SPIRIT OF adventure
In Hong Kong until recently, connoisseurship of spirits was mostly confined to a couple of specialised fields - cognac and Scotch whisky. If people ordered gin, vodka, rum or tequila, they might have expressed a brand preference, but bar patrons were unaware of the profusion of niche products emerging in those spirit categories. All that is changing - and fast.
A great believer in keeping things interesting is Sam Jeveons, bar manager of Cafe Gray Deluxe at the Upper House. He is gradually replacing many familiar names behind his bar with lesser-known premium quality products.
Jeveons says cocktails are becoming a source of competition for many bars. 'People think they are good in a lot of different places, and the way to raise the bar's status is to get better choices of spirit in. What we offer is increasingly high end - notably in the under-served categories of rum and tequila.'
Some of these spirits are from small niche producers; others are supplied by bigger names that have created new tiers of mass market brands to appeal to more discerning drinkers.
'Jose Cuervo Tequila is a global brand, and their gold tequila is nothing special,' says Jeveons. 'But what they have done well is their Reserva de la Familia, which is a gorgeous tequila to be drunk neat, served in a brandy balloon, a real cognacesque sipping tequila which they call a 'super anejo'. I've also bought a bottle of their 250th anniversary bottling. Only 500 were made. That's the most expensive thing on the bar at HK$2,500 per shot, or HK$35,000 for the bottle.
'A lot of people have smelled it, but no one has bought one yet - but both the Reserva de la Familia and the Platino [Jose Cuervo silver tequila] are getting some action. We serve it in snifters and people are astonished. They don't realise that at this level of tequila we are talking cognac and beyond in terms of their complexity.'
While major brands like Jose Cuervo have been readily available in Hong Kong, smaller niche spirit producers have been less well represented, and a company trying to remedy that is Universal Exports (Far East), established last year.
'We have a pretty extensive list of niche brands - we have some very fine rye whiskeys, some good rums, gins and niche liqueurs that really only bartenders use. We have single-barrel ryes going back over 25 years,' says managing director Gary Thomas.
Brands on Universal Exports' list include Gosling's Black Seal Bermuda Rum, London No 1 Gin, Jefferson's Bourbon and Leblon Cachaca - a Brazilian spirit which Thomas says could be the 'next tequila' and is the key ingredient in the caipirinha.
Two particularly interesting products the company handles are Shanghai White Vodka and Fever Tree Premium Mixers.
Shanghai White, according to Universal Exports' spirit specialist John O'Toole, is 'the first spirit developed in the East for export to the West' and is beginning to establish a niche in the European and North American markets.
A joint venture between drinks giant Diageo and China's Shui Jing Fang Distillery, which O'Toole claims is the oldest distillery in the world, the vodka contains some baijiu, which gives it a distinctive taste.
The Fever-Tree Mixers range - which includes soda water, tonic waters, ginger ale and lemonade - has pioneered a new category of mixers intended to enhance the taste of premium spirits in mixed drinks. They are made with all natural ingredients such as spring water, cane sugar and high quality quinine from Chinchona trees - also known as fever trees, from which the brand takes its name.
Fever-Tree has been credited with spurring a revival in interest in the long cool classic, the gin and tonic. Bartenders tend to regard it as the best tonic for the new generation of premium gins, which includes Hendrick's Tanqueray 10 and Berry Bros No 3 Gin.
'A lot of gins such as Martin Miller's Plymouth Gin and No 3 are new to the Hong Kong market within the past year to six months. It is difficult for bartenders to keep pace - to know for example that Beefeater 24 is made with a Japanese green tea botanical, and that there are coriander elements in No 3, but it's a better problem to have than just having a Tanqueray, a Bombay and a Gordon's,' Jeveons says.
One result of this new complexity in the range of available spirits, mixers and bitters has been an upgrading in programmes for bartender education, particularly in hotels.
The Hong Kong Bartenders' Association, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in March, has been holding classes featuring local star bartenders such as molecular mixologist Antonio Lai of Quinary and Giancarlo Mancino of 8? Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA. Major spirit brands are also hosting classes in how best to use their spirits in cocktails.
There has been a revival in classic cocktails, with an emphasis on liquor rather than fruit. 'If you want to make the best of a high end or super high end ingredient, you need to go back to the classics, which are less adulterated - Old Fashioned, Martini, Manhattan and Sazerac - these generally stirred cocktails tend to showcase the quality of the spirit rather than the freshness of the pineapple of the day,' Jeveons says.
There has been less diversification in the cognac category, where premium grade-spirits are a local preference. In Europe many bars offer three-star cognac as their house pouring brand, and VSOP as a deluxe choice. In Hong Kong, VSOP is regarded as the basic choice, and a range of XOs - that usually include spirits from the dominant brands here, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin - will generally be at hand, with Courvoisier and Camus also widely available. There are cognacs available from smaller producers of high quality such as Tesseron, Hine and Delamain.
In the Scotch whisky category, while standard blends such as Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker Red Label are easy to find, bar sales are dominated by the deluxe blends Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal single malt is a rapidly-growing sector, however, encouraged by the specialisation in the field of bars such as The Angel's Share on Hollywood Road, The Canny Man in Wan Chai and The Chinnery bar at the Mandarin Oriental.
The market leader in single malt is The Macallan, but consumer interest is developing in the malt category as a whole, leading to people ordering by region or style as well as by brand.
'Macallan hits the young up and coming drinkers and the older statesman drinkers who know their stuff,' Jeveons says. 'We don't stock the 12 Year Old - we start at the 18 Year Old and go up to the 25 Year Old, and that doesn't put people off. We have 39 whiskies here, Scotch , Irish, American and Japanese, blended and single malts.'
Jeveons is a great believer in making a visit to a bar as much as possible like a voyage of discovery. 'As bottles are drunk I like to replace them with something new,' he says. 'It keeps things interesting.'