A view from the city: Hong Kong

20 December, 2018

Hamish Smith speaks to Charlene Dawes, owner of Tastings Group

Tell us a little about the history of your city’s drinking culture. What are the traditional drinks and how are things changing?

The city’s drinking scene has changed dramatically in the past 10-15 years. We were heavy on cognac and fine wines in the past and now more attention is placed on cocktails with bartender-driven bars and restaurants offering great cocktails. Hong Kong is a very adaptable city with the young generation, which is extremely curious and open minded to try new things. This allows bar owners and bartenders to be more adventurous in what they offer.

How advanced is cocktail culture in Hong Kong – what are the trends and styles of cocktails?

We are seeing more smaller-scale cocktail bars opening with a focus on a particular style of cocktails or type of spirits. This shows that customers are becoming more particular about what they like and finding places that could offer a unique experience. Jay Khan’s COA is an example of a speciality bar offering great tequila and mezcals. Also, more bars are using advanced techniques such as clarification and redistillation to achieve better results.

Who and what are the pioneer bartenders and bars?

The recently closed Lily & Bloom American restaurant was definitely one of the first craft cocktail bars in thecity, leading the way for others to join its path. Pioneers such as Antonio Lai and Agung Prabowo have contributed to shaping Hong Kong’s bar scene, allowing newcomers to be more experimental.

Where do you think the city ranks in terms of bar scenes in Asia? Is it leading the way with Singapore and Tokyo? How does it compare in style?

Singapore has always been a competitor to Hong Kong, from the financial markets to the dining and drinking scene. We are fortunate enough to have four seasons, so our cocktail offering can change throughout the year. Hong Kong bars are very concentrated with a lot to offer in one small area, while Tokyo is more spread out and traditional.

Do you feel like cocktail consumption is at an all-time high?

Yes definitely so. Cocktails are no longer just offered in bars but in different types of restaurants and in fine-dining scenarios. Chefs and bartenders are increasingly working together to create cocktail pairings for tasting menus, pushing the boundaries of cocktail consumption.

What are the challenges the city’s bartenders/bar owners face?

Finding good talent and building a team is definitely one of the challenges we face in the city. Hong Kong is an expensive city to live in and the younger generation is eager to enter the industry but finding it hard to survive on the entry-level positions. They often have to change industry to get higher pay. But it’s equally hard for bar owners to afford the high rent and labour costs, so a lot of cocktail bars don’t make it past the two-year mark.

Who made you the best cocktail you’ve had in Hong Kong?

I think the best cocktail is more about the bartender understanding my palate and Samuel Kwok from Quinary does the job well. I often have one last drink before going home and that’s my last stop. He knows how to complete my day.

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