And the winners are...
When it comes to consistent quality, nowhere in the city beats Bar De Luxe. From the moment you sit down and are handed a warm towel for your hands and some exquisite cheese nibbles to go with your drinks, you’ll realise that this is an experience like almost no other in Hong Kong. Established in partnership with Hidetsugu Ueno, the founder of Tokyo’s acclaimed Bar High Five, the attention to detail here is meticulous. In typical Japanese fashion, the classics are the bar’s forte, but whatever you order, your drink is always made with perfect precision. Order anything. You won’t be disappointed.
Runner-up: The Old Man
While we may have given the nod to Bar De Luxe, The Old Man is nonetheless the most influential Hong Kong bar of the year or so. The team there have demonstrated that local talent can succeed at the highest level without the need for a large hospitality group’s backing. Their position in the top 10 of the World’s Best Bars list is ample reward for their hard work.
Probably no-one has done more for the local drinks scene than Antonio Lai, the man who brought molecular and multisensory mixology to Hong Kong. Whereas most bartenders struggle to maintain standards at one bar, watching Lai dart from Quinary to The Envoy to Origin to VEA to prepare cocktails while maintaining quality control is astounding. What’s more, Room 309, Lai’s new opening in The Pottinger, confirmed that he remains at the peak of this industry. The ‘invisible menu’ at 309 is conceptually brilliant and thoroughly well- executed with every cocktail a winner. If Hong Kong bars were to come with a stamp of approval, Antonio Lai’s name would be it.
Runner-up: Jay Khan
Another local boy done good, Jay Khan has worked wonders at his bar, Coa. Selling stiff drinks like tequila and mezcal to Hongkongers was never going to be an easy task but Khan’s delicious cocktails, infectious attitude and considerable knowledge of agave spirits has helped make Coa a regular destination for many.
After a hugely successful first 12 months, the team at The Old Man could have taken it easy and rested on their laurels. The debut cocktail menu earned praise from all quarters and made the Hemingway-themed drinking den one of the most popular bars in Hong Kong. Why fix what ain’t broke? Because Agung Prabowo and co are relentless in their quest to set new standards. The Garden of Eden is the standout on their refitted menu, which arrived this summer and confirmed The Old Man as a true cocktail paradise. Here, rotovap honeydew rye whiskey is infused with goat’s milk bourbon, caramelised sauterne wine, cordial and an orange-phosphate bitter. It’s a wonderful mix of flavours, combining hi-tech preparation with traditional ingredients that Hemingway himself would be familiar with.
Runner-up: A Lotus Blossoms (Duddell’s)
Bar manager Masumi Tomioka and Jia Group’s beverage specialist James Barker did a top job this year revamping Duddell’s entire cocktail menu. There are many excellent new creations to choose from but A Lotus Blossoms – Ki No Tea gin, yuzu, raw honey, lemongrass, egg whites, bee pollen and sansho dust – is a real standout.
When it opened some 12 months ago, we speculated whether Hong Kong was ready for a place like this. The city’s barflies might have a taste for whisky and red wine, but mezcal and tequila? It seemed a hard sell. It’s thanks to Coa’s many outstanding qualities – its range of products, its fine cocktails, its excellent staff and founder (Jay Khan, pictured above) – that the bar has succeeded despite the tough task it set itself. Here’s to 12 more months of similar success.
Runner-up: Room 309
Anticipation was high for Room 309, Antonio Lai’s first new bar in nearly three years. Thankfully, he didn’t disappoint. Lai took classic cocktails like the gimlet and old fashioned and gave them a new spin – literally, in a centrifuge – to produce a range of transparent wonders.
The Hong Kong outpost of this famous New York speakeasy has redefined our expectations for hotel bars in this city. Previously, even if the drinks were decent, such establishments tended to be bland, inoffensive locations designed to appeal to as many passing travellers as possible. With its telephone box entrance inside the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, PDT is playful from the get-go. The cocktail menu is excellent, a wonderful marriage of classics from NYC and new creations that are sensitive to local tastes and ingredients here in Asia. And let’s not forget the hotdogs and Takoyaki Tots – the best bar snacks in the city. Head bartender Adam Schmidt could have relied on brand recognition for PDT’s success here. Instead, he’s built a bar that stands proud entirely on its own merits.
Runner-up: Room 309
Buried inside The Pottinger in Central, Room 309 is an Aladdin’s cave of delights. Almost everything from the bar’s ‘invisible menu’ is worth ordering – and for the flavours too, not just the gimmick of their transparent appearance.
The time is now for Amir Javaid. Formerly of VEA Restaurant and Lounge, the young Mancunian has just taken the reigns at the bar at John Anthony. JA’s huge gin collection should be put to good use by this man, who’s worked for gin brands like Martin Miller’s and Three Rivers. Above all, it’s an exciting move since it allows Javaid the chance to emerge from the shadow of Antonio Lai, the man behind the A in VEA. A consistently inventive bartender and this year’s La Maison Cointreau champion, we can’t wait to see what he has planned for his new digs in Lee Gardens.
Runner-up: Ivin Hui
Another young talent about to enter the big time, Ivin Hui has been tasked with continuing the exemplary standards at Bar De Luxe. Until recently, the bar was headed by Yuriko Naganuma, a protégé of Hidetsugu Ueno, but she returned to Japan after more than 18 months here in Hong Kong at the end of October. That leaves Hui with a lot to live up to. Still, having worked alongside master mixologists like Masayuki Uchida, at Butler, and Ueno himself, we believe Hui has all the experience he needs.
For all the many good drinks served in this city, few Hong Kong bars engender a great atmosphere. Foxglove nails it though. From the moment you walk through the faux umbrella store and into the sleek 50s-style lounge, the bar succeeds in transporting you far away from your workaday blues. And then there’s the live music. The rotating bands are top draw. With its dummy front, classic cocktails and live bands, nowhere pulls off the speakeasy vibe with as much aplomb as Foxglove.
Runner-up: The Pontiac
The Pontiac is unique in Hong Kong. Sure, dive bars exist in spots all over town but none of them have the gritty charm and authentic feel of this Old Bailey Street destination. The drinks are well made, not to mention appropriately priced, especially during happy hour. The establishment's excellent bar staff (photographed below), awesome rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and raucous atmosphere at late hours complete the experience.
Sustainability in the local drinks industry has become a hot topic in 2018. At the vanguard of this movement – ever since it opened in the summer of 2016 – is Potato Head. Bar operations manager Tom Egerton has long held it his mission to maximise ingredients while minimising waste, resulting in a drinks menu that uses ingredients that otherwise would’ve been disposed of. While other bars have only recently said good riddance to plastic straws, Potato Head ditched them long ago, and all fruit waste is used to create compost to help fertilise herbs and other produce in recipes later on down the line.
Runner-up: John Anthony
This impressive new bar and restaurant has weaved sustainability into its very fabric: staff wear deadstock uniforms, upcycled plastic and paper are used for coasters and menus, and John Anthony is decorated with natural pigments and plant-based paints. Fingers crossed similar openings follow suit.
If you’re not interested in the dubious delights of Lockhart Road or the fancy schmancy hotel bars in the area, where do you go when you need a drink in Wan Chai? Answer: Tai Lung Fung. Going on seven years strong this year, Tai Lung Fung has stuck it out in Wan Chai despite all the redevelopments at places like Lee Tung Avenue and Star Street. Off the beaten track near the Blue House, the venue has attracted a loyal following thanks to its nods towards local culture and the simple recipe of serving reasonable drinks at reasonable prices. The ability to snatch a table on a Saturday night and grab Jenga or Cards Against Humanity from the back is just one more reason we love this place.
Elite cocktail bars are all well and good, but sometimes you need a place like Alvy’s. Styled like an old fashioned Manhattan watering hole, it’s got good beer, a decent list of bourbons and the char siu topped Bak Gwei pizza is a winner. No wonder it’s a common sight to see the many regulars here spilling out the door and onto Holland Street.