What distinguishes the speakeasies of today from those of yesteryear is the traditional reliance on enforced codes of behavior and a strict hush-hush pretense. Ironically, a present-day speakeasy banks on the opposite: to hear people talking about it is a good sign. The concept has become increasingly popular in Manila, and ABV (a name that refers to the Alcohol by Volume statistic; Basement Floor, 22 Jupiter Street, Bel-Air Village, Makati City, Philippines; +632 832 5330), which opened just this year, is performing exceptionally.
Before establishing ABV, Filipino-American Patrick Cuartero co-founded YoYoNation in Manhattan, an enterprise built on his passion for the modern Philippine version of the ancient toy. Despite the success of his first venture, Cuartero returned to the Philippines, where he was initially offered the position of CEO for Groupon Philippines. However, Cuartero’s entrepreneurial itch pushed him to explore the food and beverage industry, leading him to found Pylon Partners, ABV’s parent company, in 2014.
“All I wanted to do was to bring some of my favorite things from New York to Manila,” Patrick relates. “As I was an East Village resident, I was always in Crif Dogs. When PDT opened inside, my perspective on bars changed.” Emulating this formula, Patrick conceived the idea for Lazy Bastard, a subway-tiled burger and hotdog front for ABV. Lazy Bastard’s blaring neon arrow draws customers to a narrow space, where a smaller but equally loud sign proclaims, “Long live bacon”. Hiding in plain sight has never been less subtle.
It was in a meeting arranged by a mutual friend that Patrick would become acquainted with managing partner Lee Watson, a self-professed cocktail geek, having received his education in Le Cordon Bleu and held several bar management positions back in the US. Watson’s experience also boasts of his beverage consultancy for Solaire Resort and Casino, and work with several top establishments in the country, including Antonio’s in Tagaytay, the Discovery Hotel Group, Wildflour Café, and Mandalay Whisky. With a meticulous standard for excellence, Watson prepared a team of talented bar staff through rigorous testing, tasting, and skills training sessions. His objective was to assemble an engaging group of capable personnel, far from faceless pub employees.
True enough, the bar staff is both accommodating and cordial. They keep the mood upbeat, dispensing drinks while sharing stories with guests, appearing genuinely enthusiastic about what they do. While already technically skilled, the bartenders regularly sharpen their mixing techniques, study, and refine their craft by experimenting with a wide array of liqueurs, syrups, and blends. Request an impromptu bespoke cocktail and see for yourself. (If you’re feeling adventurous, take a shot at distilled ampalaya or native tabako.)
ABV General Manager and head bartender Kenneth Bandivas is still getting used to his modest celebrity. Ever since emerging as the winner of the Around the World Challenge at the Diageo World Class 2015 Competition, he has been drawing in numerous admirers. Bandivas’s superb concoctions comprise the bulk of ABV’s list of signature cocktails. There’s the Jupiter St., a fusion of scotch and ginger beer; the Lazy Old Fashioned, done with a bacon-infused Bulleit Bourbon; a refreshing twist on the Corpse Reviver #2 that substitutes triple sec with pear brandy; Señorita Marquesa, a citrusy tequila mix dedicated to his fiancée; and of course, Ken’s winning recipe, The Bitter Felipe. The drinks act as creative counterpoints to a menu of timeless classics like the Moscow Mule, Morning Glory Fizz, and Negroni.
Though sharp pricing naturally constrains their customer base, ABV is anything but exclusive, frequently reaching full capacity on their busiest days. The atmosphere is warm and electric, not only because of the Edison bulbs hanging overhead. The French bistro inspiration is evident from the checkerboard tile floor to the aged wood furniture, copper fittings, vintage leather patinas, and exposed brick. Candles add to the muted light, chalkboards announce daily specials and beers on tap, while a steady soundtrack of blues and Django Reinhardt round out the vibe.
Yet the main centerpiece, encased in an illuminated glass altar along one wall, is ABV’s impressive cascade of bottles, pooled from various local supplies, imported rarities, and gems from the owners’ personal collections—affectionately called the “waterfall.” Interested to sample a unique flavor or explore the nuances between differently aged spirits? Go ahead. Though they are reverently presented, that doesn’t mean the bottles are there for display only.
With a propensity for more traditional, robust dark liquors, ABV’s premium selection includes Cruzan Single Barrel Rum, El Dorado from the Caribbean, and Ron Zacapa from Guatemala. Single malt snobs won’t be disappointed with 21-year-old Glengoyne, Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, or the extensive Japanese brands. There’s also Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal, an herbal tincture brewed by Carthusian monks. And most expensive of the lot are two vials of pre-ban absinthe, sitting smug behind the bar.
But at the very heart of the establishment—beyond the volumes of alcohol—are its community of regulars and patrons. On any given night, you might catch Patrick or Lee in between business meetings or entertaining balikbayan friends. Serious drinkers sit (or sometimes stand) beside casual tipplers, connoisseurs, and curious initiates. Colleagues celebrating, suited execs binging, pre-gamers, afterparty crashers, and serial Tinder daters all come and go. This mingling of dynamic personalities and brimming booze gives ABV its charismatic edge. It’s a one-of-a-kind venue where fuzzy memories are worth making, where good times and even better company abound.
For instance, winding down after overtime, an accountant meets a bubbly expat originally from Tennessee—Southern charm, drawl, and all. It’s the guy’s first time here, but you can tell the young blonde is a regular; the servers know her by name, and after a round of beers, she hops behind the bar to begin shaking up a whiskey sour—much to the amusement of the weary yuppie. No big deal, it’s just something she learned from her days at Hooters.
Another night—a corporate partner flirts profusely with a lovely lady, unaware that the guy sitting next to them is her husband. A man goes on an intoxicated tantrum, calling up his good friend, the Mayor, threatening to shut the place down, all because he was asked to put out his cigarette (smoking isn’t allowed in the premises, and is a fire hazard anyhow.) With no fixed closing time and adhering to a “Last Man Standing” rule, two European tourists, who didn’t seem to own watches or cell phones, set the bar at 8:30AM. I myself have encountered situations of shamelessness—involving sticky fingers and garnishes that encourage vicious habits. Still, some things are best kept off the record.