DRINKS: HIDE & SEEK

Chan­nel­ing the ex­clu­siv­ity of the speakeasy era, Hong Kong’s coolest bars hap­pen to be the hard­est to find

Revolution (Hong Kong) - - CONTENTS - TEXT BY Kate Springer

Five years ago, find­ing a de­cent cock­tail usu­ally meant a visit to your fa­vorite ho­tel bar. But in just a few short years, the city has seen a pro­fu­sion of cock­tail spots crop up on ev­ery cor­ner, most in­dis­tin­guish­able from the next.

Amidst the crowd, a few drink­ing es­tab­lish­ments have cho­sen to re­turn to an ear­lier time, when a great night out re­quired dis­cre­tion – not to men­tion a lit­tle ef­fort. Led by the likes of 001 cock­tail bar on Gra­ham Street, and Ping Pong Gin­ton­ería in Sai Ying Pun, new speakeasy-style bars are hid­ing them­selves in plain sight, making the hunt part of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

In the past, speakeasies have been as­so­ci­ated with the Amer­i­can pro­hi­bi­tion of the 1920’s, re­fer­ring to a venue that served al­co­hol il­le­gally and, there­fore, had to be ex­tremely dis­creet. Usu­ally, a speakeasy would re­quire knowledge of a pass­word or have a se­cret en­trance, cre­at­ing a mys­te­ri­ous, mem­bers-only at­mos­phere.

But in­stead of bath­tub gin and moon­shine, qual­ity hid­den bars in Hong Kong serve up mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences, from unique en­trances and decor to pre­mium la­bels, hand-crafted in­gre­di­ents and well-groomed bar­tenders. And in a town of unas­sum­ing tong laus and com­mer­cial build­ings, there’s no dearth of hid­ing spots.

De­signed for dis­cre­tion

You don’t just walk into J.Boroski; opened last fall, this so­phis­ti­cated ad­dress pro­vides a phone num­ber on­line, which you can call for reser­va­tions. And once you’re in, you’re in – you’ll be granted ac­cess and wel­comed as one of the ex­clu­sive guests who seek it out.

With a bit of ef­fort, tip­plers will find J.Boroski down an un­marked al­ley­way off Pot­tinger Street, hid­den un­der a raw steel con­struc­tion rig, be­hind a heavy wooden door. “I don’t re­fer to J. Boroski as a speakeasy, I never have – but I wanted the bar to be less promi­nently dis­played,” ex­plains Amer­i­can mixol­o­gist Joseph Boroski, who runs an epony­mous bar and bar­tend­ing school in Bangkok. “The goal is to get the guest who is look­ing for a cer­tain type of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And what might that be? Dis­cov­ery, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and a bit of whimsy. De­signed by the wholly un­pre­dictable Ash­ley Sut­ton – of Iron Fairies and Ophe­lia fame – J. Boroski is nei­ther here nor there. Af­ter all, it’s hard to cat­e­go­rize a bar where all the drinks are cus­tom cre­ated based on your per­sonal whims. Harder still, when said bar is metic­u­lously dec­o­rated with rows of pre­served bee­tles and a spi­der col­lec­tion.

The main event, though, is the teak­wood bar, where care­fully placed spot­lights show­case the care­ful, near sci­en­tific, con­struc­tion of each cock­tail. “The tools and the in­gre­di­ents are right up on the bar where the guest sits,” says Boroski. “It’s a much closer, in­ti­mate and ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence for peo­ple, which is why it has that slightly se­cre­tive el­e­ment to it, be­cause I want peo­ple to be search­ing for, or to want this type of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Qual­ity over quan­tity

An em­pha­sis on qual­ity is a hall­mark of the best hid­den bars. Af­ter all, half the fun is the dis­cov­ery of an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that no one else knows about. As such, you will rarely find cheap beers on tap, but rather rare whiskies and pres­ti­gious co­gnacs, pa­tiently stirred Old Fash­ioneds, and chilled Man­hat­tans.

And when it comes to new dis­cov­er­ies, Bar De Luxe sets the bar high. Tucked away in­side an of­fice build­ing on Wyn­d­ham Street, Cen­tral the Ja­panese bar is part of At­tire House, a gen­tle­man life­style con­cept that in­cludes an ap­parel and bar­ber­shop on the 29th floor. To the left, a dis­creet stair­well awaits. A short climb to the top re­veals a pent­house bar with panoramic views of the city.

Helmed by Hidet­sugu Ueno – owner of Bar High Five in Tokyo – ev­ery­thing at Bar De Luxe lives up to its name, start­ing with a short­list of spe­cialty cock­tails. Look for a few fa­vorites from Bar High Five, plus a hand­ful of new con­coc­tions made by Ueno’s pro­tégé Yuriko Na­ganuma, who is per­ma­nently based in Hong Kong.

“We worked with Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Jin Hi­daka on the dé­cor again [also be­hind Bar High Five] be­cause we were look­ing for an old-world at­mos­phere that felt like a hand­some pri­vate club,” says Ueno.

It’s safe to say they suc­ceeded. El­e­gant and invit­ing, the long wooden bar en­ables guests to watch a sus­pender-clad Na­ganuma metic­u­lously pour and mix ev­ery drink. From the sought-af­ter Black Ne­groni to The Hid­den Gem, each cock­tail ar­rives in ra­zor-thin glass­ware ac­com­pa­nied by home­made canapés.

Elu­sive and ex­clu­sive

If you as­so­ciate the word “speakeasy” with pre­mium in­gre­di­ents and tuxedo-clad wait­ers, then Fox­glove will be right up your al­ley. From start to fin­ish, the ex­pe­ri­ence trans­ports tip­plers to an era of old-world lux­ury.

You’ll find the en­trance in the most Bri­tish of places: a lux­ury um­brella shop. Aptly named Fox Um­brel­las, the shop is fully op­er­a­tional and does in­deed sell beau­ti­fully made um­brel­las – but for those in the know, there’s some­thing more hap­pen­ing be­hind through the door at the back of the shop.

Ask for Fox­glove, and the door opens into a 1950s-era jazz bar that’s de­signed to look and feel like a lux­u­ri­ous air­plane cabin. There’s a 1940s Gloster jet en­gine in the main bar – plus black-and-white tiled floors, brass fix­tures and comfy leather chairs.

No mat­ter where you sit, you can en­joy nightly jazz per­for­mances and easy ac­cess to an an­tique mar­tini cart stocked with pre­mium spir­its, such as Za­capa 23-year rum, Hine co­gnac, Four Fox Sake, and green pep­per-in­fused Four Pil­lars dry gin.

Fit­tingly, the cock­tail menu is or­ga­nized by eras – which means you can taste-test li­ba­tions in­spired by “The Golden Age” of bold Amer­i­can fla­vors or pay an “Homage to Pro­hi­bi­tion” with spirit-for­ward cock­tails, like the Ne­groni or the Em­pire Boule­vardier.

A SO­PHIS­TI­CATED ES­CAPE

Over in Wan Chai, an­other Ja­panese speakeasy in­vites well-healed tip­plers to tra­verse Lockhart Road come night­fall. Tucked away in a dingy com­mer­cial build­ing, Mizu­nara: The Li­brary is a postage-stamp­sized bar that feels like it could have been airlifted out of Ginza.

“The in­ten­tion is not to hide or be hid­den, rather to let our guests seek us out. There is an el­e­ment of dis­cov­ery com­bined with the in­ten­tion to of­fer some­thing spe­cial, unique and per­haps some­what un­ex­pected to our guests,” says bar­tender-in-chief and award-win­ning mixol­o­gist Masahiko Endo. “We looked at sev­eral lo­ca­tions, but this one cap­tured our imag­i­na­tion in terms of our abil­ity to ex­e­cute the vi­sion for Mizu­nara – an ‘oa­sis’ in the con­crete jun­gle of Hong Kong.”

This zen den is all about spe­cialty cock­tails, fine whisky, cigars, and in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions – be it in the Ja­panese gar­den on the ter­race or on a stool at the name­sake mizu­nara wood (Ja­panese oak) bar. “We are fo­cused on de­liv­er­ing our own unique way of Ja­panese hospi­tal­ity to our guests,” adds Endo. “We pay a lot of at­ten­tion to small de­tails in­clud­ing the whole process of making the drink and we think our quiet, peace­ful and re­laxed am­bi­ence al­lows our guests to rec­og­nize and en­joy those lit­tle de­tails.”

Endo has stock­piled more than 700 whiskies from lesser known dis­til­leries across Ja­pan and Scot­land, ready to be served neat or poured over hand-chis­eled ice spheres. Pas­sion­ate about of­fer­ing rare ex­pe­ri­ences, Mizu­nara: The Li­brary has also re­leased two pri­vate bot­tlings un­der its own Mizu­nara La­bel: a sin­gle-cask 15-year Sherry Hogshead from Ar­ran, in Scot­land, and a bour­bon bar­rel-aged, heav­ily peated sin­gle-cask whisky from Mars Shin­shu Dis­tillery in Ja­pan.

What’s in a name

As most al­co­hol was pro­duced or trans­ported il­le­gally dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion, there wasn’t much cause for pomp and cir­cum­stance. Bar decor would have been raw, and drinks strong.

Tak­ing a tip from all-Amer­i­can speakeasy stylings, I Know John throws it back with a more low-key ex­pe­ri­ence. As the bar’s name im­plies, you should ‘know John’ to get in, but in re­al­ity, you sim­ply need to push open the bar’s big metal door, on the ninth floor of The Loop build­ing in Cen­tral.

The wa­ter­ing hole is home to a mix of in­dus­trial and rus­tic fea­tures, with a few nods to the Pro­hi­bi­tion era. Look for a long list of whiskies, a worn-look­ing tim­ber bar, leather sofas, and a menu of ar­ti­sanal char­cu­terie and cheese.

But don’t ex­pect a lineup of all the usual sus­pects when it comes to drinks – the cock­tails here di­verge from tra­di­tion, tak­ing a no­madic ap­proach to fla­vors. Ex­per­i­men­tal cock­tails like the “Wal­ter’s Blue” – made of Char­treuse, pas­sion fruit, vanilla syrup, Thai chili, aro­matic bit­ters and egg white – pay a cheeky trib­ute to pop­u­lar cult TV show “Break­ing Bad,” while the Koko Spritz will kick-start that spring detox with ac­ti­vated co­conut char­coal.

Of course, if you’re crav­ing a blast from the past, the bar­tenders at IKJ can whip you up an “Old and Fash­ioned” on re­quest – just ask John to hook you up.

The team at J.Boroski are at the ready to whip up cus­tom cock­tails

Head to Bar De Luxe for care­fully crafted cock­tails by Hidet­sugu Ueno and his tal­ented team

Cock­tail hour at Fox­glove is a ver­i­ta­ble jour­ney through time

mizu­nara: the li­brary may be small in size but of­fers an ex­ten­sive range of fine whiskies

Don’t let the tra­di­tional speakeasy aes­thet­ics throw you - the cock­tails at I Know John are any­thing but con­ven­tional

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