Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Antonio Lai, Hong Kong's number one bartender, describes his drinks as “multisensory mixology”. “With a smoke cocktail, you can see the smoke, taste the smoke, smell the smoke,” he says. “It's a really multisensory experience and that's why we call it multisensory.”
Hong Kong born and raised, Lai has worked all over the world: Singapore, Malaysia, Beijing, Japan, Germany and Paris. But, although he now co-owns five bars, he never consciously decided to be a bartender.
“I wasn't good at school, so instead of keeping studying and wasting my parents' money, I decided to go to hospitality training when I was 16,” he says. “After a year studying I got a job as a server. I saw the bartenders working and thought they looked cool throwing bottles so I asked for an internal transfer to bartender.”
Hong Kong's bar scene has changed beyond recognition since Lai's days flairing at Planet Hollywood in the late 90s, and he has been a big part of that change. Tastings Group, which he co-owns with Charlene Dawes, runs the celebrated molecular joint Quinary, hotel bar The Envoy, gin bar Origin, tasting restaurant-cum-bar Vea and whisky bar Angel's Share. Quinary, with its post-industrial look and other-worldly drinks, is a fixture on lists of the world's best bars.
Lai was inspired to multisensory mixology by Dario Comini of Nottingham Forest, whose book he picked up on a trip to Italy. Yet his bartending reached new levels after Spike Marchant and Angus Winchester suggested he apply for an apprenticeship with Tony Conigliaro's Drink Factory in London.
“I went there for two weeks to learn more advanced techniques such as rotavapor distillation, slow-cook process, vacuum and sous-vide,” he says. “A lot of my knowledge is learned from that.”
His apprenticeship, which he considers training rather than working, also provided the motivation to open Quinary. “I helped Charlene create the cocktail menu for the whisky bar but I'd finished my apprenticeship with Tony so I was looking for someone who was able to buy the equipment that would allow me to create more interesting drinks,” he recalls. Charlene proposed they just open the bar.
Molecular mixology is often perceived as fiddly and time-consuming. But, while Lai's drinks take at least one month and often three months to perfect, he's proud to say that every single cocktail on Quinary's menu can be produced within 90 seconds once the bar is set up correctly. This high-volume bar turns out at least 800 of its signature Earl Grey Caviar Martinis every month, so speed is key.
A perfectionist to the core, Lai goes the extra distance to get his recipes exactly right. For a Leather Old-Fashioned, created for the shoemakers Lobb, he worked with different samples of leather to get the infusion correct. He made a tea preparation over and over with recipes ranging from 25 grammes to 34 grammes of tea “just to see the differences”. Even a witty gimmick like a sambuca toothpaste takes time to perfect.
Besides the bars, Lai is active in the bartending community. He's been to “at least eight” different countries so far this year, presenting at events from Asia to Mexico: his wife now manages his schedule.
Unusually for someone who's already written two books and routinely presents at bar shows, Lai still participates in cocktail competitions – he won Diageo's World Class Hong Kong event last year and is eyeing Bacardi Legacy for next year.
“I like the challenge,” he says. “And every time we do competitions you meet a lot of good people, people who are willing to share... the people you meet are some of the best in the world.”
There will be no new bars for Tastings Group this year. The focus, instead, is on their bespoke cocktail service and catering company, creating custom drinks for high-end brands in Hong Kong.
“They give us an idea, like 'This is our autumn clothes launch event' and we create something related,” he says. “It's a bespoke, custom service to give a different service for the customer.” It's perhaps the perfect outlet for one of Asia's most creative bartenders.
How to Make the Earl Grey Caviar Martini
Make the Caviar Mix
32g Earl Grey tea
1l Hot water
100ml Sugar syrup
Brew tea in hot water for 30 minutes. Strain out tea leaves and mix in sugar syrup.
Prepare the Algin Water Bath
Blend together and mix well.
Make the Caviar
Draw up a generous amount of caviar mix into a syringe or caviar maker. Empty droplets into algin water bath and allow to set for 10-20 seconds. Strain caviar from water bath and scoop into martini glass, ready for use.
Prepare the Earl Grey Foam
10g Earl Grey tea
1l Hot water
Brew tea in hot water. Strain out tea leaves and add lecithin. Mix well. Lower a small air pump into the liquid and allow foam to form. Scoop up with slotted spoon to serve.
Prepare the Drink
45ml Ketel One Citroen vodka
10ml Cointreau orange liqueur
15ml Elderflower syrup
20ml Clear red apple juice
5ml Freshly squeezed lemon juice
5ml Freshly squeezed lime juice
1 piece Cucumber
Method: MUDDLE the cucumber in the base of a mixing glass. Add other ingredients, SHAKE well with ice and strain into martini glass. TOP with Earl Grey tea caviar and Earl Grey tea foam.
Bar owner & bartender