Sips of Asia: cocktails with oriental flavours

Hong Kong’s mixologist-driven bars are serving more cocktails with oriental flavours, writes Christopher DeWolf

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 10:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 10:35pm

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Asian-inspired cocktails have been around for decades - lychee Martini, Singapore Sling, Mai Tai - and you could be forgiven for thinking that cocktails from here have always been simple, saccharine concoctions. But no more. Hong Kong’s new wave of mixologist-driven bars are pioneering new cocktails that draw from Asia’s vast universe of flavours.

“It’s not just about putting vodka and lychee juice together,” says Alexis Offe, manager of Chôm Chôm, a casual SoHo restaurant inspired by Vietnam’s bia hoi beer halls. “We like to spice up classic cocktails,” he says, with drinks such as the Pho-jito, made with bird’s eye chilli and lemongrass; and the Cay Mia Punch, an exuberant blend of sugarcane-infused vodka, sugarcane juice, wine, lemon, lychee, green apple and orange.

“Ten years ago, I never saw any bars doing Chinese cocktails. Now there are more and more. It’s the way forward,” says Jimmy Chung, the bar manager at Tycoon Tann’s ground-floor Mod Bar, which has a cocktail list that makes use of fresh spices, Chinese spirits and house-infused liquor. Check the cocktail list at many local bars and you’ll find drinks with some Asian twist. Fatty Crab’s menu includes The Vangster, made with tom yum-infused vodka; and Aperol, agave syrup and fresh lime. The Pottinger hotel’s Gradini Bar recently launched Japanese-inspired cocktails such as the Okinawa Twilight, made with sake, ginger awamori, Cointreau and home-made lemon-basil syrup.

Asian ingredients offer restaurants a way to develop cocktails that complement dishes; and for mixologists to experiment with ingredients that are difficult to work with.

“When you talk about Asian ingredients, the first thing that comes to mind is something very pungent, very strong - herbs, spices like cardamom, cinnamon, chilli and floral flavours like osmanthus,” says Maximal Concepts bar manager Lok Gurung, who developed a list of Chineseinspired cocktails for modern Cantonese restaurant Mott 32.

At Tycoon Tann, Chung remembers how much his grandfather loved to drink moutai, so he was eager to do something with Chinese spirits when he was building the drinks menu for the bar, which opened in May.

“Chinese wine is very hard to control because the taste is quite strong and the ABV [alcohol by volume] is high. I really wanted to challenge myself,” he says.

Tycoon Tann’s eponymous house cocktail is a riff on the Negroni, with Hayman’s Gin, Campari, Mancino Rosso sweet vermouth, orange bitters and Hua Diao, a caramel-coloured aged rice wine with a medicinal flavour. “It helps with digestion,” Chung says.

Chinese liquor also finds its way into the Chi Pao, an autumnal mix of Michter’s Rye Whiskey, moutai, apple, cinnamon, egg whites and bitters. Wuliangye, a top-shelf baijiu, is the star ingredient in the Salty Mandarin Lemonade, which pairs it with vodka, fresh mandarin orange, lime, honey and lemonade.

Other cocktails take inspiration from food. The Captain’s Duty is a kind of alcoholic tong shui, with Kraken-spiced rum, home-made taro syrup, star anise, peppercorn and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter bitters, which Chung says help cut the sweetness.

For Suan La Tang, Chung was inspired by tom yum soup to mix gin, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, bird’s eye chillis and coconut water into a spicy, refreshing sundowner. The drink is served in a Chinese soup bowl with a spoon and a lemongrass stalk straw, but Chung says most customers opt to sip it straight from the bowl.

House-infused spirits play a big part in a number of the cocktails: The Yum Cha is a blend of cinnamon gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, lemongrass and a mango, orange and passionfruit tea. Other cocktails feature basilinfused gin, garlic vodka and tangerine peel white rum. The one ingredient Chung avoids is tea. Though it may seem like an obvious choice for Asian-inspired cocktails, he says it can be hard to handle. “I’ve tried some of the cocktails made with tea and it’s very, very bitter,” he says.

At Mott 32, Gurung says the trick to using tea is to avoid infusing it for too long. “Tea and gin go really well because of the botanicals in the gin, but you have to be careful, because if you infuse it for too long, the bitterness comes out and ruins your drink,” he says.

Gurung recommends infusing tea for no longer than an hour. “Alcohol extracts the flavour really quickly,” he adds.

Gurung got his start in bartending about six years ago, when he used to work at Castro’s in Tsim Sha Tsui. “I used to make a lot of caipirinhas and mojitos,” he says. Now he is responsible for the drinks at all of Maximal Concepts’ restaurants, including Blue Butcher, Brickhouse and Limewood. For Mott 32, he wanted to use ingredients that play off the restaurant’s menu of classic Chinese dishes.

“I did a lot of homework,” Gurung says.

The result: cocktails such as the Anna Wong, made with 25-year-old tangerine peel, and the Hanami, a mix of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Tanqueray gin, umeshu, yuzu liqueur and ginger beer stirred with a shiso leaf and served with dried chrysanthemum in an oversized Burgundy wine glass. The drink’s bright citrus flavour is cradled in the smooth sweetness of the bourbon.

The Hanami is Mott 32’s best-selling drink, but Gurung seems most excited by the 1851, a new cocktail that involves Wenjun baijiu, Tanqueray gin, Bénédictine (a French herbal liqueur), osmanthus honey, elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice and grapefruit bitters. After mixing the drink, Gurung pours it into a tulip-shaped glass with a long serving spout, torches a cinnamon stick and orange peel for aroma and then covers everything with a glass dome. He then uses a smoke machine to pump osmanthus smoke into the dome, enveloping the drink in a thick, pungent haze.

The smoke is a novel touch, lingering in flavour long after it has dissipated from the air. But for Gurung, the cocktail’s highlight is the baijiu. “With just a small bar spoon of that, it gives so much character to the drink,” he says.

Until recently, it’s not something many bartenders would consider putting in their cocktails, but the same could be said of many Asian ingredients. “There’s so much flavour to play around with,” Gurung says.