It’s a mellow post-monsoon afternoon in Bangkok, and we’re sitting within the Mandarin Oriental hotel at the iconic Bamboo Bar.
It’s the bar that has not only been listed within the Top 10 for Asia’s 50 Best Bars, but also – hold your drinks – as the first and only Thai bar to make it to the World’s Best Bars list this year. It’s a proud moment for Bangkok, and an incredible accomplishment. At a quiet quarter past three, a few hours before it opens to guests, we got to catch up (over cocktails) with the Bamboo Bar’s Bar Operations Manager Jamie Rhind, and Head Bartender Pinsuda ‘Ann’ Pongprom.
Under the leadership of Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale, Jamie was previously part of the team of London’s The Artesian, the bar that snagged the title of the World’s Best Bar for four years in a row. Ann is a top 4 finalist in the Diageo Reserve World Class Thailand competition, and picked up the ‘Rising Star’ award at The Bar Awards in Bangkok. Over a cocktail snack of Tom Yum cashew nuts and deep-fried okra, and to the muted tunes of soft jazz, the two spoke to us about their recipes for success, new cocktail trends and inspirations, and their favourite bars (and secret hangover cures).
We were accompanied by a selection of signature cocktails mixed by Ann from the new Thai-inspired ‘COMPASS’ menu, each of which highlights a different region of the country. A journey through Thailand from the rim of the glass, and a sweet sip and scoop into two renowned bartenders, read ahead for our exclusive exploration behind what is officially now the best bar in Thailand (next stop: the world).
JR: I just came back from the 50 Best ceremony, and it’s a real honour to be included. The main ceremony is for the Top 50, but they also released the top 51-100, on which we were included at 55. So close! It’s still a real honour though, and we’re the first bar in Thailand to be included on the list. It’s a nice way to motivate the staff and show that they’re doing a good job. Yesterday, we had a couple come in because they heard we were in the Top 100, and when they left they said “now we know why.” It’s a proud moment for us.
[What we’re sipping: the Isan-inspired ‘Get the Mortar’, inspired by spicy papaya Som Tam salad, and made with Barrelhouse 53 Vodka, clarified tomato, papaya, palm sugar, and chili.]
JR: Bangkok’s bar scene used to kind of have a stigma. People thought Bangkok was a cheap boozy place where you could have fun and go crazy, but no one really associated it with these luxury bars like in New York or London. However, especially with Singapore rising on these lists and at these awards, they really brought up the scene in Asia. People are travelling to Asia more often, and it gives us a chance to show them what we’ve got. It’s a slow process, but we’re building it up. These awards help a lot, as does word of mouth. And social media – Ann is very good at social media.
AP: I like to post stuff. [smiles]
JR: We’re also travelling a lot and doing guest shifts. I’ve just been to Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam — all in nine days!
AP: I had four days for four countries! I only got to sleep on the plane. It’s a lot of fun though, and it’s a good way to show people the culture of our cocktails here.
JR: It’s more along the lines of travel. The new signature cocktail menu is divided into five regions of Thailand, with an interesting name and city for each. The drink you’re having is a good example. Have you had Tom Kha Gai before? The inspiration for this cocktail came from when, after our shift, we were all having street food together somewhere in Ari. I tasted the soup and said, “guys this soup is so amazing, we need to make a cocktail”.
We mixed tequila with coconut oil, left it overnight, and then put it in the freezer the next day. The oil solidifies, and what’s left is tequila with fragrant coconut, carrying some of the oil texture. It creates a structure for the cocktail, and even though the soup is heavy, this is a drink that is easy to drink.
[What we’re sipping: the Bangkok Ari-inspired ‘Hawker’ (a popular one on the guest shifts), consisting of tequila, coconut, lemongrass, kefir lime, and ginger]
JR: We know a lot of people are trying to mimic Thai food with cocktails, and trying to get them to have exactly the same flavour. With our new menu, we want to emphasise that this is not what we’re trying to do. We’re just taking inspiration. We’ll use some of the same ingredients, but in a different way. In terms of technique, we do use some that chefs use.
I get a lot of my inspiration from the kitchen. I wanted to be a chef before I failed my exams. I was always interested in food and cooking.
AP: The bar is our kitchen.
JR: The gap between bar and kitchen is getting smaller. We come in today, we prep our garnishes, our ‘food’, and we switch on our ‘cooker’, which is our ice. The gap is really getting smaller. I think the only difference is respect. People tend to respect chefs more, still. It’s just a matter of perception.
JR: Like most people, I fell into it. I worked at a restaurant at 17, because my friend worked there, and I wanted to work with my friend. Then at 18, the bartender was sick. The normal story that bartenders always tell you. It’s always like that, right? [laughs]
JR: The things I was seeing in the club at that age, I finally had the bottle in front of me so I could have a smell or cheeky taste. Cognac, for example, you’d never order at the club because of the price. But then I had it in front of me, and I started reading the label, and it interested me. I took a bartending course, finished at the top of the course, joined The Artesian, and then just got consumed by the bar industry.
AP: As a lady bartender there are some challenges. In this country, maybe not. In some places, it’s different. The reaction is weird. People don’t expect it. They aren’t saying bad things, but they’re surprised.
[What we’re sipping: ‘Birds, Bees, and the Trees’, inspired by the cycle of pollination and the nature of the North. Served in a drunken glass, it consists of Phraya Rum, bee pollen, safflower, and sunflower seeds.]
JR: Honestly, I don’t drink cocktails, I drink beer! Honest answer: I’m happy in a pub with good friends. But when I’ve got my cocktail hat on, for luxury, it has to be the Connaught Bar in London. Actually, it’s tied between that and Manhattan Bar in Singapore. The service is seamless. You’ll finish your water and turn around and it’s full again and you’re like ‘what? How did that happen?!’ In Bangkok, Tropic City. I like Tropic City.
AP: This area has many different styles of bars. Tropical, gin, rum. Tep Bar is great. I love the traditional Thai music, and it’s not too far from us.
JR: We go eat.
AP: Isaan food!
AP: I don’t really get hungover…
JR: I do.
AP: You get hungover a lot of times! [laughs]. I have ramen. There’s a place next to Rabbit Hole in Thonglor that serves great ramen. It makes you feel good. It makes me feel better before getting into the taxi after a night out.
JR: I tend not to drink too much. I can’t deal with hangovers. Whenever I think I’ve drunk too much, I have a paracetamol before I go to bed. The next day I curl up in bed. Netflix. And I like sushi when I’m hungover.
[What we’re sipping: on the note of hangovers, we’re having a mocktail now. ‘Plantation’, made with banana, cinnamon, coconut flower, and mango.]
JR: My mentor in London, Alex, was saying, “if someone is not drinking alcohol, why should their experience be less?” It’s normally the case in bars. If you’re pregnant, or you have religious reasons, or you’re driving, you get given a juice puree with sugar. It’s not cool. And then your friend who is drinking gets really cool glassware and a tasty cocktail. We wanted to change that.
This drink [Plantation] is inspired by the South, so we wanted a tropical tiki-style drink. We wanted to get acidity without lemon or lime, so once we found out we can make banana juice…
JR: Just play around. It’s like a playground back there.
AP: We tried many times. The first time the juice wouldn’t come out!
[What we’re sipping: the ‘Cashew Down South’, presented in the ‘Bobby Bamboo’ parrot cocktail mug, inspired by Phuket’s cashew nut plantations, and made with Chalong Bay Rum, cashew nut, basil, spiced pineapple, and cucumber.]
JR: That’s Bobby Bamboo. It’s in a parrot mug and it’s wearing a hat.It’s our fun one. It’s a non-serious kind of cocktail, like a Thai twist on a Pina Colada.
JR: When we create cocktails we start with three different things. For some, we begin with a recipe. For this one, we were lucky to do a special birthday party, so we had these glasses left over, and we thought, ‘hey, we need to use these’. So we build the concept around the glass. For others, we start with the concept. This next drink is a good example.
[What we’re sipping: ‘Border Crossing’, made with Barrelhouse 53 Vodka, guava, kefir lime, and lemon basil]
This is talking about the city of — I don’t know how to pronounce this one — Aranyaprathet. The funny thing is, if you go to this city, loads of people will try to sell you a fake visa. So we have a fake visa on the side as well. They also have a beautiful fruit market, so we wanted to include fresh fruits. It’s by the border, you have two countries; Thailand and Cambodia. They’re completely different, so we have the oil on top to show the contrast. A quick change of flavour straight away.
JR: This one talks about the coffee culture in the North. You know there’s a lot of 7-11s in Thailand, right? Well in Chiang Mai, there’s more coffeeshops than 7-11s. It’s to show how big the coffee scene there is, and we use cold brew coffee from the region.
[What we’re sipping: ‘Culture Trip’, made with Chiang Mai Cold Brew, Mulberry, Roselle, Burma Tonic]
We want to make it cool by using tonic, and also make it visual to create that experience for people who are not drinking. Sometimes the ingredients spark a conversation with the staff, too. Working at a bar, it’s also psychological, and about the relationship with the guests.
Some people try to go through the whole menu in a night or two. Between a couple, they’ll try to go through the whole menu. It’s ten cocktails. Five each is a good challenge.
It’s a good trip.
Note: The ‘COMPASS’ signature cocktail menu is available daily at The Bamboo Bar from 5pm, with live jazz music from 9pm.