A spirit of adventure
First came the premium vodkas, now come the gold-encrusted super-premium spirits filtered through gems and distilled as many as 14 times. The vodka distillers come in the wake of a long line of spirits makers pursuing Asian money with ever-more premium products.
The French were first with cognac - Martell has had a presence in Hong Kong for 70 years. Whisky was next, with single malts and aged blends taking turns to captivate Hong Kong's drinkers. Its American cousin, whiskey, never gained much traction.
A delegation of distillers from Tequilla state in Mexico visiting three years ago left their mark in a small number of bars serving expensive sipping versions of the eponymous drink. But, along with rum, it has failed to take off here significantly.
Vodka, despite lacking the high profile of French and Scottish spirits, outsells them both.
We asked some of Hong Kong's top bartenders for their opinions on vodka and their cocktail tips.
Famed mixologist Giancarlo Mancino confesses to being a 'martini freak', and is launching his range of Mancino vermouths this summer. When he's not creating martinis, the Italian is a bar consultant conceiving cocktail menus for high-end venues such as 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana.
It explains why the three-Michelin-star venue stocks an extensive top-tier vodka collection. Mancino believes having access to variety is essential in delivering the various preferences of vodka cocktails requested by customers, and the drink's method of production influences his choice.
'If a customer wants a naked vodka martini - not stirred or shaken - I'll use Russian or Polish vodka, which are stable, straight-to-the-point vodkas that are traditionally sipped straight,' he says. 'But if a customer wants it shaken, which is more diluted from being mixed with ice, I'll choose a full-bodied vodka such as High Spirits from Italy or Potocki from Poland.' Women often ask for fruitier tipples so Mancino uses fruit infused-vodkas matched with fresh fruit and liqueurs.
He also has a knack for blending custom-infused vodkas, such as a saffron variety at Otto e Mezzo. It's easy to infuse vodkas, he says: put herbs or spices (for example, coffee beans, peppercorns or junipers) in the vodka, then store in a dark place for a minimum of 24 hours.
Mancino's skill with infused-vodkas has already earned him accolades. In 2001, he entered his wasabi and apple martini at the World Cocktail Competition run by the International Bartenders Association in Singapore. 'Imagine 10 years ago putting wasabi in a martini. People said 'Are you crazy?' until I won,' he recalls.
The mixologist combined his wasabi-infused vodka with fresh wasabi, pineapple juice, apple puree and lemon juice, the contents served in a martini glass garnished with dried bonito and seaweed. The unusual combination gave Mancino the championship title. Solicit a similar response from your friends with this version, below.
Wasabi and green apple martini
40ml Potocki Wodka
20ml dry yuzu sake
30ml green apple puree
20ml fresh pineapple juice
10g wasabi paste
Garnish rim of the chilled martini glass with dried bonito and seaweed.
Shake all ingredients together then double strain into a chilled martini glass.
The most photographed mixologist in town, Antonio Lai, has just opened Quinary bar on Hollywood Road, selling the complex drinks the cocktail whizz is known for. He's usually tinkering away in his cocktail 'playground' featuring a centrifuge and liquid nitrogen, among other oddball devices and exotic ingredients. Algin, for example, a natural seaweed extract, is used to make flavoured 'caviar' slipped into Earl Grey martinis.
For summer, the barman suggests a Bloody Mary packing a petulant punch with wasabi and horseradish-infused vodka. A rotary distillation machine lets Lai infuse spirits with herbs or spices in a matter of hours. His feisty vodka delivers a lingering zing to a Bloody Mary, although the effect is subtle, not aggressive. 'It's not too spicy,' he says.
At Quinary, the blend is also more complex: alongside the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco essential to any bloody Mary, garlic cloves and whole Thai chillis give extra oomph. In addition, the tomato juice base is V8 vegetable juice and fresh tomato juice in equal measures.
'If you use all V8, the Bloody Mary tastes too artificial, whereas if you use all fresh tomato juice, it tastes too green, too raw. That's why I use half and half; it's balanced,' says Lai.
The easier version of the recipe below requires at least a week to infuse the vodka: finely chop 100 grams of fresh horseradish and 20 grams of fresh wasabi, add to your preferred bottle and let time do the rest.
Quinary's Bloody Mary
45ml V8 vegetable juice
45ml tomato juice
30ml wasabi and horseradish-infused vodka
3 drops Tabasco
5ml Worcestershire sauce
One celery stalk
Pour the liquid ingredients into a glass, stir to blend.
Add ice, black pepper, celery and stir before serving.
Old-school enthusiast Wolf Wong likes classics that have been 'drunk for almost a century for a reason'. Wong has been whipping up drinks for more than 13 years - at present she's bar manager at Blck Brd. The bar has a staggering selection of whiskies and bourbon. Boutique vodkas occupy the shelves, too.
Wong finds it frustrating that big brands dominate the scene. 'The problem with big brands such as Grey Goose is that they spend so much money on marketing and consumers pay triple for a vodka that's worth nothing but the label.' Instead, the venue imports relatively unknown producers such as Italian import, I-Spirit, and Polish Victory Vodka.
For the Moscow mule, Wong insists on using ginger beer. 'Ginger ale is too sweet, whereas ginger beer is sharper, more spicy.'
2 parts Victory Vodka
1 part fresh lime juice
Fever-Tree ginger beer
Pour lime juice and vodka into a Moscow mule mug or high ball glass, with ice.
Top up with ginger beer.
Her Kangaroo recipe is an ode to the way vodka martinis used to be made: with 20ml of a very dry vermouth. Wong says the main reason why many people dislike the key martini ingredient nowadays is that it's not stored properly and so tastes disgusting.
'Vermouth is a form of wine so store it like a wine,' she advises. 'Once open, keep it in the fridge but for no longer than two weeks.'
It's all about picking a vodka, getting to know it then paring it with the right vermouth, she says. Wong found a fine marriage between American-made Vya Dry Vermouth - for its intense flavour - and Victory Vodka.
50ml Victory Vodka
20ml Vya Dry Vermouth Lemon peel
Combine in a chilled martini glass. Stir.
Add a twist of lemon peel.