DRINKS: HIDE & SEEK
Channeling the exclusivity of the speakeasy era, Hong Kong’s coolest bars happen to be the hardest to find
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