Mixologist Joseph Boroski in an interview with Lookeast.
by Thomas Sturrock
Joseph Boroski, Bangkok’s best-known and most “widely drunk” cocktail master, pauses, weighing his answer carefully. When you’ve designed thousands of cocktails and opened several hundred bars worldwide, deciding on one’s favorite drink is not straightforward.
“It depends on what I’m doing, where I am, who’s making,” he insists.
Finally, after having the parameters narrowed—he’s making the drink, late on a Saturday night after a busy shift behind the bar—Boroski settles on a Sazerac, a bartenders’ favorite combining rye whiskey with a dash of absinthe and bitters.
“One or two pieces of ice, and just a touch of absinthe, just so you can feel it at the end of the tongue,” Boroski says. “But if I go to a bar and I see them using fresh ingredients, I’ll get a sour or a margarita or something like that. I love a Negroni as well.”
Perhaps it’s this preference for the classics that has helped Boroski make such an indelible mark on Bangkok’s cocktail culture, which has become rapidly more sophisticated in recent years. Of course, there are plenty of other barmen working in Bangkok, but few as ubiquitously as Boroski, who has designed drinks at many of the city’s more influential drinking venues, such as W Hotel’s Woo Bar, Quince, and Maggie Choo’s. These places are among the standard bearers for proper drinks in Bangkok—proper Boroski drinks, as it turns out.
No longer content with educating drinkers at other people’s bars, Boroski has now opened his own place, a hidden, under-the-radar den in the backstreets of Thong Lor, with a “secret bar” concept. Designed by Ashley Sutton, the place is low-lit and decked out in dark wood with some exquisite touches; the polished copper mixing tools, the hard-carved decorations on the cupboards behind the bar and the butterfly mobile suspended from the vaulted ceiling. In the bathrooms, an NPR-style radio broadcast offers tidbits of information about classic cocktails.
“I do a lot of vintage drinks here because I think, in this environment, it’s nice to have the classics,” Boroski says, describing his preferred style. “I do a lot with fresh ingredients, but there’s an element of classic, traditional cocktail making.”
But there’s no sign out the front, no effort to promote the bar and no menu. Instead, you tell the knowledgeable bar staff what you like and they take it from there.
The first offering is a vodka, garnished with clementine lime and butterfly flower syrup, which has a similar color and tart taste to pink grapefruit. It doesn’t have a name, but it’s excellent, slightly sour and very refreshing. Later, there’s a tweaked Old Fashioned, using Antica Formula vermouth and Rittenhouse rye whiskey, laced with orange and rosemary syrup. It’s got all the punch of an Old Fashioned but less of the sweetness that comes with bourbon, and the rosemary offset is inspired.
Boroski is, of course, pleased to see Bangkok becoming more adventurous when it comes to cocktail culture, but he remains wary of fads. In any rush to embrace the latest new thing, tackiness can sometimes masquerade as cool. But Boroski is in a unique position to identify drinking trends and separate those that will stand the test of time from those destined to come and go.
“I have a good sense of what’s lasting and solid as opposed to what’s fashionable,” he says. “I try to keep those things out if I don’t think they will be around for a long time.”
Certainly, Boroski has ridden the upward trajectory of Bangkok’s appetite for a well-made drink.
“Right now, it’s improving much faster than it has before,” he says. “We’ve seen a transition from Johnnie Walker and a mixer, basically blended whiskeys and soda, moving toward white spirits and classic cocktail culture driven by premium ingredients.”
“Five years ago it was all about wine bars, but now it’s becoming cocktails. I just had four Thai people come in and ask for tequila cocktails. That would have been unheard of because most Thai people were just familiar with bad tequila.”