“Hidden and hard to find,” one reviewer, who left a five star rating, says about Research & Development Cocktail Lab. She couples her comment with a picture of the ethanol molecule, R&D’s logo, and instructs others to look for it if lost. It’s true, R&D is more challenging to find than the average bar but, if anything, that adds to its appeal. R&D Cocktail Lab draws its inspiration from speakeasies, which were popular hidden bars during the prohibition era, but it’d be a mistake to only label it a western business.
The founders of R&D opened the lab in 2014 after observing the paucity of Taiwanese ingredients utilized in cocktails around Taiwan. Accordingly, their drinks are often crafted to highlight the fresh ingredients they purchase from farmers around Taiwan. “We’re supporting a livelihood and we find a lot of passion [in Taiwan],” Spencer Huang, one of the founders said about why buying produce from Taiwan was so important. Huang said it was important to build a relationship with each farmer and make sure they felt respected and part of the process.
“One of my favorite farms is actually a farm that we don’t buy the most product from because he doesn’t have the volume for it,” Huang confessed. The farmer avoids pesticides, which may sound simple, but requires immense dedication. Not only does he make his own fertilizer, but he also must prevent beetles from destroying his crop. This involves ‘de-beetling’ every, single tree two times a week. “When you taste this, the yield is much better…” Huang commented. “It’s people like that, that when you talk to them, they respect their ingredients. They respect their process as much as we respect ours and those are the types of people we want to work with.”
The interior of R&D emulates a Chinese medicine shop, with its many shelves and decorative window screens. While the visual is partly to allow aesthetic pleasing hiding places for tools, the founders also chose it because it reflects, in part, the philosophy of their business. The owner of a Chinese medicine shop must be meticulously familiar with all processes and products in their shop. Any customer can expect the same level of meticulousness when served one of their ‘built to spec’ drinks. Huang, both enthusiastic and particular about his work, emphasizes that R&D focuses on craftsmanship, which he says emphasizes the desires of the “guest” rather than the tastes of the bartender. The bartender’s tastes are ‘ancillary’; their knowledge is necessary. To ensure patron satisfaction, and because the owners are passionate about their craft, this is one of two rules R&D founders insist upon.
The other, requiring all employees to speak Taiwanese (and English, which Huang believes is easy to find), has more to do with their desire to “bridge [the] gap between East and West”. R&D doesn’t intend to serve a solely foreign demographic, nor a solely Taiwanese demographic. Rather, the owners hope for it to be a place for people of all backgrounds to feel comfortable and welcome.
As R&D develops, the owners also hope to continue emphasizing culture-bonding and storytelling. For Huang, his business is not just about crafting drinks, but also creating stories. Every drink, by the time you drink it, has collected many stories—from the stories of those who grew and mixed its ingredients, to those of the bartenders who crafted it. Huang realizes that “we are a story-telling culture” and this is part of the reason, R&D has recently started a partnership with the Red Room which has resulted in a new ‘Red Room’ drink, the 臺Walla (Taiwalla). Read more about the how the partnership started and what R&D and the Red Room have in store for Red Roomers below:
Would you want to talk a little bit about how the partnership with the Red Room started?
If you just go from a product aspect it doesn’t really make sense why Red Room would pair up with R&D. I mean, it’s not a logical partnership when you look at it through a business perspective. So you look back at it and say ‘Let’s just take business out of it’. It’s really about culture building. We at R&D are very, very much interested [in culture building]. We hope to create good bonds with the local Taiwanese, because we want them to know we are proud of them [and of] what Taiwan has to offer. So, really, we should be seeing what the locals really appreciate. What do they really value– especially in the artistic community and in a community where people are finding things really out of the ordinary?
That’s where R&D and Red Room really found their middle ground. The idea behind [臺Walla] would be that Red Room, from the beginning, has always served Chai…that is a core ideal of Red Room. Stone soup and tea really gets the ball rolling and gets people talking together. Then we started thinking “What can we do to that that would really make it special? What is something that would be uniquely theirs, that everyone can look at and say ‘Wow, this seems so familiar, yet is new’. What kind of local ingredients can we find that we can throw in here that would be extremely interesting yet, at the same time, hold these same characteristics that we’re trying to retain?
What are the things that interest Red Room? What are the things that interest people that go to Red Room? What are the types of ingredients that we can use to pair with these types of people?
That right there is a cultural learning experience and that’s really fun. That’s really fun.
What is your impression of Red Room? What is it that you think Red Roomers are searching for? What is it that you hope to provide for them with these new drinks beyond the idea of coming together over a Red Room Chai or 臺Walla ?
[The Taiwan Airforce Base] is where the Red Room has taken a space, a real dedicated space, and turned it into something, and this something is still in flux. They’re still trying to define what that Red Room Space is going to be…but in the future, especially when you look at the Renaissance Fair, you can see how in the future they’re going to grow significantly and they’re going to become very important to the cultural program.
This type of improvement and this type of evolution that they’re on is really going to provide us with a lot of opportunities as well. The types of people that go through Red Room—and we’re talking moguls of aboriginal tribes who have really interesting ways of preparing food. The people who go through Red Room are the people we’d like to meet.
We can help them, provide for their bar and then at the same time they give us a lot of introductions to some really cool people.
I realize that this partnership has started rather recently in its current form, but do you have any stories of people you’ve met from the Red Room that you’d like to share, that you feel contributed to this idea of a cultural bonding or building connections between cultures and sort of understanding them. Is there any story that pops into your head?
I guess there would be two. The first one would be Manav. This is not a partnership that would’ve made sense to most people. It was really Manav that gave us the idea that we could really make this work. This reason is he is an Indian guy who went native. He speaks really great Chinese and he’s been here for a long time. He’s someone who has this sort of third culture kid mentality, but at the same time he’s very down to Earth. He likes sharing what he’s learned, he likes sharing the experiences that are not only fun for him but are also interesting to a lot of people, which is [part of why] why Red Room really works.
Maybe two or three months ago he introduced me to this woman, and she’s an aborigine costume designer, I believe. She brought up some of her friends that are also some local aborigines. They were really interesting for me to talk to, not because they had anything material to offer, but because they had the knowledge and the experience they were telling me about and they were sharing with me that were things that were unbelievably fascinating, things that would give you all sorts of ideas about what you could do.
Those are the types of conversations, and I guess Red Room really is a great place for those conversations. It’s where you go to get more information, where you got to meet people, like you were saying. This would be a prime example of that—both Manav and the woman, and then her friends. If anything ever comes of it, y’know, that would be great, but otherwise it was a great conversation that really gave us, as foreigners in Taipei, a good perspective on what else we’re missing.
Do you want to give people a hint of upcoming projects? Are there any projects that you are really excited by that, perhaps, you don’t want to reveal but you could hint at?
One of the coolest projects is our vessel project. We’re trying to think, well, how would we get Red Room in on this Red Room is full of artists, and that’s why I love it. It’s full of people who come from different backgrounds and different places and they work with different mediums and tools. If you can imagine having a clay vase or a clay bottle, something that you might see in an aboriginal tribe….these are the types of materials that are really fun to work with, to put our product in, not because it’s good for marketing, but because it makes people question.
You know, you walk and you can say “Hey I recognize this, but what’s in it today? What’s in this bottle today?” This bottle is from Red Room, it’s a Red Room and R&D mixture, but I have no idea what’s in it this month; it always changes. That’s something you’ll look for; y’know, you’ll walk in and you’ll look for it.
That in itself is a Red Room-R &D story. Everything that we can do to create these types of vessels, these types of glasses and cups where we don’t use our logo as just as stamp on the bottle, but we incorporate it into the design. Getting the Red Room community involved to help us develop things for the community is going to be really fun.