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Entering into the brave new world of molecular cocktails, Hong Kong is now home to a vibrant mixology scene. And at the forefront of the mixology movement in Hong Kong is Antonio Lai, known for his creative approach to cocktail making. Having kicked off his bartending career at the age of just 18, he continues to push the boundaries with his multisensory cocktails – available at Quinary and Origin – and tempt every connoisseur's taste buds.
How did you get into bartending? Had you always dreamed of a career in mixology?
I started out working as a server for 15 years at Western-themed restaurant Planet Hollywood. I liked my job but when I saw bartenders talking to many people, I told myself I would like to be in their shoes as I’m an outgoing person. It’s like Tom Cruise’s 1988 movie, Cocktail.
Where did you develop your multisensory mixology?
In 2011, I was lucky enough to apprentice for Tony Conigliaro (aka Tony C) at his own bar, 69 Colebrooke Row in London. During the two-week programme, I learned the fundamentals of molecular mixology like slow cooking, re-distilling alcohol and other special techniques. It was from him that I learned to engage my senses and create cocktails that are richly flavoured as well as creating the perfect texture.
Tell us some of the cocktail highlights at Quinary and Origin.
Quinary takes you on a sensory experience with cocktails such as our own version of a Bloody Mary (HK$130). We re-distilled our own wasabi vodka using a rotary evaporator and mix with homemade Bloody Mary mix and tomato juice. Origin, on the other hand, offers 12 homemade gin infusion flavours, and one of the bestsellers includes the Classic Earl Grey Martini (HK$120), which consists of slow-cooked Earl Grey tea infused gin, Cointreau, egg white and lemon juice.
What are some of the techniques you use?
Techniques include slow cooking, distillation, clarification, re-distillation and spherification. To achieve this, we use certain equipment like vacuum rotary distillation to allow the extraction of aromas, reduce juices and produce flavoured spirits.
What gap did you see in Hong Kong’s cocktail culture that drove you to bring molecular cocktails into the scene?
A good cocktail bar was missing. Nobody was making a cocktail with a ‘wow’ factor. Bartenders were just focusing on the finished product rather than the preparation that goes behind it.
What drives you to create special cocktails?
Television programmes, music and childhood experiences. There was a time when a local TV programme featured a traditional milk tea. It occurred to me that I could probably make a cocktail out of it so I started experimenting in my laboratory, adding the alcohol in. Another novelty creation I did was the Marshmallow Milkshake. Inspired by my childhood years, it is served in a mini Coca-cola bottle that has the sweet-smell of popcorn-infused vodka. We boil the caramel popcorn, slow-cook it, then put it in a rotary evaporator to expand its flavours. Egg whites and sugar are also added.
How do you see cocktail-making trends changing in the next five years?
More bars will use new equipment and more bartenders will deliver out-of-the-box ideas to impress their guests with their own creations.
Header photo: Bartender Antonio Law is one of Hong Kong's master mixologists © Quinary
Written by Apple Mandy
What are your favourite cocktails? Have you ever tried any molecular mixology bars in Hong Kong?
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About the author: AppleApple Mandy
Apple Mandy started her career as a journalist covering a wide variety of topics including fashion, music, health, arts and travel. Having worked in Shanghai as a Food Writer, she later moved to Hong Kong to manage some magazines. Gripped by a ranging passion for all things food related, she continues to eat her way around town and drink in the city's gastronomic trends. When not interviewing, researching or writing, you'll find her dragon boating or windsurfing on the shores of Stanley or Cheung Chau, respectively.