients with our menu as a medium.
Bar Mood's cocktail, Temptres: gin, pear liqueur, orange bitters, chickpea and beetroot juice

“The cocktails then became a way to show what’s available seasonally in Taiwan and for people to better understand our ingredients. By juxtaposing them with Western ones, people can appreciate our island a little bit more.”

The same fil rouge carries on in the food menu, where locally grown shiitake mushrooms are incorporated into Bar Mood’s famous pasta and Taiwanese sweet basil provides the basis for the homemade pesto. Wu is adamant that equal attention should be paid to both food and drinks to create a complete pairing experience for the guest.

Part of the reason that Wu is able to do this is Taiwan’s impressive biodiversity. Across its 35,808 square kilometres, the island features rugged mountain ranges on the east coast, gently rolling plains in the west and four different types of rain forests across its length. Blessed with marine tropical climate, it is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, with natural historians often referring to it as ‘the Galapagos of Asia’.

“When the Portuguese arrived in Taiwan, they called it ‘formosa’, which means ‘beautiful island’,” says Wu. “With each of my drinks and recipes, I try to project the idea of ‘formosa’ to show the unique beauty of Taiwan.”

Far from stopping at ingredient level, the concept also integrates cultural and agricultural traditions. For Bar Mood’s signature drink, Silence of the Royal Court, Wu uses oolong tea – an ingredient close to his heart as his grandparents used to grow it – cultivated according to organic principles and roasted with native longan wood. The oolong tea, which these days is sourced by Wu's uncle, is made into a syrup for a more concentrated flavour and combined with cognac, clarified soy milk, fortified wine, dark crème de cacao and fresh lemon juice into the cocktail.
The menu features illustrations of the cocktail and ingredients, including the signature Silence of the Royal Court 

Human sustainability
It's at this point where pride in the island and what it yields also meets sustainability. Rather than throwing out the tea leaves leftover after brewing, Wu and his team use them to make a biscuit served alongside the cocktail, further highlighting the flavour and aroma of oolong. The residue from making clarified soy milk is dried and made into compost, used for growing Bar Mood’s herbs.

Silence of the Royal Court is served in a traditional Taiwanese ceramic cup – Wu recalls seeing big groups of people in parks making tea and drinking from cups like these before the pandemic. For local clients, it’s a familiar and nostalgic nod, while for international visitors, it’s a conversation starter and a source of interest in Taiwanese customs.

“The whole drink embodies the idea that sustainability is not just about reusing things and eliminating waste, but also supporting local farms and businesses that are working sustainably,” highlights Wu. “But for me, sustainability is not just about reusing and recycling. People are what matters the most.”

Wu’s mission is indeed to influence as many people as possible, helping them realise the importance of protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. “People must do their part so that we can all have a world to live in,” he says.

“With some people, the concept of sustainability is not something that is close to them. You can tell them about it and they would still be like: ‘What does that have to do with me?’ Part of our work here is getting people to care and understand. We can’t change everything or everybody overnight, but by doing things little by little over time, we’ll make progress.

“We want the wider industry and our customers to know that we have such a great environment to start with, which is the inspiration for everything – the formosa concept – although it has already been sabotaged a lot. But it’s not too late to change.”
Nick Wu and Bar Mood team

Winning the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022 has given Wu further motivation to keep going. “I’m very happy and grateful,” he says. “It means a lot to me to know that I’ve been doing the right thing. It has been almost five years since Bar Mood opened in 2017, and though our core values remain the same, we are shifting towards being a place not just to eat and drink, but also to learn and to share.

“We can use our venue as a platform to educate the new generation of bartenders on sustainability and other issues, to share with the public the joy of cocktails, cocktail culture and food pairings, and to show the world the allure of Taiwan and Taiwanese ingredients.”

Wu’s tips to make sustainable cocktails at home

1. Plan ahead to avoid waste. Don’t buy an ingredient if the whole thing cannot be used. For example, don’t buy a lemon just to shave off the peel and throw the rest away. Plan ahead how you’ll use the juice, seeds and everything else.

2. Don’t discard things at first sight. If something seems unusable, look at it again. If you think outside the box, you can almost always find another use. If you are using the leaves of an herb for a drink, save the stems for cooking.

3. Don’t overbuy. Freshness matters, so make sure you get the right amount. Even when something goes overripe, it can still be used to make jams or preserves. If an apple is no longer crisp, it can still be made into apple sauce. With sugar, overripe fruits and a spirit, you can even make a cordial.

The list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2022, sponsored by Perrier, was announced on Thursday, 28th April at a live awards ceremony in Bangkok. To stay up to date with all news and announcements, browse the website and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube