3 Oct 2016
Selling the Local Spirit
Cocktail culture in Hong Kong has become increasingly refined in recent years, with two bars even making it onto the World’s 50 Best Bars list last year. The Lobster Bar and Grill at the Island Shangri-La Hong Kong was singled out for its expert execution of classics like the Old Fashioned and Negroni, while neighbourhood bar Quinary was recognised for innovative creations like the Marshmallow Duo, a vodka-based milkshake with grilled marshmallow pieces on the side.
Asian-inspired cocktail ingredients such as lychee liqueur and pandan syrup are also becoming more prevalent, while a Chinese mainland-inspired bar is set to debut this month. Deng G is a restaurant/bar concept from Chengdu chef Deng Huadong whose baijiu-based cocktails are concocted by award-winning mixologist Hektor Monroy.
Bitter and Sweet Notes
In a tribute to Hong Kong culture, cocktail lounges are incorporating traditional dessert ingredients into mixes and pairing cocktails with desserts, as at cocktail lounge Bitters & Sweets, which opened in Central in March. The bar was founded by Ben and Carrie Li, who strive to make everything in-house; from spirit infusions and bitters to all menu items, even down to the hazelnut chocolate filling in the desserts. “As cocktail bars and lounges have only started to come online in Hong Kong in the past couple of years, it is an exciting time to contribute to the scene,” says Ben Li.
Bartenders are taught to adopt a culinary approach to mixology. “We encourage the use of ingredients not commonly used in the bar,” he explains. “Through teaching them different cooking techniques, we give them the tools to explore with different and unique flavour profiles. As we like to use local and seasonal ingredients, we look at traditional Hong Kong food, snacks and drinks for inspiration in our cocktails and food.”
The cocktail menu is broken down into signature house cocktails and re-imagined classics, with the Sesame and Smokey Joe being two signature favourites. The former takes inspiration from a much-loved Hong Kong dessert, black sesame soup, which is mixed with spiced rum, while the latter is a play on an Old Fashioned, with house-infused coffee bourbon and bitters finished with cherry wood smoke.
A Taste of Nostalgia
Cocktail bar Bao Bei, which means “baby” or “precious” in Chinese, opened in Central last December. It recently hosted a cocktail and dessert pairing called Moon Chaser to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival, with a vodka cocktail complemented by a yuzu honey mochi. Hong Kong-themed drinks such as its Mango Pomelo Sago and Childhood Memory – spiced rum mixed with Bailey’s and Vitasoy malt – have proved tremendously popular with locals keen to revisit the tastes of their childhood, says Gerald Wong, who founded the bar with Wendy Lau.
“We have also blended Chinese tea with cocktails such as our Hong Kong Island Iced Tea and are working with a local tea house to craft these special drinks,” he says. The Hong Kong influence continues on the food menu, with bites like mapo tofu fries, stuffed baos (Chinese buns) and banana Nutella crepe wontons.
“Our families raised us with traditional Chinese values and taught us what ‘old Hong Kong’ meant,” says the United States educated entrepreneur. “Food and drink have always been important to my family. Checking out new restaurants, visiting grandparents’ go-to teahouses, playing with cousins at dim sum restaurants every weekend, getting a bottle of Vitasoy or homemade chrysanthemum tea at the neighbourhood store with schoolmates – all these experiences encouraged me to create a concept that will bring back childhood memories.”
Another bar embracing Hong Kong’s cultural past and present is Salvatore at Maison Eight, a cocktail lounge from celebrated international mixologist Salvatore Calabrese. He teamed up with French restaurant Maison Eight to open his first Asian outlet in Tsim Sha Tsui.
“I had an opportunity to open in Asia and I like the concept of Maison Eight and the people behind it,” says Mr Calabrese. “We’ve created an innovative menu that includes a modern approach to classic cocktails, a selection of my world-famous signature cocktails, and some exciting new offerings of Asian influence exclusive to Maison Eight,” he adds.
The cocktail menu includes a section called “Oriental Joy” to reflect the tastes and colours of Asia, in particular of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Sling, for example, features kumquat liqueur and Wenjun Baijiu, while the Queen’s Backyard pays tribute to Hong Kong’s colonial past, with the fruity flavours of an English summer captured in a mix of rhubarb-infused gin, strawberry sherbet, elderflower cordial and apple juice.
Bar manager Jackie Lam says the Hong Kong cocktail scene is constantly evolving. “In the past few years, we have seen cocktails with less alcohol and more of a focus on being refreshing. Drinking cocktails is becoming more of a social occasion for us all, and the lower alcohol content means we can enjoy a few more glasses without feeling guilty,” he says.
Inspired by Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub, stock market-themed bar Wolf Market features a trader’s floor where customers can keep an eye on fluctuating drink prices – costs go up and down depending on a drink’s popularity – via a moving ticker display projected onto the ceiling. The cocktails are also inspired by the markets, with the Cayenne Bubbles, a lemon vodka cocktail enlivened by a chili syrup, referencing financial market bubbles. Other locally influenced mixers include the Jazmin, with a base of jasmine-infused vodka, and the Golden Cross, which mixes Bulleit bourbon and Courvoisier VSOP – the latter a favourite at Hong Kong banquets – with maple syrup.
Upstairs in the Trader’s Bar, there’s a more exclusive ambience that resembles a speakeasy, and all drinks are at a fixed price.
Founded by friends Jia Law and Jhonny Leung Huang, the concept was inspired by their experience working as auditors at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Many people have gone to drink on Wyndham Street while the California Tower was being renovated, and we want to bring people back to Lan Kwai Fong, as we always used to come here after work,” says Mr Huang.
The bar has already proved a hit with those in the banking industry since it opened in June. “They love the price fluctuations, challenging each other, and buying drinks for others when the prices go down. You can buy a tray of champagne and crash the market so it turns red.”
Mr Huang says that customers are keen to see more price fluctuations. “Bankers love playing with numbers, so even if they’re just saving HK$5, they get excited.”
Wolf Market will also launch a mobile app that allows customers to buy drinks before they arrive.
The pair believes the Hong Kong cocktail scene has improved dramatically in recent years. “Going out to clubs used to mean opting for standard drinks like gin and tonic, shots like Jaegerbombs, and perhaps a bottle of champagne. But people are starting to appreciate real cocktails and prefer to spend their money on a single drink and enjoy better tastes and textures,” says Mr Huang.
Franchising opportunities are on the horizon. “Someone wanted to open one in Shanghai three months back, but as we’d just opened, we didn’t feel it was stable enough,” says Ms Law, who adds that they are currently in talks to take their stock market bar concept to Beijing, Taipei, Chengdu and Shanghai.
“We’ve also been approached by people from the US, but our concept is ‘Asia’s stock market bar,’ so we will do Asia first, then go to other places. I think we can grow [this concept] really fast. We see Wolf Market as being an international brand that can represent Hong Kong.”