As a pre-schooler Wallace Lau Wai-yip was already displaying the instincts of a mixologist. "Even before primary school, every time I'd go to yum cha with my parents I would mix the different sauces together and drink it," he says.
He also started collecting bartending books in secondary school although he claims he didn't know what gin and vodka were at the time. That didn't stop him from committing as many cocktail recipes to memory as he could, a practice that continues to this day. It's a practice that's just helped win a bartending competition.
Still, his career as a bartender was hardly assured. Lau went to university to study engineering and then worked in that field.
But even while working he couldn't shake the bartending bug, and studied cocktail making in his spare time."I thought work was boring and I wanted to do something to make me happy in my life," he says. When he hit 25, after two years of being an engineer, he decided to make a change. It was no easy task: "I had no experience, and 25 is not young in this industry."
First he worked at the Blue Lemon in Tin Hau, a low- key bar and cafe where he learned the basics, as well as how to make the kind of cocktails - gin and tonics, midori sours - that appealed to the local clientele.
After that, he took a job at the nightclub Play in Central. "I'd never worked in a nightclub; it was busy, crazy and loud, a totally different story," he says. Lau quickly got a handle on it: "You learn to get organised, work it fast, and handle all kinds of different people. It was a good experience."
Exhausted from long nights at Play, Lau decided to move sideways into the booming wine industry, accepting a friend's invitation to go into wine sales. He learned about serving wine, how to taste it and serve it with food.
After nine months he was ready to get back behind the bar. He took a job at the Angel's Share whisky bar in Central. There, he says, everything changed. Lau met fellow bartender Bryan Chan Sun-lok, who became his mentor. "I learned so much from him not just about drinks and bartending techniques, but also about life. He's a kind person," he says.
His work at Angel's Share brought him into contact with bartenders working at Origin, and The Quinary, and he was introduced to the cutting-edge molecular mixology of Antonio Lai. His concept of what a cocktail could be started to expand.
Chan encouraged him to join the Diageo Reserve World Class Competition. "Thanks to Bryan's training, I got a very good result in the first year." He was second runner-up in his first competition.
The competition reinvigorated him. "I wanted to learn more," he says. So Lau searched for different bars with something to teach him.
Lau worked briefly at Fatty Crab to learn New York-style cocktails before moving to Wyndham the 4th. "For industry people, it's a very strange place. Our boss wants you do everything yourself. There are no guidelines here."
With this new experience under his belt, this year, he joined the Diageo competition again. "I was more relaxed," he says, "I didn't care about the results. I just cared about doing my best. I did what I wanted."
He proceeded to the final rounds with ease. But just before the last round, he had the bartender's equivalent of writers block. "I thought, 'I can't create.' The problem was that I had read too much."
Luckily, at the last moment the paralysis passed and he came up with the Skye-Line, a whisky-based sour drink that represents Chinese marriage.
He served it alongside two coconuts, a traditional Cantonese wedding symbol. The drink , he says, is inspired by his friends' marriages. "The smoky flavour is like arguments in a marriage. The lemon juice represents jealousy. The bitters represent our bitterness, and egg whites are like communication. They keep things together, and make it smooth."
His winning cocktail presentation even included a fake wedding ceremony.
Now his ambition is to change attitudes towards bartenders. It's time they start getting some respect, he says. "People hear you're a bartender, and they think you just like to get drunk. But just like chefs, we bartenders are professionals."