If you're heading for a club in Taipei, you should know that things have gotten a little strange at the city's clubs since September 2014 when a policeman was killed outside a nightclub. For a few months the police conducted nightly ID checks in and around the city's night clubs and were out in force to keep public order. As of April 2015 regularity has returned and while ID checks do ruin the party mood they no longer seem to be a daily affair. Just in case have your ID ready (passport or Taiwanese issued ID) and save yourself a headache or two by not mouthing off about the police ruining the party.
Understanding Taiwanese drinking culture:
Drinking is permissible in public places (unless otherwise stated) in Taiwan because alcohol was not given a negative reputation during Taiwan's past. Compared to America, where blue laws, licenses, and ideology left over from the 1800's dominate alcohol consumption, Taiwan is incredibly liberal. Sales are 24 hours, there is no mandatory closure time for bars or clubs, and despite a firm government monopoly on imports and production of liquor prices are reasonable. It is common to see people - especially foreign visitors or residents - drinking outside in the park. Beyond city parks the beaches, long distance trains, and other public areas permit drinking. A good way to answer "can I drink here?" is to consider alcohol like any other drink - if you can bring in a can of Cola, you can also bring a can of beer.
Where to buy drinks in Taipei? Where is cheapest:
Retailers like Costco or Carrefour offer a high selection of imported brands at a relatively low price and also beat the smaller super markets on the domestic stuff. There are a number of specialty liquor store chains which cater to more informed drinkers but many tend to recommend products based on revenue not customer satisfaction. There are definitely a lot of mom and pop shops around Taiwan, especially outside of Taipei. Super markets also sell liquor for a slight mark up, but beer is usually near-cost and for sure cheaper than at a convenience store. Convenience stores sell beer, whiskey, and wine for the highest mark up over the other stores but nearly everyone out for the night will eventually find themselves grabbing a drink here. 7-11 and Family Mart have also done a great job upping their game and run sales on group buying, such as deals for 3 beers for 85%.
If you are looking to build a liquor collection, drink high quality whiskey or wine, and have time to shop around, the specialty stores offer the best quality and selection. If you want to save money but are less picky about selection and quality, head to a big box retailer or super market. If you're on the go, don't care about 5 - 10 NT per beer (50 - 200 for wine) then a quick stop at a convenience store is the way to go.
All You Can Drink Clubs:
For North Americans this is one of the most novel draws to the Taipei night life. Because there is minimal liability for clubs providing alcohol, and no license to lose, some clubs offer all you can drink parties. You pay from 350 – 800 NT to get inside with a receipt from the cashier. You trade the receipt for your first drink, and then trade subsequent drink cups for new drinks. Spilling, vomiting, or losing your cup are generally bad form, and some clubs reserve the right to charge you for clean up, etc. Shorts are generally not allowed, and men should wear close toed shoes. Women's dress is largely unregulated although flip flops might not cut it.
Don't be fooled – all you can drink places are not serving top shelf drinks, are often packing their glasses with ice, offering slow service (thus long lines), and are generally disinclined to treat their value-seeking patrons with respect. It is common for people with tables to get better service, and some bartenders openly accept “tips” to allow you to cut the line. Hard liquor may be adulterated with a potable ethanol or other substitute to lower the price of mixed drinks, The reults of this mixing can be rather devastating to your night if made wrong. If you suddenly feel incredibly drunk beyond the amount you have consumed, sick to your stomach, out of control (in a negative way), dizzy, etc, its likely you've had some of the house blend. Beer is generally bought in bulk and served in cans or bottles which promise some piece of mind in the adulteration department. However, many beer companies resell after market/nearly expired beer, non-standard beer, etc to nightclubs to minimize losses, but generally in non-harmful forms. Massive headaches are common after going to AYCD clubs, either due to adulterated liquor, drinking too much, dancing too hard, or having too much fun.
The clientèle at AYCD clubs are generally going to be younger ( 18 – 25) Taiwanese, and in some cases there are specific clubs which cater to foreigners. These clubs are spread around the city, with some clubs offering special AYCD nights. Foreigners usually find more comfort around the Shi Da night market, although many young locals head to ATT4Fun/Neo19. These clubs are famous for drunk and wild times, uninhibited dancing, and sometimes even a “meat market” vibe. Those looking to really let loose and party might feel most at home at these clubs. As a caution, Taiwanese men at all you can drink clubs are generally wary of foreigners who they perceive to be looking to take advantage of drunk young women, and once drunk can become quite hostile. Diffusing tensions between drunk men can be hard – especially when no one speaks English bu you - but keep in mind that some locals prefer to fight in gangs, and often carry police-grade weapons (night sticks, spring loaded batons, etc). Further, be wary of anyone at all you can drink clubs taking advantage of foreigners for entertainment, specifically pretending to be nice to you to get laughs from friends.
Up Market Clubs:
Up Market clubs are generally found in Taipei around ZhongXiao DunHua or near Taipei 101. Some up market clubs offer an AYCD night, but in general they charge 600 – 1000 NT for entrance with between 0 and 2 free drink tickets. The dress code is more strictly enforced at these clubs, and looking good is expected.
Drinks at up market clubs range between 150 and 500 dollars, and bottle service is certainly possible. Tables can be hard to come by even if you call in advance, although usually offering to pay with cash, order lots of drinks, and be amazing party people will help you score one. These clubs are seen as cleaner than their all you can drink brothers, but a quick look in the bathroom may prove otherwise. The security at these clubs is also tighter than at all you can drink clubs, and they took a page from the American club scene's handbook about how to punish serious transgressions. Don't think that being a foreigner will save you from being educated by the security team in proper manners.
The clientèle at these clubs is usually the upper class, would-be upper class, people over 25, or people who can't stand bad drinks and watching people puke in the street. Because there is more focus on image dancing is often somewhat less crazy, and its not uncommon for people to flat out refuse to look like they're enjoying themselves. However, for those whose party mentality has matured past university age, this is the place to find like minded adult partiers.
Bars or pubs run a fairly broad spectrum in Taiwan, so this section is only going to focus on Western style bars. The quality of bars will vary significantly from establishment to establishment, with the price of drinks ranging between 150 – 300 for beer with a similar price for standard cocktails. There is rarely a dress code, but for special events at bars its best to at least check about requirements. Decent bars are scattered throughout the city, with certain nights featuring packed houses, pub quizzes, drink specials, and at times nothing short of a dead room.
Foreign beers, specifically Guiness, Boddingtons, Heineken, and Carlsberg are common at any place that has taps. Belgian beer bars exist and continue popping up everywhere with mixed success, and some menus are extensive. Fresh draft beer selections are improving steadily but choice is still limited compared to the west. For those obsessed with Guiness you can find it on tap with the going rate of ~250NT per pint.
Lounges and laid back “bars” are much more common than bars in the traditional Western sense. While the area near Taipei 101 boasts many new, large, and expensive lounges that double as clubs, there are many true lounge bars in the social hubs like gongguan, shida, dongqu, neihu, tianmu, etc which are laid back. At times, these lounges look like someones living room, with sofas and tables arranged for friends to hang out on. Those looking to make solid business contacts with the unmarried social climber types should head towards the 101 area's lounge/bars where networking and looking classy go hand in hand.
Drinks at lounges will usually favor foreign imported beers as well as a broader range of whiskeys, mixed drinks, and cocktails. Prices can vary, but there is usually a minimum 200 dollar per person charge. Food is of reasonable quality and because smoking indoors is allowed in bars after 9pm hookahs are sometimes on the menu. Those looking for expensive bottle service and up market champagne should hunt around Taipei 101, and those looking to spend some hours chatting with close friends should find somewhere more local feeling.
Drinking in Restaurants:
Drinking in restaurants is popular and is more common in Taipei than in Western countries. For traditional Taiwanese folks, drinking at the restaurant or at a family meal is the only socially acceptable choice. They won't head to western style bars for a night out. Food and booze go hand in hand in the local culture, so don't be afraid to have a few with your meal.
Some restaurants limit their eating time to two hours even if its not all you can eat - so check about a limit before starting a heavy drinking session. If you can find a place that'll let you stay, drinking in restaurants, at times, can be a whole night out to itself.
Perhaps the best deal is found at all you can eat hot pot restaurants which will often have a keg of beer from which you serve yourself. With few exceptions these restaurants will ask you to leave after 2 hours, but beer drinkers can certainly get a ton of volume in this time. Couple the endless beer with all you can eat ice cream, meat, veggies, etc and you're either in for a great night or the worst stomach ache of your life. Caution - the beer is often after market kegs which are not yet expired but past their prime.
The next best deal is still at all you can eat places, usually for Japanese food or some of the upscale hot pots. You pay a more premium price to get in - sometimes as high as 1000NT per person - and they serve you cans of beer, sake, and cocktails in endless supply. Many of them impose no time limit, so those arriving at 6 can stay until 9 or 10 when they close. With the HIGH variety of drinks and food, there is no excuse not to have a full stomach.
The most common way to drink in a restaurant is to buy beer by the bottle. Each restaurant has its own preferred brand, and Taiwan beer, QingDao, plus Heineken are the usual choices. Red wine of varying quality has become available at many places in recent years, but cocktail service is impossible to find outside of western bars. Taiwanese restaurants will usually have a beer girl who offers you beer when you sit down. Don't be fooled by her good looks, small clothing, polite voice, and happy smile. Whatever beer she is promoting is probably the most expensive (or only) one in the place, and she won't bring you anything but her brand. Be that as it may, they make money on comission, and might be willing to cut a deal if business is slow. She will approach your table when you first sit down, and this is the right time to ask if she has any deals - buy 2 get 1 or buy 3 get 1 free. Since each promoter is different, its best to ask first, and if you get rejected just buy the cheapest beer in the place. So when there is a beer girl, that means getting up to get the beer yourself. If she's selling what you like, enjoy the table service being provided by a beautiful young woman.