The renaissance of the cocktail culture is here.
“The whole bartending scene we’re seeing everywhere in the world now is all pretty recent,” says Erwan Heussaff, one of the co-founders of Niner Ichi Nana. “Before, it was like a forgotten art. And then, in mid-2000, things started getting interesting again in cocktails.”
Niner Ichi Nana is among a new breed of bars specializing in custom cocktails, along with The Curator and Blind Pig. Where most bars are built around a list of more or less traditional drinks, this new breed of watering holes create custom cocktails on the spot for patrons. “Bespoke [cocktails can] hit all the bells and whistles when you want to drink,” Heussaff explains. “You can be as precise or as vague as you want.”
At Niner Ichi Nana, the drinksmiths are well-trained because “bartenders have to be able to guide customers.”
When the bar first opened its doors in 2013 at Bonifacio Global City, the market wasn’t quite prepared for something so unfamiliar. Still, the founders of the craft cocktail bar were undeterred. “I don’t think you always have to wait for the market to be ready,” argues co-owner Erwan Heussaff. “Here, we try to make people taste things that they maybe never tried before, things that are out of their comfort zone.”
Niner Ichi Nana’s strong suit lies in off-the-cuff cocktails: Bartenders can tailor a drink based on one’s preferences, from a favorite ingredient to something as vague as a feeling. Says Heussaff, “I’m a firm believer that emotion can be translated into food and drinks.”
In the beginning, its founders fretted that the concept was too specific. “During the first two to three months, we were explaining to people that we do work a certain way.” In the beginning, some customers balked at the idea of bartenders putting their own twist to traditional cocktails. But Niner Ichi Nana decided to enlighten the public and celebrate drinking, like eating, as a communal affair.
Filipinos are slowly acclimating, though the local bar culture is still very much in its infancy, with locals leery of interacting with the bartender and the other customers. After all, craft cocktails aren’t solely the dominion of ultra-refined connoisseurs. The real question, says Heussaff, isn’t whether a particular customer is a newbie or a seasoned expert. “It’s about who’s open-minded about drinking, and who’s not.
But now that Niner Ichi Nana is making converts out of critics, the tide is turning: the bar now entertains regulars requesting drinks made by a specific bartender.
Apart from their made-for-you mixed drinks, their stable of cocktails changes every month—a decision made out of practicality as much as novelty. “You can’t just put up a menu because you like everything that’s on it,” says Heussaff. “At the end of the day, if you can’t produce the ingredients, or if it slows down service, then it shouldn’t be on the menu.”
That the bar uses fresh, seasonal ingredients and a wide range of techniques and equipment makes all the difference. “Just like with food, a peach in Japan, a peach in the Philippines, and a peach in France have completely different-tasting notes,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine. Minor edits have been done by Entrepreneur.com.ph.