Asian Intel and Adventures

So Alconomics has now had a base (well bases) in Asia for 18 months now and Sam and Pete are really finding their feet now…

To show this and to show that Alconomics is far from a one horse show we give you the low down or a snapshot on the scene…

The Asian Back Bar

Perhaps the most fundamental difference in bars Asia-wide compared to their Western counterparts is the product on offer to the consumer. Regardless of the country you are in, Asia distinguishes spirit categories in a different way than the mariachi bartender is used to, simplifying things to brown and white.

Asia wide, Hennessy VSOP will compete against Johnny Walker or Chivas brown is brown. Vodka will compete against gin and both will pale to Baiju Chinese white spirit distilled from rice. Imported white spirits, whether Gin or Vodka, make up less than 1% of white spirit consumed in China.

Brand loyalty is an issue for spirit companies whose consumers may flit from an XO to a single malt due to an appreciation of image and prestige rather an understanding of the spirit themselves. To counter this move of style over substance, enter the bartender. Whether a green, keen shaking machine or an experienced wielder of the stick, the bartender’s job is made more difficult by the selection of spirits he has to play and educate with.

Many may criticize the Asian bartender or compare him or her in a lesser light to the European (or heaven forbid) US tenders. I may have been one of these critics for a time, but it is time that has shown me that, given the tools of their job, the Asian bartender is perhaps more creative than many have given credit to. A staple bar will have on display many malts, all the blended, the core 4 cognacs and the big boys of the white spirits – the ones with money to back them Bombay, Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose etc etc. All will have Bacardi as perhaps the only brand of Rum and you can rely on Cuervo Gold to be the popular (and perhaps only tequila) of choice.

I realize now how spoilt for choice I, and others like me, are when bartending in London and other such places. Boutique spirits are in vogue, the less heard of and more artisanal the better. Asia is quite the opposite with bars often sponsored to exclusivity by spirit companies. If travelling through Asia I recommend these places to enjoy a wider selection of spirits and hats off to these venues for pioneering a difference in a market in which brown and white outshine individual brands.

Hong Kong
With the help of Alconomics in 2006, The Mandarin Oriental still boasts a fine backbar on the 2nd and 25th floor. Popularising the wonders of Tequila is the lone voice of Agave in Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong with 162 tequilas behind the stick, influenced by Julio Bermejo. Lotus and 1/5th both have hidden gems of Rum from the Southern Hemisphere (Inner Circle and Seventiki) whilst the Champagne Bar at the Grand Hyatt has more by-the-glass offerings than I can mention. Gecko in Central will offer you more Absinthes than is good for any soul…not something I recommend sampling in one night!

China
Beijing and Shanghai is like comparing Lowestoft to London in terms of bars with large spirit selection. Beijing has very little in terms of independent bars with a good selection. Check out Q bar and let Geoff whistle you up a Manhattan with Noilly Rouge but do avoid the Genghis Khan vodka…it may be unusual but that does not mean it is good! My Don Julio margarita with Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantannaire was a treat. Stay tuned in the coming month or so for the opening of Project H, a collaboration of many minds set to raise the bar in terms of drinks and spirit collection.
Shanghai has a plethora of popular bars, lounges and nightspots. Visit Constellation in the French Quarter for a Japanese based Whisky selection. Vesus, Laris, Hyatt on the Bund and even Tara boast the most up to date backbars on the Bund sporting Hendrick’s , Wyborowa Exquisite and soon, Potocki vodka.

Tokyo
Graze and Mint for the more lively nights out with good spirit. Star Bar and the Hide Out for the cocktail fan with eclectic tastes and for the moneyed amongst you try the dimly lit backbar of the Ritz Carlton.

Taiwan
Taipei has the best selection at Barcode, but Champagne II is diversifying into better spirits to match its selection of Fizz. MOD will have some rare whiskies and bottlings and Rewine has its own herb garden to make its cocktails from. Not a part of a standard backbar in itself, but unusual flavors at their disposal. Check out the Japanese influenced Sandy Lounge in Kaoshung in the south of Taiwan for amazing whiskies.

Both these lists and my experience are not exhaustive but will give you a pointer in the right direction. Given such a small choice of spirits you must give credit to the bartenders in the region who are continually creating new recipes with the spirits they have to hand.

The future is bright as coupled with this talent are the brands you might be aware of but are new to Asian markets. Soon to be released and helping the undersubscribed rum market are Sagatiba and Diva cachaca. Don Julio, Patron and Arette are punctuating the tequila market. Massanez liqueurs from Australia are bolstering the MB and Bols dominated backbars. Hendricks has targeted selected Asian markets and is doing very well and the soon to be released Potocki vodka will further boost the luxury vodka category.

In a region dominated by traditional tipples where the exported market is brown spirit led and the local markets are white spirited rice distillates it is great to see so many high end brands enter the scene. I look forward to a growth in bartending creativity that could better the Western counterparts when Asian bartenders have larger backbars to play with. (Sam Jeveons)

China

Having finished my initial 6 month stint with Diageo in China I feel that it is time for me to write a spot for the heyheyhey before my second stint kicks in fully.

Shanghai

Shanghai is a cool town. It has a well established sense of cool and a good understanding of the cocktail. I do feel at times it places style well over substance but I know where to go for a good drink and a fun night out. A must is Constellation (No. 86 Xinle Road), a Japanese style whisky bar with well made classics. They are one of the few places with Maraschino liqueur too At times, it often seems that the Shanghai night life revolves around the Bund and its well known haunts of Rouge and Glamour. These places have carved their place in Shanghai drinking culture by being amongst the first and most vocal with the best consistency, however, if you scratch beneath the surface of the city there are many other smaller, more cult establishments. Xintiendi has its own vibe with The Collection (go see Theo) and a new pool club/bar called Racks with other Chinese clubs such as G+. These are well worth a visit but for the clubs I recommend a host it can get a bit messy!

One of the biggest eye opening parts of my job here in China has been visiting the primary and many of the secondary cities with Smirnoff Black. I have been weekend bartending in cities such as Kunming, Xian, Xuzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou, Guiyang, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Chongqing. I have bartended with armed guards with bullet proof vests for protection. I have made drinks with go-go dancers spinning on poles to shake my drinks. I have had fireworks, laser-shows, bar-top dancers, cage dancers and fun galore!… I didnt get much sleep and Im sure my liver is rather unhappy with me but I met some great people from PG girls (Promotion Girls) like Nemo in Chengdu who will always be the greatest to DJs like the incomparable DJ Tim Crouch of the Smirnoff Experience and China DJ Loop.

Speaking of China DJ Loop, a very good man to know here in Shanghai is Andrew Bull whose cousin, DC Bull, I met through other contacts several years ago in Hong Kong small world indeed

Beijing

I have now visited Beijing about 7 or 8 times and each time I go back, I have more fun. Q Bar is by far the best place I have drunk in China and it has a strong underground club scene. Shanghai has a well established scene of cool and a fashionable nightlife. This is due to its position as the economic capital of China. Beijing is the administrative capital and is so more authoritarian in layout and ideology. The cities counterculture therefore follows suit in equal defiance there is a stronger underground scene with old-school bikers, skateboard crews, sidewalk brake-dancers and a nightlife that rocks once youve discovered it.

Japan

I have also made my first visit to Japan and Tokyo since my arrival in Asia. From my arrival, nothing was out of place. I arrived at my hotel and the valet opened my door with Good afternoon Mr. Kendall. Welcome to the Seiko Ginza to this day, I still have no idea how he knew my name and I progressed to the reception to Good afternoon Mr Kendall. We have been expecting you. I felt like I was in my own Bond film. Blown away. I know, it takes simple things to baffle me, but like good street magic, it is in simple things we find amazement

The Japanese have an amazing respect for detail and method. I felt that all on the Inspired Luxury Tokyo trip saw something that both inspired and amazed them whether it was the Ryu Gin meal or drinking in Star Bar or the host of other cool Tokyo style bars we visited. I whole-heartedly recommend Tokyo for anyone and would be envious of any visit, no matter how short.

China Work

A lot of the work I have done in China has been to do with Tanqueray No. 10. I have written bespoke menus for five star hotels over the city, implemented beverage programs for prominent style bars and executed consumer events to a broad spectrum of clients. I have been surprised by the openness and appreciation of the bar managers and bartenders I have worked with. Caroline Zhao of the Ritz-Carlton deservers a particular mention as a Chinese Star as she has been an unending help to me and my mission in China. One of the best events I have been involved in was the Inspired Luxury event in Shanghai. One of the main reasons I was looking forward to it was as it would be the first time I would work with Spike Marchant of The Gorgeous Group. I knew Spike by reputation in London and I was not disappointed he is a fantastic man and any who have a chance to work with him is very lucky indeed!

I now continue with more Shanghai based Diageo work with Diageo. In The Year of The Rat, I look forward to prosperity, good fortune and many new opportunities. Until then, Xin Yer Quai Ler and if youre man enough, drink more Baiju! Gambai! (Pete Kendall)

Why Taiwan

Since my recent move from Hong Kong to Taiwan I find myself justifying the Taiwanese appeal to curious folk who have never been to this wet island 1 hour north east of Hong Kong.

As diverse a continent as Asia is, cocktail and drinking trends broadly fall into 2 camps, hotel chic and local or independent bars. For the travelling foreigner the international hotels offer a far more familiar environment with recognizable drinks lists, English speaking staff (to varying degrees) and the staples of Johnnie, Jack and Heineken in ready supply. Walk out of these comforting hotels in places such as Beijing and it seems the world you know has changed beyond belief, neon lighting, drinking games and bottle consumption in crowded nightclubs where quantity over-rules quality.

The likes of Hong Kong, Shanghai Tokyo and Singapore have been trading or financial hotspots for centuries gathering influences from foreign shores. These cities have seen the independent bar scene grow in size and diminish in quality. Saturated areas such as Rappongi in Tokyo, the Bund in Shanghai Clark Quay in Singapore and Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong show for better or worse the influence in drinking and nightlife trends borne out by Western influences in Asian markets. Travelling through these places regularly I can testify there are those bars worth seeking out and visiting in all these great cities, but like a virgin on prom night they are few and far between.

Now take Taipei, a small city of 2 million, renowned for its diverse cuisine and stormy weather where foreigners have yet to blight a district or area of the city. Boasting the tallest building in the world and arguably the most attractive females per capita, Taipei is still comparatively untouched, yet the bar, cocktail and nightlife scene independently swells with quality and pride.

Unlike the bottle driven consumption of mainland China, Taipei has a growing and successful cocktail market with bars such as Barcode, Champagne II, MOD, and Rewine to name a few. The IBA recently held its 2007 world championships in the south of Taiwan and a local bartender from Taipei, Aki Wang won the 2007 Belvedere international cocktail competition held in London competing against the likes of Jake Burger (2nd) and the best of the rest from Europe, Asia and America.

Many of Taipeis under 30s have travelled or studied abroad, (albeit normally only to Canada and the US) and they bring back positive influences, international expectations and an open mind. The English language is welcomed, the Mandarin dialect is easy to pick up, the exchange rate is phenomenal and the summer lasts for 9 months. I rather feel I am giving away a well kept secret

In all my travels the best of bartending in the East is found in Japan. The Japanese influence on Taiwan in both food and drink cannot be overlooked. MOD in Taipeis Eastside is a perfect example of this Discipline and humility stereotype the Taiwanese bartenders. Japanese ice sculpting, finesse and speed, dedication and detail are married with the more free reign and personality driven bartending style of the West.
Let me paint you a picture of all the top Taipei lounge bars: A drinks list from London, (both classic and contemporary) the cocktail skill and care of the Japanese, the pride of an independent state and the fashion and music culture from the US, serving cocktails to a young beautiful and diverse crowd with increasing spending power. Life is good here.

Dont get me wrong, this is far from a bartending Mecca, but more pleasingly it is a far cry from the saturated hotspot Asian cities the safer traveler frequents. I have been passing in and out of Taiwan over the past 14 months previously living in Hong Kong. After making the decision to reside in Taipei. the change has felt amazing. Fewer venues than in Hong Kong but a better quality of bar, cocktail ambience and life.

Taipei is still growing, still open to new influences and the bartenders are still wanting to learn far more than I have seen across the Asian region. Positive indications of bar growth can be seen with second and third tier cities in the south of Taiwan opening up bars and clubs mirrored from Taipei. The feeling when you stay here is that you are a part of something new and exciting and for a bartrainer such as myself, there is no better place to be. For those in the area, I have a spare room at my place.!!!

February and March will see me travel through China, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan where I plan to share with you my favorite drinks and bar experiences. Speak to you soon (Sam Jeveons)