Bourbon is having its moment in the sun. For many years, American barrel-aged corn whiskey – to give it its correct definition – seemed out of step with the times. The spirit favoured by Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and the drink of choice of cowboys, outlaws and rock stars everywhere was being left on the shelf. But today it is enjoying a sophisticated revival as bars the world over embrace its smooth, smoky flavour, incorporating it into cocktails and stocking up on hard-to-find bottles.
Even the most ardent Scotch fans have had to concede the nuanced pleasures of the small-batch bourbons coming out of the American South.
Hong Kong’s drinkers and bartenders are, as usual, hot on the heels of the trend. The days when a Hong Kong watering hole’s only American whiskey was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s are well behind us. Bourbon has arrived.
Duddell’s, Central’s modern Cantonese restaurant and arty members’ club, has never been a slouch when it comes to trendy tipples. Bar manager Mark Jenner was quick to notice the growing desire for bourbon and got to work sourcing rare bottles and putting together a list of 18 or 19 bourbons.
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t do unless I saw a huge potential for it,” he says.
Among his favourites are bottles of Johnny Drum Private Stock, a Parker’s Heritage small batch bourbon from Heaven Hill Distilleries (“those guys are fantastic”, Jenner says) and a Willett Pot Still Reserve which comes in a bottle that looks like a still.
For cocktails, Jenner focuses on the classics like the Manhattan and the Sazerac which let the bourbon shine.
Jenner says, “The focus in Hong Kong is creating new and fantastic cocktails.”
But when it comes to the classics he doesn’t mince words: “I haven’t seen any place in Hong Kong that really gets the classics right.” He’s especially entranced by the Old Fashioned and is on a one man mission to get Hongkongers to share his passion, even inviting first timers behind the bar to learn how it’s made.
Hip hang out du jour Salon Number 10 prides itself on top-shelf, hard-to-find booze which they use to make finely tuned cocktails. They were early on the bourbon bandwagon and even, until recently, boasted a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle – the rare Kentucky bourbon with a cultish following and exorbitant price tag which they sold for only HK$280 a shot.
These days, they carry a nice selection of bourbons that are often impossible to find elsewhere in Hong Kong, like the extremely small batch Angel’s Envy from Lincoln Henderson that is a connoisseur’s favourite, Elijah Craig also from the Heaven Hill Distilleries, and – my personal favourite in terms of bang for your buck – Blanton’s which is beloved for its rich flavours of honey and vanilla that don’t go too far in obscuring its fiery kick.
In all, Salon No 10 has eight bourbons on its menu, but true bourbon heads know the really good stuff isn’t on the list: single bottles collected by the bartender that are constantly changing. Like Duddell’s, Salon No 10 prides itself on its deft handling of the classics, and the bartender steers new bourbon drinkers to the impeccable Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.
“For the last few years, American whiskey has been enjoying a boom worldwide; it is now experiencing a growth similar to vodka. It’s not just a drink any more; it’s a part of the culture.
And it’s not just for men either,” says restaurant manager Nick Connolly at 208 Duecento Otto on Hollywood Road. He is smitten with its flavour profile, which he says “reveals hints of molasses, caramel, vanilla, pecans, cinnamon, licorice and brown sugar”, and “makes bourbon an ideal ingredient for enhancing other natural flavours”.
Connolly keeps Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, eight-year-old Basil Hayden’s, nine-year-old Knob Creek, Booker’s, Woodford Reserve, and Willett Pot Still Reserve behind the bar.
He also offers two custom bourbon based cocktails: The 208’ Derby (bitters with Aperol, tawny port and Michter’s bourbon), and the Hong Kong Style (bourbon with pear, ginger, mint, absinthe and pineapple).
This is also an excellent place to try classic bourbon cocktails like the summer-friendly mint julep or the Metropolitan, a negroni with bourbon taking the place of gin.
The down and dirty
Despite all this talk of cocktails, real Americans know the best way to enjoy bourbon is from an overflowing shot glass backed up by a cold beer. That’s just what they offer at The Butchers Club Burgers in Wan Chai.
Jack Daniels – not technically a bourbon – is their standard pour. But opt instead for the Booker’s bourbon – a very strong small-batch bourbon between 121and 127 proof and aged between six and eight years – or the delicious Michter’s. They also carry Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Baker’s.
At The Butchers Club Burgers each of the bourbons is served up with a frosty Pabst Blue Ribbon back. Butchers Club Burgers is a great place to experience what the American south has known all along: that special magic that occurs when you combine bourbon and grilled flesh. Prepare to be encouraged to drink many, many shots, and if you do ask for a cocktail, expect a torrent of verbal abuse.
Where to find your fix
The Butchers Club Burgers
Rialto Building, 2 Landale Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2528 2083
Salon No 10
10 Arbuthnot Road, Central, tel: 2801 6768
Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2525 9191
208 Duecento Otto
208 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2549 0208
206 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2549 0020
Fatty Crab HK
11 Old Bailey Street, Central, tel: 2521 2033
LG/F Welley Building, 97 Wellington Street (entrance on Graham Street), Central, tel: 2810 6969