The so-called ‘secret American bar’ offers retro ambience and untaxed American craft suds
I don’t remember the very first time I heard about a bar hidden away somewhere in Bangkok that was run by the US government, but it was at least 15 years ago. The stories were often so vague that when I finally found the place myself, I realized many of the people who told me about it had never actually been there.
It was supposed to be a dark den where US military types gathered to wash away the memories of black ops with real American beer. There was once a time when you didn’t find American beer anywhere in Bangkok, except during the annual American independence day celebrations, when the US embassy flew in cases of Budweiser and other mass-produced brands that were hardly desirable to begin with.
Still, my curiosity was aroused, and I always wanted to check the bar out—assuming it truly existed and I’d be able to get in. Some said the bar was mostly used by Marine embassy guards, and that you needed a US government ID to enter. It wasn’t until I was working at the Bangkok Post eight years ago that Scott Herron, an American who helps run the Post website, gave me the whole story.
Scott was a regular at the bar, and explained that it was located inside the fortified compound of the Joint US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) on Sathorn. Not only was it open to non-military, it was open to anyone, of any nationality.
“All you need is photo ID,” he said. “And it’s not just Budweiser. There’s a fridge full of craft beers, and they’re cheap.”
A week later I paid my first visit to the compound at the corner of Sathorn and Sathorn Soi 1. After pressing a buzzer outside and passing through two reinforced steel doors, I left my Thai driving license with a guard standing in a caged room, in exchange for visitors pass. After passing through one more steel door, I found myself in the hidden beer sanctuary.
Since then I’ve been back many times, enjoying such heady brews as Redhook ESB, 8 Ball Stout, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam, New Belgium Fat Tire, Dogfish Head, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, all of which are rarely seen elsewhere in Bangkok. The bar also stocks craft labels more commonly distributed in Bangkok (through the noble efforts of local outfit Beervana) such as Rogue, Stone, and Anderson Valley.
Beers and ales are kept in a glass-door fridge, where you help yourself—just like at Wong’s—and then pay at the bar. Prices run 100 to 140 baht per bottle, less than half the price you’d pay for the same beers at any other bar or bottle shop in the city, simply because JUSMAG is able to import and sell American products without paying import duties.
A full bar of American liquors, plus a limited selection of wines, are also on hand. For a few months I was ordering Blanton’s Bourbon here for 80 baht a shot, but sadly the bar doesn’t seem to stock it anymore. Lately, Knob Creek and Woodford’s Reserve have made regular appearances.
The barroom itself looks like it could have dropped out of the sky from Indiana, with its polished-wood high bar chairs, pool tables, large-screen TVs. American flag bunting and assorted memorial plaques. The Thai bartender here can be a bit cranky at times, no doubt because he handles all the serving, drink mixing, and cashiering alone.
The bar opens at 3:30 pm, and the clientele varies as the night proceeds. From around 4 to 7pm, three or four retired military men are usually sitting at the bar, quietly rehashing the old days or talking sports and politics. As they trickle out into the night, a younger crowd of Thais, embassy employees, and savvy beer aficionados arrive in small groups. The well-maintained pool tables are a popular draw.
The primary function of Jusmag Thailand, established in 1953, is to arrange and oversee US-Thai military training. Although commonly referred to as “Jusmag Bar,” the watering hole is officially called Aderholt’s Annex, named for the late Brig. Gen. Harry “Heine” Aderholt, a former Jusmag Thailand commander and heavily decorated air commando known for air-dropping agents behind enemy lines in clandestine night missions during several American conflicts. According to the Air Commando Association website, in later years Aderholt was commonly seen “wearing a safari suit, a five-baht gold chain, a gold Rolex, sunglasses, and possibly carrying a demolition knife”.
One night when I was cozied up to the bar, Australian club designer Ashley Sutton and BK Magazine editor-in-chief Gregoire Glachant strolled in. I could tell by the way they looked around the room that they hadn’t been there before. After they were seated at a table, I walked up behind Sutton and whispered into his ear, “Is it true you’re planning to open a new bar with the same retro interior, but charging 400 baht per beer?”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
JUSMAG, 7 Sathorn Tai Rd
Tel: 02 287 1036
Open: Mon-Fri, 3:30pm-10pm
Last call: at 9:30 pm