Meet Your Mixologist: Antonio Lai of Quinary Bar Hong Kong
Antonio Lai is one of the liquid luminaries setting the bars ablaze in Hong Kong. Influenced by the molecular movement, Lai took a page out of food pioneer Ferran Ardia's El Bulli book with his scientific take on mixology. His signature multi-sensory mixology is his sensory driven approach to drinks as he sets out to engage all five senses of his guests each night with his cocktail concoctions. We caught up with the maverick mixologist at his home cocktail spot, Quinary Bar, in the Central District of Hong Kong.
You reference Ferrán Adriá and El Bulli a lot. How has El Bulli affected your approach to cocktail making?
Antonio Lai: I've spent a lot of time studying and trying to understand how they come up with their ideas. Thinking like a chef helps in the development of my cocktails. Their methods and ideas helped me to make my cocktails better by improving on all the visual, taste and texture, just like El Bulli's food.
What was it that drew you to molecular gastronomy and mixology? I think it was the "wow" factor to start with. Again the more understanding that I had with the methods and ideas, the more I realized that it's not the only element. The wow factor is an added bonus. The most important thing is to make a good cocktail that the customer enjoys.
How is molecular mixology different than what you call multisensory mixology?
Molecular is everything that appears on earth, such as water, earth and the air we breathe. The term is very wide, but multisensory is more suitable, focusing on the taste, the smell, visuals, texture and even the sound of a cocktail being made.
Can you walk me through a sensory experience with one of your drinks and how it is experienced through the senses?
Imagine if a cocktail could bring out a memory from your childhood, such as a bubblegum cocktail. It is so much fun. Or a smoke cocktail that you could taste, smell and see how the smoke flows. This is multisensory and that is what I truly believe in.
What local ingredients do you use that make the drinks specific to the Hong Kong or the Asian market?
There are more than a few. I love using fresh wasabi, lemongrass, oolong tea. It reflects that I am a local bartender, showing a strong Asian influence. Since we are very close to our local wet markets, it's great to explore what's fresh and available. Hong Kong is such an international city, we have many visitors and foreigners that love to see the Asian ingredients in their cocktails. At Quinary, we have our own re-distilled lemongrass gin, which is one of the best-selling bespoke drinks on the menu.
What is your favorite drink that you created?
My all-time favorite, hands down, is the Earl Grey Caviar Martini. This is also the first drink I created using the multisensory mixology methods. Both the earl grey air and caviar create a massive "wow" factor as well as tasting very good. I used that cocktail at a competition in Shanghai two years ago and I won the championship. This is a classic example of using the MM methods to enhance the texture, aroma, taste and great visual effects as well.
How would you describe the Hong Kong cocktail culture?
The HK cocktail scene has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years. At Drop Bar many years ago, the fruit martini was the biggest hit, as well as Mojitos, which are still best sellers at a lot of bars. In the last two or three years we've seen the shift to more classic cocktails such as the side car, old fashioned, Manhattan, vesper etc. As we are getting more choices with our spirits and liqueurs, more premium cocktails are appearing. Rather than ordering just gin, people are upgrading to Beefeater 24 or Havana 7 years versus house rum. Customers now prefer to drink less, but better drinks with better ingredients.
How would you compare Hong Kong to other Asian and global cocktail markets?
We still have a long way to catch up, but we are getting better. Taiwan, Singapore, HK and Japan are taking in a lot of the global trends. The Internet and social media, such as Facebook are great tools for people to share ideas and knowledge. Japan has always been strong on knowledge and technique. In Korea, international spirits sales are growing. There are some great young rising talents in Taiwan. In China, we are seeing more of a focus in Beijing and Shanghai, the major cities. So, there is a lot of potential in the future.
What bars and bartenders do you admire in Hong Kong?
The Angel's Share Whiskey Bar in Hong Kong has a lot of whiskey. Whiskey is always something that I want to learn more about. Bartenders........I don’t really have one in HK.
Who do you admire on the global cocktail scene? Ticket, 41C in Barcelona, Aviary in Chicago is at the top of my list. Fat duck, Momofuku bar in NYC by David Arnold and Tony Conigliaro's, the bar with no name (69 Colebrooke Row). Those people are at the master level of ideas and concepts. They are well balanced chefs; the masterminds. Their ideas have always inspired me to create something crazy. I admire their knowledge and use of equipment. They collectively changed the cocktail scene in the last 10 years.
So, now that Quinary is well on it's way, what is next for you?
I want to help others, be a part of educating young talent and teaching bartenders in HK, maybe a training school of some sort. When we set up my bar Quinary, we designed a classroom setting, which could be transformed back to a lounge in the evening. I want students to get hands on experience, which will help them in the future. Maybe open another bar with a different concept.
If you weren't a mad mixologist, what would you be doing?
I might become a collector. I have a large collection of vintage items. Classic is the key, from vintage glassware to shakers. They are worth a small fortune!
Catch Antonio Lai at Quinary Bar, 56-58 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong