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The King of Cocktails Serves Renaissance Flavours

The Wise King founders Joe Villanueva (front) and Sandeep Kumar

Set up by Joe Villaneuva, former Head Mixologist for W Hong Kong, and Sandeep Kumar, whose resumé includes stints at Michelin-starred restaurants On Dining and Il Milione, The Wise King is one of several highly specialised cocktail bars that have opened in the city of late. Taking its cues from the 13th century, the golden age of culinary and mixology exploration, it serves such thought-provoking mixes as the Turron Sour, which evokes the flavour of nougat with its mix of bourbon and toasted honey nut syrup, with tapas on the side. These small plates appeared in the reign of King Alfonso X of Castile, who issued a decree that no alcoholic beverage should be served without food.

Head Mixologist and Co-owner Villaneuva tells us what it took to set up the business and reveals his predictions on where the Hong Kong cocktail scene is headed.

The cocktail scene in Hong Kong has reached a very mature point. How do you differentiate yourself from the others?
We’re very happy to see fellow bartenders push the boundaries of cocktail making away from Long Island Ice Teas and Sex on the Beach. We take a lot of classic cocktails and blend them with our theme. We employ modern techniques, and use ingredients like home-made tinctures for a cleaner flavour profile.

How does the Hong Kong cocktail scene compare to other mature markets like New York and London?
You have to remember the cocktail scenes in New York and London have been going for a very long time, whereas in Hong Kong, we’re still only six years young. Singapore is the same: both are still in their infancy in terms of bartenders and consumers. In Asia, consumers tend to prefer sour and sweet cocktails, or something with a dry, bitter profile. As Hong Kong is a cultural melting pot, we cater to all taste profiles with perhaps more on the bitter side.

What were some of the challenges of setting up the business?
Setting up the bar was fun, if nerve wracking. Something happens that’s great, then five minutes later, it’s all changed. There have definitely been challenges, but once the bar was ready, there was no better feeling in the world. It’s the satisfaction of seeing customers walk in and taste our cocktails and knowing we’ve done it right. But it’s not been easy: we’ve had to be multi-taskers, sorting out licences one minute then getting to grips with construction timelines the next. As partners, me and Sandeep support each other, and we each bring our own skill set.

What are your most popular drinks and tapas bites?
For drinks, the El Sabio (Spanish for “wise”) is popular, which is a spiced peach and pineapple wine reduction with cava. People like cold cuts and cheese to go with their cocktails. There’s five different cold cuts and five hot bites like patatas bravas and croquettes – nothing too filling.

Many Hong Kong bartenders have recently set up on their own. What emboldened you to do so?
It’s a dream for many bartenders, and after over a decade of working here, we decided to take the plunge. Hong Kong has always been a chef-focused business within the food industry, but in recent years, there’s been more of a balance between food and drink. Now there’s definitely more of a focus on bartenders, who want to express themselves and showcase their skills and talents.

How do you expect the cocktail scene in Hong Kong to develop over the next few years?
I think the development will be twofold: bartenders like us, or younger, will challenge themselves to produce something unique but approachable to customers. I also expect to see a rise in sustainable practices – highlighting the origin of produce, using organic ingredients and working with local organic farms to source fresh herbs and so on.

What are your long-term goals for the brand?
We’re a very small team with big dreams … we don’t have the budget of big food groups. I think it’s the style of our hospitality that will make the bar successful. Anyone can serve a drink, but it’s how you do it. It’s about knowing clients by name, keeping in touch with them, remembering their favourite drinks, birthdays and other special occasions.

Do you hope to open another cocktail bar?
For now we’re focusing on The Wise King but we want to open a restaurant, too. Initially The Wise King was going to be a restaurant but space and rental costs dictated that we start with a cocktail bar, and this has been a good teaser into opening a restaurant.

Related Link
The Wise King

Content provided by Hong Kong Trade Development Council
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