Imagine this: you’re sitting on a terrace overlooking the water, bathed in the buttery glow of the late afternoon sun. In front of you is an Aperol spritz, orange slice tucked between chunks of ice, its sultry red hue the very embodiment of summer.
Or how about this? It’s a sweltering August afternoon, one of those Hong Kong days when walking feels more like swimming. You take refuge on the verandah of a colonial-style bar, ceiling fans swirling overhead, and order a gin and tonic. It arrives ice cold, sweating in its glass, sweet enough to refresh but bitter enough to take the edge off the heat.
More than any other season, summer lends itself to cocktails - and they don’t necessarily need to be hot weather classics. This summer, many Hong Kong bars are rolling out special offerings, including some unusual concoctions.
“As we know, Hong Kong in summer is very hot and humid, so a great cocktail needs to be refreshing and light,” says Simone Rossi, bar manager for Aqua Roma, Aqua Tokyo and Aqua Spirit. “It needs to quench a thirst while still exciting the taste buds - and of course, [it has to be] ‘Insta-worthy’.”
Rossi’s new line-up of summer cocktails is indeed Instagram friendly, presented with theatrical panache. At Aqua, which serves Italian and Japanese cuisine, the Japanese Garden is wrapped in floral-patterned chiyogami paper, while the #NoFilter is nestled in a handwoven basket.
Social media aside, other Hong Kong bartenders agree that summer cocktails should be light-bodied and easy-going. The Iron Fairies, Ashley Sutton’s mine-inspired new bar in Central, has introduced two new cocktails for the summer, the Watermelon Daiquiri and Smoked in the Bottle No. 1.
“A good summer cocktail should be refreshing and light but still have a kick,” says bar manager Eli Homawoo. “It should have a balanced blend of flavour from the first taste that leaves you wanting more. A good summer cocktail should not be heavy or aggressive and basically leave you feeling good.”
Bright flavours predominate at buzzy rooftop bar Cé La Vi, whose summer menu includes the Roosevelt, named for Franklin D., and made with gin, Luxardo Maraschino cherry liqueur, pink grapefruit juice, dry white vermouth and cherry bitters. “I wanted to create something elegant and dedicated to gin which has soft tones but also holds a strong backbone - similar to that of Roosevelt himself,” says bar manager Reeve Yip.
The Tom Collins-inspired Skydeck Swizzle is another twist on a classic, made with Tanqueray No. 10 gin, prune eau de vie, lemon, lavender and soda. “I found that aged prune eau de vie is pretty interesting to play with - the outcome was very exciting.”
Being light and refreshing doesn’t mean summer cocktails should shy away from strong or unusual flavours, however. Like the sweet-sour notes of an Aperol spritz, or the quinine punch of a gin and tonic, the best summer tipples are refreshing but with a memorable twist. At Second Draft, a Tai Hang beer, wine and cocktail bar, bar manager Jack Byrne has introduced a number of drinks made with unexpected ingredients.
“Despite trying to keep the body of drinks light, I still like to introduce strong flavours - we really like to play with nostalgic Chinese ingredients,” he says. “Fruity flavours such as strawberry bond very well with peppery flavours or spice.”
One of his latest drinks is Thyme After Time, a riff on a Bloody Mary that includes fresh strawberries, vodka, dried thyme and Yu Kwan Yick chili sauce. “It does really well on Saturdays and Sundays during brunch because it switches out the harsh saltiness and full body that comes with most ‘Mary’ cocktails for a much more gentle and fruit driven drink that still kicks,” he says.
Some of Byrne’s other creations include the Chen Pei Negroni, which combines Ford’s Gin, Rinomato, Cinzano 1757 vermouth and bitter, fragrant chun pei peels. The cocktail is then aged in clay pots for two days. Also on the menu is the Bing Sutt Shake, a blend of Irish whiskey, honey, condensed milk and tea, crowned by a toasted marshmallow. “If cha chaan tengs did milkshakes, we’re pretty sure this is how it would be done,” Byrne says.
Another novelty is the Siu Yeh Sour, a variation on a margarita, which is made with reposado tequila, lime juice, agave syrup, dried cloves and Young Master Ales’ Cha Chaan Teng Gose, a light, sour beer made with salted preserved limes. “I found that beer was always a tricky one to work with,” says Byrne, but he eventually realised that by gently warming it, the carbonation disappears and it can be more successfully incorporated into cocktails.
“Once you begin to understand different styles and their flavour profiles, beers like saison, hefeweizen or even sours like gose work perfectly in summer drinks and can add a very unique complexion to cocktails that many people haven’t experienced before,” he says.
Smoke is another counter-intuitive ingredient that is making its way into summer tipples. Both Aqua and The Iron Fairies feature smoky cocktails on their summer menus. Aqua’s #NoFilter includes smoked lapsang souchong tea and spicy Fever Tree ginger beer. “This is a wonderful combination that is very unexpected and bursting with energy,” Rossi says.
Over at Iron Fairies, Smoke in the Bottle No. 1 “may appear heavy at first glance especially with the effect of the smoked herbs”, Homawoo says. “But it is in fact quite refreshing and unique in its layered blend.” The cocktail is made with house-infused blueberry vodka, cassis liqueur, grilled coco nibs, elderflower and sage syrup, and injected with smoke just before serving.
When it comes to his own summer drinking habits, Rossi likes to keep things simple. “A cold beer by the beach is always a go-to,” he says. But he does have a favourite summer cocktail: Aqua’s new Matcha Colada, inspired by the classic piña colada. “This cocktail is light, with a sweet fruit finish, balanced off by the earthy flavour of matcha,” he says. Perfect for a long, hot afternoon in the sun.
Aqua is at 29/F, 1 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.
The Iron Fairies is at L/G, 1 Hollywood Road, Central.
Second Draft is at 98 Tung Lo Wan Road, Tai Hang.
This article was originally published in Good Eating