Hong Kong bartenders revive simpler, carefree era of cocktails

More bartenders are looking to create an atmosphere in which customers can feel at home

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 1:59pm

One night, about two years ago, three bartenders got together over drinks and decided to open a bar of their own. Roman Ghale, Agung Prabowo and James Tamang had all worked together at MO Bar before moving on to other hotels. They felt it was time to do something else. “We wanted to open a place where people could feel at home,” Tamang says.

After stumbling across an old Shanghai barbershop in an alleyway behind Bridges Street in Sheung Wan, the trio pooled their money, waited until the lease was up and converted the 1,000 sq ft hideaway into The Old Man, a bar dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. Each cocktail on the menu is derived from one of the classics enjoyed by the peripatetic writer as he drank his way through Paris, Spain, Key West in Florida and Cuba.

They took an unconventional approach to the bar’s layout. Inspired by the communal tables in the cafe where Ghale, Prabowo and Tamang met to refine their ideas, there is a single T-shaped counter, with no barriers between the customers and bartenders. “We wanted to host people the way you would host a guest at home,” Tamang says.

Just down the street, Jack Byrne wanted a similarly easy-going atmosphere at MEATS, a protein-heavy outpost from the fast-expanding Pirata Group. “I’m usually someone who tries to put function before aesthetics,” he says. “Everything’s quite carefree and easy-going – easy to make and easy to drink.”

As cocktails have become increasingly complex and expensive – the liquid equivalent of fine dining – more and more bartenders are looking to create a less fussy, less ostentatious atmosphere for their customers. “The cocktails we as an industry have been introducing the past few years have been complex and sometimes ego-driven,” American bartender Russell Davis recently told Observer Magazine. “But now, we are beginning to focus on the treatment of the actual ingredients, instead of complicating things with baby tears and unicorn sweat.”

We’re just simple guys. We like being straightforward with the guests – making cocktails, catching up. That’s all
Roman Ghale, a founder of The Old Man

That’s a philosophy shared by Saheb Ambekar, head bartender at Kennedy Town pizza parlour Alvy’s. “I always appreciate mixology,” he says. “It’s like art. But sometimes you just want a nice good drink with quality ingredients, without that mixology feel. In Central, a lot of places sell cocktails for HK$140 or more, but for me that’s too much.” Most of Alvy’s offerings hover around HK$90 or HK$100.

His menu puts on a spin on classic cocktails, with a focus on American whiskey and the bittersweet Italian liqueurs known as amari. “I try to pair all of these and keep things interesting,” Ambekar says. He makes an Old Fashioned with bourbon, rye and Cognac, and his Major Woody is a twist on the Boulevardier, made with rye, sweet vermouth, Campari and Cynar, an artichoke liqueur. “It’s so vegetal but it’s got a sweetness that balances everything,” he says.

At MEATS, Byrne has created his own version of classics. He describes the new Fruits of Labour as a cross between a Manhattan and a Martinez. It’s made with Laird’s Applejack brandy, Poire William pear liqueur, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and a few dashes of Regan’s orange bitters. “The apple flavour really comes through,” he says. “It’s a good, strong after-dinner cocktail.”

When it opened last summer, MEATS had just three classic cocktails on its menu, but Byrne is gradually expanding the offering with more drinks like Fruits of Labour. The approach is still as straightforward as before, though: cocktails are offered in three price brackets – HK$80, HK$120 and HK$140 – and made with a limited range of spirits such as Ford’s gin and Diplomático white rum. “There was the cocktail boom around the world and everyone was using these really cool and crazy, sometimes unpronounceable, ingredients in their drinks,” he says. “It was a really cool time but then it reached a level of saturation. People got tired of snobbiness and the wow factor. I like things to be quite basic and I think a lot of customers like that as well. It’s about not being afraid of going back to simpler times.”

That doesn’t mean doing away with innovation. Byrne still works with infusions to give his cocktails an edge – he thinks tequila and lavender are a good match – and the same is true at Alvy’s, where Ambekar is working on a bacon-infused bourbon.

The gang at The Old Man take things even further. For them, a lack of pretence means stripping away ostentation while still managing to surprise their customers. “The drinks do not look fancy,” Tamang says. They are not presented with a theatrical flourish and there are no extravagant garnishes. But a look at the menu – all of whose cocktails are HK$120 or less – reveals some sophisticated combinations of flavours.

Most of the house cocktails are based on one of Hemingway’s favourite drinks. Papa Doble is “like a clear Daiquiri”, Tamang says, but it is made with pineapple-infused rum, clarified pink grapefruit and Maraschino cherry liqueur infused with jalapeño. “It’s complex, with a long finish and a spicy note,” he says. Green Hills of Africa is a savoury twist on a pisco sour, with rosemary-infused pisco, turmeric and tamarind cordial and lime.

Some drinks go in even more adventurous directions. To make The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a lively-looking pink concoction, Tamang infuses London Dry Gin with marshmallows, then mixes it with raspberries lacto-fermented for five days. He tops it with shaved Gruyère cheese just before serving. “We were thinking of how well Champagne goes with cheese,” he says. The nutty notes of the cheese pairs remarkably well with the sweet, sour and funky flavours of the gin and raspberries.”

That may sound wonky, but everything about The Old Man is designed to put customers at ease, from the portrait of Hemingway made of construction scraps to the modest collection of spirits, displayed on shelves along the wall rather than in an altar-like display behind the bar. “We’re just simple guys,” Ghale says. “We like being straightforward with the guests. That’s all.”