As demand for cocktails surges across Asia, producers are shifting large quantities of spirits and flavourings, while mixologists are coming up with ever more creative concoctions, writes Daniel Creffield

The Asian cocktail mix is constantly evolving. While we, like the rest of the world, have seen many of the same trends come and go over the past two or three years – a return to the classics (Tom Collins et al), molecular/nitrogen gimmickry and of course the all-conquering mojito – we have also seen regional influenced sophistication in the form of home-grown aromatic herbs and spices.

Adam KG Brewer, brand ambassador for Diageo Hong Kong, Macau & Guinness, Greater China, believes there is a move away from techniques such as liquid nitrogen.

“As an ingredient it has come under fire recently and I think this has turned a lot of venues off from using it. Not only this but these unique tools and ingredients can be quite costly and often bulky to have behind the bar.”

The Moët Hennessy Diageo portfolio of spirits – which includes John Walker & Sons Odyssey, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, The Singleton of Glen Ord and Tanqueray No. Ten – can be found in both on-trade and retail outlets across the markets of Hong Kong and Macau.

Brewer says we are now seeing more of the concept of contemporary classics focusing on creating a modern, bespoke interpretation of a drink that has existed for decades. In terms of flavours and ingredients currently popular, seasonal produce is trending in the culinary world and this is also being reflected in the world of craft cocktail bars.

“An ingredient such as fresh lime juice, as opposed to commercial sweet and sour mix, will make the biggest difference. In Hong Kong we are seeing the use of unconventional sweetening agents such as honey and agave nectar. One of my favourite ingredients when in season are raspberries, they work with such a broad spectrum of flavours and have an element of tartness that will add an extra dimension to any drink.”

Which kinds of cocktails does he think are more profitable for the bar?
“This answer really comes down to the costs of the products being used in the drink. In some situations fresh citrus juice can be an extremely expensive ingredient to use and has a shelf life of less than 24 hours. That being said, these costs would usually be passed on to the consumer.

“Luxury spirits are often the items that bars make the highest profit margin on. A drink like an Old Fashioned that contains sugar and bitters, both of which are relatively inexpensive, made with Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a great opportunity for a venue to capitalise on this!”

Brewer says that it is thanks to the breadth of the company’s portfolio and the brands it includes that there is something to please a wide selection of consumers.

“Some of our brands are the global leaders in their category such as Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker blended scotch whisky and Baileys. We also have one of the most extensive luxury spirit collections for those consumers seeking a more indulgent experience including the John Walker and Sons collection, Belvedere vodka, and Tanqueray and Tanqueray No. Ten gin.”

Spirit of the East

Hong Kong’s popular robata grill Roka offers innovative cocktails made with fresh ingredients and traditional Japanese wines, liqueurs and spirits such as umeshu, sake and Roka’s signature spirit shochu, an ancient spirit distilled from grains including barley and rice. Roka’s shochu cocktails are prepared using fresh tropical seasonal fruits and premium brand spirits and are based on Japanese culture.

Bryan van den Berg, Roka’s restaurant manager, says that its recently expanded cocktail menu features 10 new listings that took considerable time to develop and finalise.

“Deciding on the new ones took a long time! After the initial cocktails were created there was a big tasting with management and our sommelier … we also took guest feedback on board.”

The cocktails include a lychee mojito and Martini variations such as Yuzu Sour with smooth refreshing citrus flavours and Shiibuya Passion, named after the popular Tokyo fashion and business district, which balances the sweetness of fresh strawberries and passionfruit with ginger. Other selections include tall cocktails with dark cherries marinated in shochu and tanuki orange, that refers to comic Japanese stories.

Roka makes all its own purees.

“Less is more,” van den Berg believes. “Our summer cocktails are light and use fresh fruit.”

He adds that while it’s good to monitor trends, the group – which includes Zuma and Roka restaurants across three continents – possesses enough experienced barmen and mixologists with their own ideas and techniques to create their own trends.

“We actually see other restaurants now catching onto the shochu cocktail trend!”

Tracking trends

Juno Yong is beverage innovation manager for Malaysia Monin, a leader in gourmet flavouring. He conducts training and seminars around Malaysia and is also very connected to Monin beverage innovation managers in Asia and the rest of the world to always keep track of current trends.

Yong, who gained five years’ experience at the award-winning SkyBar at Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur as head mixologist, says he has seen cocktail trends gradually shifting.

“Vodka lime and whisky cola used to be the most sold drinks in bars few years back. Mojitos and margaritas seems to have taken over … either way the cocktail trend is on a roll and its popularity will definitely increase in the future.”

He says that food style cocktails, and especially those inspired by desserts – tiramisu, black forest gateau, creme brulee, cookies, praline, apple pie, gingerbread and others – are very hot at the moment.

Also still trending, he believes, are special techniques, such as using nitrogen.

“It is popular to transform the bar into a magic show with numerous tricks: liquid nitrogen, foams, jellies, caviar pearl, smoking cocktails etc. This is more focused on showmanship than on actual special technical skills. But it is important to keep in mind that the taste is what makes a cocktail great!”

Top tips for top ‘tails

Adam KG Brewer, brand ambassador for Diageo Hong Kong, Macau & Guinness, Greater China, says when a client asks about creating a profitable cocktail menu that provides a memorable drinking experience for their guests, he has three recommendations.

“Less is more: Not only in terms of the ingredients that go in to a drink but also on the menu itself. Around 12 cocktails is a good number to begin with as it adds variety to the menu but doesn’t stretch bartenders or affect the quality of the drinks. To create a good tasting cocktail the drink needs balance, if you start with a spirit, citrus juice and a sweetener – this is a good place to begin.

“Always use premium products and fresh ingredients where possible: your customer can always tell the difference and will usually accept paying more for these items.

“Invest in your staff: it is all well and good to have a great cocktail menu but if your bartenders don’t know how to make them and present them perfectly or if your floor staff aren’t confident in recommending them it has been a wasted exercise. And always remember that bad customer service can ruin the best tasting cocktail.”