The bar business is booming in Bangkok but few places deliver something truly original. We head to Water Library for a few drinks that are ahead of the curve.
In a crowded market, it becomes harder and harder to stand out, to deliver something unique. As Bangkok’s drinking scene has become more sophisticated, the competition has become increasingly fierce, with sleek, low-lit cocktail bars cropping up throughout Thong Lor, Silom and all along Sukhumvit, all claiming to employ their own master mixologists, all spruiking a selection of unmatched signature drinks.
Water Library at Grass, though, makes a powerful case as the genuine article, offering a range of cocktails that breaks the mold while also delivering on the non-negotiables, pairing innovation with a respect for the classics.
The man behind the bar is Mirko Gardelliano (main image), one of the most accomplished cocktail gurus in Bangkok. Having worked around the world and won a score of competitions, Mirko understands better than most how to create a drink that stands out while also appealing to the connoisseurs.
“You need to know what you want it to taste like,” he says. “Is it dry? Is it fruity? Is there something missing? It’s like a puzzle – one ingredient and then another, along with something crazy, something different. It takes me minimum three weeks to come up with a new drink. I have a library in my brain – maybe 2000 recipes. But for the other drinks, I need to try them.
“My job is to try to educate customers to drink better – it’s a long process. Life is too short to drink bad spirits – why tonight do I need to drink something bad? Thailand is not like it was 10 years ago – it’s changed a lot. But I still think, although we have more quantity, we can still have more quality.”
When Water Library first opened about one-and-a-half years ago, the food was the selling point – it was a restaurant first and a bar second. But Mirko has set about changing that.
“We have tried to introduce more of a bar culture with our mixology and our approach to making unique cocktails,” he says. “We try to stock every bottle that is available in Thailand. Every cocktail needs to have a kick, whether it’s a different ingredient, infusion or a garnish, as well as the way it’s presented. We also like to use it to tell a story, so that people remember.”
There is, for example, the Watermelon Rossi (below left), which pairs absinthe with watermelon, with the shot of absinthe served in a pipette alongside the glass. The name, Mirko explains, comes from Italian football manager Delio Rossi, who was sacked last year after attacking a player who disrespected him. Mirko was impressed by the coach’s willingness to deal with an upstart.
“I’m a litle bit old-fashioned but I also try to make something a little bit crazy – it seemed like the perfect name,” he says.
Infusions are a major part of Mirko’s approach to cocktails, flavouring spirits in a way that effectively makes them work harder as ingredients without throwing the entire drink off-balance. It’s a delicate process, with some infusions taking a couple of hours, others taking six weeks. Either way, they require constant supervision and, presumably, constant tasting.
“People are open to trying new things and that makes our job really nice,” Mirko says. “Customers who come regularly don’t look at the menu any more – they want a recommendation.” The results are impressive and create a remarkable versatility. For example, a little while back Mirko began serving a cocktail with Gummy Bears alongside, basically as a garnish. The customers liked it but it “did not look sexy, look classy”.
Rather than abandon the Gummy goodness altogether, Mirko repurposed it into a new cocktail, the Gummy Bear (above left), a combination of Gummy-infused gin, fresh passionfruit and fresh mango. It’s still served with the Gummy Bears alongside.
Other drinks epitomise Mirko’s demand that everything on the menu omes with a kick. The Wow… Guava requires three weeks of infusion as well as a homemade bitters, which, according to Mirko, is packed with aphrodisiacs.
The Quentin Tarantino is a martini variation, tweaked and presented in Water Library style, fusing rosemary and chartreuse, set alight in front of customers to create a reduction, which is mixed with gin and then muddled. Although this all sounds complicated, Mirko is no fan of an over-engineered cocktail.
“We can make with less but make good,” he says. “But you need to know your product – you don’t need to use three different kinds of syrups or three different liqueurs.”
Indeed, while The Water Library emphasises innovation – coming up with new concoctions – the flipside is taking a classic and tweaking it. Mirko, for all his flair when it comes to design and presentation is a traditionalist when it comes to the basic building blocks of a well-made drink.
Take the Long Island Iced Tea – Mirko begins by combining the different liquors in a bowl and whisking them like he’s making a cake mix, before blitzing the mixture with a blast of nitrogen, freezing it and serving it like a self-saucing pudding in a chilled glass. Sure, it’s made differently and served with an eye for the spectacular but it’s fundamentally the same drink, expertly concocted and with heightened technique.
“You cannot change a classic,” Mirko says. “You cannot change a Negroni or a Whiskey Sour – you have to be respectful of what people have done before.”
This approach – familiar but different – is echoed elsewhere. The Rusty Nail combines 18-year-old Chivas with Drambuie, blended with Peychaud’s Bitters, cinnamon and honey. The Negroni, that great litmus test of bartenders the world over, gets rid of the Martini Rosso and uses Antica Formula, which, as Mirko explains, is the “Champions League of vermouth”.
As the Water Library expands beyond Thailand to Myanmar and with a new outlet due to open next to CentralWorld, Mirko’s ongoing mission to educate and entertain promises to gather even more momentum in months to come.
Water Library @ Grass Grass Thong Lor, 264/1 Thong Lor Soi 12 | 02-714-9292 mywaterlibrary.com/thonglor | Mon-Sat 6:30pm-1am