Hong Kong's cocktail scene gets an added buzz with a creative new batch of coffee-based drinks

Bartenders and baristas around the city are brewing up coffee cocktails with unusual spirits and flavours, writes Christopher deWolf

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm

Saunter up to an Italian coffee bar, and you might overhear something odd: a fellow customer ordering an espresso "corrected." What they mean is they want a splash of booze in their coffee - usually grappa, but sometimes sambuca, brandy or rum.

"It's not something you do in the morning just after you wake up," says Sardinia-born, Hong Kong-based artist Alessandro Carboni. "It's great after a big meal."

It's the perfect segue into the night: two kinds of buzz playing off one another. It's the same reason espresso martinis and Irish coffees are reliable standbys at many bars. But only recently have bartenders begun to push the limits of what a coffee cocktail can be, using spirits and other ingredients to play off the complex flavours of a good roast, taking drinkers down unfamiliar paths.

Even baristas, who are normally aghast at adulterating their brews, are playing the role of mixologist. One of the latest trends to hit speciality coffee shops around the world is the espresso fizz, an improbable yet delicious mixture of coffee and tonic water that was pioneered by Koppi, an influential roaster in Sweden. In New York, a coffee cocktail trend has been quietly brewing over the past few years, with drinks such as coffee Negronis - one version adds cold brew to the standard ingredients, while others infuse the vermouth with coffee - and affogato boozed up with pisco and amaro.

There are signs the trend has washed up on these shores. "I really think a coffee cocktail can round out a cocktail menu, because it adds something that isn't fruit- or spirit-based," says Ryan Nightingale, who runs Ham & Sherry's Back Bar.

He has added the Pineapple Espresso to his menu, which is a mix of espresso, coffee liqueur, pineapple agave and bee pollen-infused tequila. "Bee pollen is a cool ingredient, and this drink came to me after sipping on lots of coffee in a cafe that also did a ton of healthy smoothies," Nightingale says.

"Tequila is such an earthy and vegetal spirit, and the pollen really smooths it out, making it slide right into the coffee flavours."

Local coffee roaster 18 Grams has opened the Roastery Lab, a licensed cafe in Wan Chai with a suite of coffee-based cocktails. "We've always wanted to do something like this," says 18 Grams director John So.

His partner, Kammie Hui, is a judge at the annual World Coffee in Good Spirits Competition, where bartenders and baristas from around the world compete to create the best caffeinated booze. "Our general philosophy is not to overpower the coffee - the coffee has to be the main character in the drink," So says.

That's true in the Roastery Lab's star concoction, a nitrogenated cold-brew coffee mixed with a rotating blend of spirits. Making the drink is a complicated process. First, coffee is steeped in cold water for up to two days, then kegged and infused with nitrogen. When it is poured from a tap, the nitrogen gives the coffee the same cascading effect as a pint of Guinness, not to mention the same creamy feel in the mouth. The Roastery Lab's spirit blend is added last - a recent incarnation has mixed blended Scotch whisky with banana liqueur, which produced a subtle sweetness that played well against the nutty, roasted character of the coffee.

So says the Roastery Lab's cocktails use a medium-roast blend, with a more traditional character than the bright, fruity light roasts that are popular in many speciality coffee shops.

"It's like if you drink it with milk, the espresso needs to cut through," he says. "If you put something in a fruity or floral coffee, you'll lose those flavours."

Aside from the nitro cold brew, Roastery Lab is playing it safe with classic coffee cocktails such as Irish coffee. There are also some interesting non-alcoholic beverages like a sparkling espresso mixed with a syrup derived from cascara, a tea made with dried coffee fruit.

But So sees potential for future innovation: "There are so many things you can play with," he says.

In Sheung Wan, NEO Cocktail Club has taken that adventurous spirit to heart. Tucked away inside a semi-basement space on leafy Shin Hing Street, the bar's décor is a cheeky take on a 1980s dive bar, with vintage arcade games and an equal mix of exposed concrete and wood panelling.

The cocktails are similarly oddball: the Express Polaroid is a far-fetched blend of espresso, coffee liqueur, tonic syrup and ghee-infused dark rum, served with a Polaroid garnish - non-edible, but certainly memorable.

"We get a lot of requests for espresso martinis, so I tend to recommend this instead - it's more interesting," says bar manager Mariel Gomez. "Espresso martinis are vodka-based, and it's a punchy flavour. Rum is more complex."

That's true for the ghee buttered rum, which is made by melting Indian-style clarified butter in a pot of Plantation Original Dark Rum from Trinidad. Mixed into the cocktail, the result is beguiling. A rich, musky flavour from the ghee lingers over the molasses notes of the dark rum, punctuated by the bitterness of the coffee and the quinine-inflected sweetness of the tonic syrup.

Not far away, at Chachawan on Hollywood Road, bar manager Chalermpol Promkerdkid whips up a similarly intricate melange called the Thai Coffee Shake, although its character is less experimental and more comfort food. Chalermpol starts with sweet milk coffee made with condensed milk and Thai Mokona beans, then adds Blackwell Jamaican rum and Merlet C2, a Cognac-based coffee liqueur.

After shaking it with ice, he tops it off with a thick foam infused with masala chai. "If you just use coffee liqueur, all you get is sweetness. This has more layers of flavour," he says. "The fun part is when you stir in the chai tea foam."

Chalermpol says he drinks iced Thai coffee at least once a day - par for the course in his native Thailand. But when he's feeling decadent, he'll put his own spin on the recipe. "I usually add some good Scotch," he says.


BACK BAR, HAM & SHERRY 1-7 Ship Street, Wan Chai, tel: 2555 0628 hamandsherry.hk

18 GRAMS ROASTERY LAB 10 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2520 5100 18grams.com

NEO COCKTAIL CLUB 10 Shin Hing Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2812 2280 neocc.hk

CHACHAWAN 206 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, tel: 2549 0020 facebook.com/chachawan.hongkong