Craft cocktails and the pursuit of nice things

Craft cocktail is a fairly recent arrival in the Manila drinking scene. Several years ago, many of us were perfectly happy with happy-hour margaritas and hundred-peso pitchers of Weng Weng. While the era of alcoholic drinks doused in sugary juice is not exactly over yet, we’re warming up to the idea of elaborate cocktail recipes enjoyed in an atmospheric speakeasy, such as ABV.

With dim-lighting, dark wood accents, and an intimate but exciting atmosphere, ABV evokes the charm of the 1920’s Prohibition era. As a common charasteristic of speakeasy bars, the entrance is hidden. One needs to enter a hot dog shop in Jupiter St. (which has awesome honey-parmesan hotdogs, BTW), and knock on an unmarked door to the right to get in.

With 800 bottles on display, ABV has the largest variety of liquors in the country. The six bartenders are free to play around and create one-of-a-kind concoctions.

A friend said that her favorite in ABV is the Marquesa cocktail, another friend recommended the Rusty Nail — perhaps this “secret” bar is not so secret after all. It gained popularity after taking the 14th spot in the Best Bar in Asia Awards in 2016, a big feat considering it just opened in April of that same year.

One of the bartenders was thoughfully carving ice when I arrived in the bar before operating hours. I was told that ice has to be pristine and should have the right shape for a proper cocktail.

“For the longest time, drinking was about serving as many people for the shortest amount of time possible. Cocktails were served in volume,” explained Patrick Cuartero, one of the owners of the award-winning secret bar.

Back in 2014, Partick left his job at a start up to focus on creating a spot that reminded him of the places where he used to drink in New York, such as Milk and Honey, Employees Only, and Death and Co.

“The way we do things here harkens back to how cocktails were originally done. We focus on the spirits, the bitters and any kind of citrus,” Patrick added.

ABV’s approach embraces the use of fresh ingredients, well-curated booze, pristine ice, proper drinking vessels and occasional use of metal straws as needed. A simple gin and tonic can take as much as five minutes to make — Proper service for proper drinks, no less.

“Food and beverage, at least for me, isn’t about the product that you serve. It isn’t not about making cocktail or anything like that. It’s about the complete experience,” explained Patrick.

I learned that my whiskey sour was made of 3 basic ingredients: bourbon whiskey, lemon and sugar. It was also topped with egg white for nice texture and angostura bitters for a more complex flavor.

But the guy behind the bar, Ken Bandivas personally avoids talking about a drink too much, unless a geeky client (like me) asks. He doesn’t want to bore his cocktail-slinging clients with the technicalities of his art.

“We’re like cheap psychologists because we always talk to our clients. They share random stuff like their problems. It’s part of our job to hear them out,” explained Ken, who is ABV’s beverage manager and one of the finalists of the World Class 2015 Global Finals hosted by Diageo Reserve in South Africa.

Having worked in hotels in Singapore and Manila, Ken is no stranger to the hospitality industry. He knows the importance of creating a complete experience for the clients.

Ken explained that ABV doesn’t have last calls to make clients feel at home. The bar once stayed open until 8:30 am to serve two clients who were having the time of their lives. The bar often gets a full house until 1 to 2 am.

Generally speaking, the ABV crowd is a healthy mix of businessmen on meetings, twentysomethings on tinder dates and corporate slaves looking for a way to relax. It’s hard to tell what to expect since every crowd is different.

On a typical night, a person can spend about PHP800 bucks on two drinks, but ABV’s menu is created in such a way that there are options from PHP300 to PHP1,100.

“Just last night a group of five guys spent PHP14,000 on drinks,” shared Patrick. However, he was quick to emphasize that a more expensive drink is not necessarily better. “It just gives a different experience,” he said.

Bartenders can help clients discover options and develop their own palettes for craft cocktails. Ken said that he is a fan of bitters, but what may be good for him, may not be good for others.

Both Ken and Patrick believe that big things are ahead for craft cocktails.

More and more people are getting interested in new drinks. Even bartenders are learning new skills. They are getting more and more exposed to different things through international market interaction.

“More people are ordering based on their preferences so bartenders are challenged to do something every single day,” Ken said.

It’s even more interesting how hotels, trendy barbershops, and other establishments are approaching ABV to help them create a cocktail program.

“People who may not have gone to ABV or speakeasies are now getting exposed to craft cocktail,” Patrick explained.

I am not one to scoff at bottomless cocktails and margaritas served on fishbowls, especially since I am a believer that the most important ingredient in a drink is the people you have it with — but it’s good to know that handcrafted, thoughtfully-made cocktails are out there.

As Patrick mentioned, it feels like the Philippines is experiencing what New York experienced back in the day. We’re on the quest for nicer things: from barber shops to restaurants, from coffee to beer to cocktails — we just want things to be nicer and more thoughtfully-made.

“People realize that there are nicer things. People are expecting a lot more, and we’re hoping that’s what happens in the cocktail scene,” Patrick said.

Well, ABV’s got us covered, at least when it comes to drinks.

Basement Floor, 22 Jupiter St. cor. Galaxy St., Bel-Air Village, Makati City. Facebook. Daily, 6pm onwards. 

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