A case of friendly fire

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2012, 12:00am


There are few good things to be said for cold weather, particularly in Hong Kong, where nothing much is built for it. But for at least some of us who spent much of last week huddled over heaters, there was some consolation available from cherished bottles with the words 'alcohol by volume 40 per cent' - or more - appearing on the label.

The great brown spirits of the world - whisky, whiskey, cognac, armagnac, calvados, dark rum and aged tequila - come into their own when the mercury drops. In the summer they often seem heavy. In the middle of a cold snap, however, they offer a comforting sense of inner warmth.

Unfortunately, we still need the heaters. Although for many years it was believed that the warming sensation - or 'spirit burn' - to be derived from what Americans unromantically call 'hard liquor' betokened a genuine increase in body temperature, sadly this is not the case. Medical research dating to the mid-19th century tells us alcohol actually tends to lower the body's core temperature while producing an illusory sensation of warmth.

Grave warnings have been issued that those who rely on hip flasks rather than coats, gloves and scarves on freezing days are running a risk of hypothermia.

Fair enough. When you go out, wrap up in as many layers as you need. When indoors, stay close to the feeble electric bar heater, which is racking up profits at taxi-meter speed for Hong Kong Electric or China Light and Power.

You can then feel entitled to also pour yourself a drink, partly to take your mind off the electricity bill, but also because the warm glow you think it will give you is one of the most pleasant sensations you are going to have for the next few weeks. And there is a fine range of noble spirits able to deliver it, and the city's wine and spirits retailers, bars, and restaurants, offer an extensive range of bottles.

Brandy, usually in the form of cognac, is the traditional favourite; Hong Kong was one of its biggest markets for many years.

In the 1970s and early '80s, Hong Kong often claimed to be the biggest market per capita, although that honour actually went to Vatican City. However, we have a larger population: theirs consists of fewer than 1,000 thirsty souls perhaps compensating for celibacy.

Today, wine has to a large extent supplanted cognac in the affections of Hong Kong people, although after years of dropping steadily, sales are now making a comeback in the face of strong competition from Scotch blended and single malt whiskies.

The legacy of the boom years is, however, still apparent in the upscale bars and on the liqueur trolleys of the high-end restaurants.

A wide range of XO and other deluxe cognacs is generally available, with VSOP often the lowest grade. Three star cognac, which in many markets accounts for the great majority of the spirit's sales, has never been popular here.

Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin are the cognac brands most favoured by Hong Kong spirit drinkers, but interest is growing in artisanal and single vineyard cognacs, as well as in the deluxe expressions of the big brands.

At the Ritz-Carlton's Ozone, which claims to be 'the highest bar in the world', the cognac selection is at a similarly high level. Besides the three cognacs priced at HK$3,500 per glass or more - Remy Martin Louis XIII, Richard Hennessy and Martell L'Or - and the most popular XO and VSOP, there are rarer spirits such as Delamain Vesper, and Leopold Gourmel Cognac Bio Attitude, which is made organically from grapes grown without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

Winter, however, is probably not the time to go out on to the terrace at Ozone and admire the view. This is the season for the great indoors, and old-fashioned masculine 'back bars' like the one at Morton's, which can also keep the cold at bay with its famous mini-steak sandwiches. Besides the signature martinis - a little too cool for the weather - it has a range of high-quality brown spirits including scotch, bourbon, cognac and Janneau XO armagnac.

Although armagnac has never enjoyed the same popularity in Hong Kong as cognac, it has had a reliable presence in upmarket restaurants. Both are grape spirits from the brandy category, but armagnac is arguably a better choice as a winter warmer, being characteristically a more fiery spirit, often bottled as the product of a single vintage rather than being - as cognacs more typically are - a blend of several. The official explanation is that armagnac is single rather than double distilled.

Another French spirit, which, even if it doesn't really keep the winter chill at bay certainly feels as though it does, is calvados, from the more northern, colder Normandy region.

An 'eau de vie' ('water of life') which can be drunk before a meal - and by tradition between courses as a 'trou Normand' to stimulate the appetite, calvados can also be taken as a digestif, along with coffee, a hot shot of which genuinely will raise your temperature.

Spirits can, of course, also be served mixed into liqueur coffees, such as Irish coffee (Irish whiskey), cafe royale (cognac), or Jamaican coffee (rum).

Dark aged rum as a sipping spirit also serves well as a winter warmer, even if most of it does come from sunnier climes. The same goes for old tequila of the extra a?ejo grade, which is also allowed to acquire some character from barrel ageing, which makes it a good 'sipping spirit' choice at room temperature.

Most Mexican bars and restaurants have a fair selection of tequilas, while the widest selection of rums is to be found in the Marco Polo's Lobby Lounge, which in 2008 was recognised by Guinness World Records for having, at 102, 'the most varieties of rum commercially available' in the world. Despite this, the market for aged rum here - though growing rapidly globally - stubbornly refuses to take off. Tequila is doing rather better.

Clear, spirits that have not been aged and with a characteristic 'burn' - such as Scandinavia's aquavit, Italy's grappa and the vodkas of northeast Europe and Russia - will also supply the illusion of keeping out the cold, but tend to be drunk quickly, often as shots, rather than lovingly lingered over.

The ongoing fashion for Italian restaurants has made grappa - a brandy distilled not from wine but from pomace, the pulp left behind after grapes are crushed for wine - a popular digestif, and it can be just the thing to fortify well replete diners before they venture out into the cold. Most of the better Italian restaurants offer a selection, often bottlings from the pomace of great wines such as Grappa di Sassicaia and Grappa dell'Ornellaia. At Sabatini in the Royal Garden, an entire trolley is a feature, a glass from it regarded as an essential part of the dining experience.

Until recently, single malt Scotch whisky was a drink sold in small quantities here, probably mostly to Scots. No longer. According to Maxxium Hong Kong, which imports both The Macallan and Highland Park, single malts enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 30 per cent between 2006 and 2010, and now represent about 7 per cent of total Scotch sales in Hong Kong.

This surge in popularity has also been reflected by a growth in the number of bars specialising in whiskies - often with a focus on single malt Scotch, but with good selections of Irish, Japanese and American whiskey, as well.

Among the best are Angel's Share on Hollywood Road, The Chinnery at the Mandarin Oriental, The Canny Man pub and Nana Banana restaurant in Wan Chai, and the Tokoro Whisky Bar at the Langham Place Hotel in Mong Kok.

Angel's Share and Tokoro take an international view of whisk(e)y, with extensive ranges of both malts and blends, and the former going so far as to stock one whiskey from France. Both have strong American and Japanese whiskey lists.

For the lover of fine spirits in general, Angel's Share is a hard place to beat for shelter on a cold day. It also offers a well chosen selection of rare cognacs; aged rums from Barbados, Guadeloupe and Fiji as well as the best of the familiar international brands; and some aged tequilas.

The Chinnery and The Canny Man are both well established retreats for the single malt lover, and since neither has windows, are good places to forget about the weather outside.

Nana Banana, a Thai restaurant, is open to the street, but has an extensive collection of old rare single malts at surprisingly modest prices, some of them from now-defunct distilleries.

Scotland in winter is a place where the people need all the inner warmth they can get, and you can choose between the warm glow offered by such Highland and Speyside classics as The Macallan (Hong Kong's biggest selling malt), Glenmorangie, The Glenrothes, and The Glenlivet, or the more assertive 'spirit burn' of the powerfully peated Islay malts such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig. As a winter warmer - illusory or otherwise - no other spirit offers a greater range of choice.

Pair of hot shots

Spirits play a supplementary role in such traditional winter warmers as mulled wine, supplying a little extra backbone, but assume a primary one in classic sweetened hot alcoholic drinks such as liqueur coffees and hot buttered rum.

Although the practice of adding alcohol to coffee is time honoured in continental Europe and dates back to at least the mid-19th century in Austria and Germany, the world's most popular coffee cocktail is a more recent invention of the Irish.

The origins of Irish coffee - that classic mixture, as an old joke has it, of 'the major food groups: caffeine, sugar, alcohol and fat' - are disputed, but the most popular legend has it being improvised on the spot as a winter warmer for a group of shivering passengers at Ireland's Shannon International Airport sometime in the 1940s.

The better the spirit, the better the quality - although Jameson works well and is widely available.

Hot buttered rum has three of the same basic elements, but omits the caffeine and substitutes butter for cream and rum for whiskey. Its origins are anchored to no specific legend, but it is thought it may have been first mixed by British sailors on a winter trip across the Atlantic. It is known to have been popular in the 'seditious colonies' at around the time of the American Revolution.

Admirably clear and concise recipes for both appear in Harry's ABC of Mixing Cocktails, published by Souvenir Press in co-operation with the storied Harry's Bar in Paris. It was updated and reprinted last year, and is available from Amazon. The Irish coffee recipe, substituting the spirit or liqueur of your choice for Irish whiskey, will serve for most of the variants on its theme.

Irish coffee

In a warm Irish coffee glass: sugar to taste, 2 ounces (50ml) of Irish whiskey. Fill nearly to brim of glass with strong black coffee, dilute sugar [stir], then float up to brim fresh cream, with the help of the back of your bar spoon.

Hot buttered rum

Two ounces of dark rum, sugar to taste, stick of cinnamon, boiling water, small amount of butter. Stir and serve. Extra butter can be served on the side.

Lucky seven

Angel's Share, 2/F, Amber Lodge, 23 Hollywood Rd, Central, tel: 28058388, angelsshare.hk

Banana Nana, 117 Lockhart Rd, Wan Chai, tel: 25200397

The Canny Man, B/1, Wharney Guang Dong Hotel, 57-73 Lockhart Rd, Wan Chai, tel: 28611935, thecannyman.com

The Chinnery, 1/F, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Rd, Central, tel: 28254009, mandarinoriental.com

Marco Polo HK Hotel Lobby Lounge, Harbour City, TST, tel: 21130088, hongkonghotel.-marcopolohotels.com

Ozone, Ritz-Carlton Hotel, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Rd West, Kowloon, tel: 22632263, ritzcarlton.com

Tokoro Whisky Bar, Langham Place Hotel, 555 Shanghai St, Mong Kok, tel: 35523388, hongkong.langhamplacehotels.com