The best part about travelling overseas, for work or otherwise, is the discovery of something new. In the case of Taiwan, a city with a strong foodie culture and a Japanese-like influence on its nightlife, that also extends to things that you simply could not, and would not, ever find back home.
Like a bartender cutting up a line of sherbet with your debit card.
This is the fun of Fourplay, one of more popular and highly rated bars in Taipei, Taiwan. I came across it with a friend of mine and fellow journalist, who was also in town for Computex this year, through Google Maps. We were looking for something to eat and drink, but we didn't want a full meal, so we figured a bar that did both would fit the bill nicely.
From what we could surmise through Google, Fourplay had two things in its favour. It was highly rated — one of the top 10 bars in Taipei, and the food looked solid, so that was a plus.
The second thing was that there was no menu. The bar was one of those places where bartenders mix drinks for you based on your preferences. You start with the spirit and general flavour profile (do you like it sweet, sour, do you want a short or tall drink etc.) and then they work out something from there.
It ends up being a lot easier for the bar than you think: the bar makes one or two drinks for people, those drinks catch the eye of other patrons, and everyone ends up asking for the same drinks before too long.
But that's not really the bar's speciality.
What Fourplay does is best described as performance art. The bar, which was first founded in 2011 by four Taiwanese guys who were bored walking around Taipei, specialises in "drug shots". That said, their regular drinks are not exactly the usual fair you'd find in a standard Australian bar either. (Also, their promotional videos are a little extreme.)
The first drink I ordered, seen below, was a oolong green tea based cocktail, while the one opposite was based around peach — they never said what spirit specifically, but from what I tasted it seemed like gin.
But it's the drug shots that are the fun part. A LED counter to the right of the bar keeps track of how many "drug shots" have been ordered over the bar's history. You get a pick of up to seven shots — the shots are shared amongst the whole table, so you won't walk away too legless.
Each shot is based around a particular theme. In the video below you'll see a shot called "heroin", which is actually four different types of drinks, three of which are in a syringe. You're advised to take the red shot first, before sampling the green and the white, after which point you refill the syringe (whichever one is closest on the table) with the curacao liquid bubbling away in the glass.
Another shot is themed after ecstasy. It's a blue, white and red looking shot, and it comes with a little tablet. You drop the tablet in and the drink reacts with the table, turning a thick, chalky white.
The most eye opening one — for patently obvious reasons — is ketamine. The bartender arrives with a square, reflective green block that reads "absinth". On the block is some sprinkled sugar and what looks like a little cube, which is actually sherbet.
The bartender then grabs a little card — they'll use your credit or debit card if you want — and starts cutting the sherbet and sugar together into some fine lines. Using one of the straws available, everyone at the table who wants to participate then sucks up the sherbet (into your mouth, obviously) before doing some of the shot.
Like the rest of the shots before, they're all quite sweet — almost sickly sweet, although the benefit is that you're generally sharing it with friends, so you're not doing the full shot, and the sugar cuts through the alcohol extremely well so you're never at risk of a harsh reaction. The two exceptions here are the helium shot — where you do a small shot before sucking from a helium balloon and talking like a squeaky dickhead for a few minutes — and the final shot of the evening, a rich, cinnamon shot set ablaze at the table.
Shots on fire aren't new to bars and clubs around the world, but in the incredibly unfriendly world of Australian liquor licensing laws, and Sydney's draconian approach to night life in general, it's the sort of experience you simply won't find here.
It's not just part of the specialised drug shots: the bartenders will happily break out the torch for plenty of things, including whatever this green and lime-based set of shots are.
Even if regulators were more willing, Aussie night life would price most people out of this kind of luxury. We had a table of six people, and with a couple of cocktails per person, a full set of drug shots and five plates of food (most of which cost around 300-500 NTD each, or $14 to $23 a plate) the whole bill came to just over 5300 NTD (around $250).
A single cocktail in Australia would set you back $17 to $19 at any decent bar. A higher priced establishment would charge you $20 to $22, especially if they're charging for the experience of customising cocktails to your palette. The plates of food at something like that would have been pushing $30 for the larger meals. A full table of seven or eight would have spent almost $200 just on the drinks alone, before any food hit the table, and certainly before shots got involved.
But the fun is in the experience. And it's an experience that simply isn't available in Australia. You might find one bar that illegally breaks out the blow torch for some shots on the bar, but they're certainly not doing it at the table. And they're sure as hell not cutting up lines of sherbet in front of you, or reminding drunk patrons that the sherbet goes in your mouth, not up your nose.