High Spirits: Charting the craft gin revolution in Hong Kong

The bountiful selection at Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour. Photo: supplied
The bountiful selection at Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour. Photo: supplied

As what was formerly known as Mother’s Ruin becomes the darling of the local drinks scene, Hongkongers are guzzling gin like never before. Paul Letters investigates the rise and rise of the water of life.

I’ve been telling my disbelieving family for some time that gin is a health drink (okay –relative to other forms of alcohol), especially when taken with a light tonic or soda water. Infused with superfoods like grains of paradise (Bombay Sapphire, for example) or ginger (Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin), a gin and soda is sugar-free right until you drop in a slice of lemon. Even gin’s essential base botanical, juniper berries, are packed with goodness. These antioxidant super berries help fight infection and inflammation, clean your pipes and keep your digestive and urinary systems flowing smoothly.

Gin is a centuries-old product of alchemists, adventurers and entrepreneurs all searching for the elixir of life. And Hong Kong is closer than it’s ever been to finding it.

Gerry Olino, Bar Manager of Dr. Fern’s. Photo: supplied

Medicinal matters

Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour, tucked away in the basement of the Landmark shopping centre, began treating the public on a quiet Monday last month. Run by the bright young things behind Foxglove, the Central speakeasy tucked between Ice House Street and Duddell Street, Dr. Fern presents a dizzying array of gins.

The sheer number of remedies on offer by the (fictional) good doctor is enough to flush out the hypochondriac in each of us. Currently, 220 different gins await you – but don’t panic, it’s rising fast to around 300. This one bar alone is bringing in to Hong Kong craft brands never before seen in the city. That’s a trend initiated (and continued) by Hong Kong’s first gin-focused bar, Ori-Gin (since 2013), and the next big player, Ping Pong 129 Ginoteria (2014).

Dr. Fern’s gin list is entitled ‘Doctor’s Orders’. In keeping with gin’s history, Dr. Fern promises that his concoctions – paired with herbs or fruits and the appropriate tonic – provide “the perfect remedial cure for any ailment or stress-related palpitations”. I have a long medical history where mainstream Western and Chinese medicine has failed me, so I’m willing to give anything a go. If I must.

One of the understated doorways leading to Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour. Photo: supplied

If you’re feeling like you need spicing up, I thoroughly recommend Dr. Fern’s serving of Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin. I now realise I had failed to get the best out of the bottle of Opihr that I have in my gin collection at home: Dr. Fern’s lab-coated practitioners prescribe ordinary medicine in extraordinary ways. The innovations on offer even manage to perk up the “I-don’t-like-gin” brigade – those with a pitiful, lethargic disdain for the water of life. (Saying you don’t like gin is like saying you don’t like people with the surname Chan.)

Served with Fentimans tonic and an orange slice studded with cloves and cardamom, Dr. Fern’s take on Opihr gin sparks life into any gin-less wonder. At home, try it alongside an Indian curry.

Hong Kong vanities

Matt Dallow, manager of one of our city’s finest pubs, The Globe, points out that us Hongkongers are prone to libational snobbery. Willing to flatter our vanity – and bring us something more interesting than a Gordon’s with Schweppes – The Globe’s expanded gin list fills a page of their menu. The gins on offer, such as Tarquin’s Cornish Dry or FEW American, are served with small-batch Jack Rudy tonic and appropriate garnish. From The Globe in Central to Sai Kung’s Casa Group, many non-gin-focused bars are expanding their range, stepping purposefully outside of the protective grasp of big brands. On the supply side, Rick Ma, Director of Sales and Marketing at HK Liquor Store – which sells Hong Kong’s broadest range of gin bottles – stresses that a few years ago “all we would see is the Bombays, the Gordons, the Beefeaters”. In better bars, the aggressively marketed Hendricks would be added to tick the “premium” category.

But who’s driving Hong Kong’s gin renaissance?

Bartenders – Hong Kong’s literal movers and shakers.

Antonio Lai behind the bar at Ori-Gin. Photo: supplied

“More restaurants and bars are willing to carry different types of gins and promote it,” says Rick, “which is why there’s a hike in gin consumption”.

“Now, the bar scene is more open-minded”, agrees Micky Navea, Beverage Sales Manager for distributor Metabev Hong Kong. “A lot of bartenders and bar managers are very active when it comes to spirits seminars, trainings … and following drinking trends from the US, UK etcetera.” Hongkongers have increasingly well-educated tastes, and it’s primarily bartenders who are providing that crucial education.

As Antonio Lai, co-owner of Ori-Gin on Wyndham Terrace, says, “Behind the hustle and bustle of the city where trends come and go, people take time to adapt and cultivate a culture, liking or knowledge. We are proud to say that Hong Kong, when compared with pioneering bar scenes in, for example, New York, San Francisco and London, is catching up really quickly.”

All part of the growing reach of juniper – especially in the form of craft gins.

Craft matters

Danny Wong, Director of The Bottle Shop, says, “Where you find crafted beverages [particularly beer], you’ll find craft gins. Yes, the US, Australia, Europe … all have fantastic gins.”

“Today,” says Antonio Lai of Ori-Gin, “we see a leap in the number of new craft gins that enter the market – ones that feature a unique blend of botanicals, herbs and spices, and even [a] small batch production process that highlights the authenticity, quality, and the amount of care and attention given into the gin.” Consumers are attracted to this growing variety of flavours that a multitude of craft producers provide.

Ee Da Le’s bartender Eddie Sung prepares pineapple and sage G&Ts during last year’s Gin Jubilee. Photo: Dave Jony

“Most of the craft gins tend to highlight some new flavours beside the traditional ingredients”, says Jay Khan, Beverage Manager for Dr. Fern’s and the Foxglove group. “This appeals to young consumers… and for consumers who hate gin. The new style gins are rapidly converting everyone to at least have one of their favourite gins.”

“The whole gin market is getting bigger’, contends Rick Ma, but traditional European brands are not as dominant as before. “New world gins – which are less dry, more fruity and floral – are being very well received in Hong Kong.”

A whole new world

Elite hotels such as The Langham and the Four Seasons increasingly carry gins from America or Australia, such as Victoria’s Four Pillars range. Dean Aslin is the Australian General Manager of Northeast Wines and Spirits, the distribution company which supplies Four Pillars gins to Foxglove/Dr. Fern, Ori-Gin and Ping Pong, in addition to retailers. “The Four Pillars distillery looks and feels like a winery,” says Dean, “and the chief distiller is a wine-maker by trade”. Positioned amid the Yarra Valley vineyard region, Four Pillars is open to visitors, as are a growing number of new wave distilleries.

The Four Pillars range includes a Bloody Shiraz gin and a Navy Strength, a long-standing gin category so-called because naval officers expected to be able to set fire to gin-soaked gunpowder in order to verify that it was not watered down.

Photo: Four Pillars Gin

But Four Pillars’ signature is their Rare Dry Gin. Among other botanicals, the Rare Dry is distilled through organic orange halves – which you can taste in every sip.

Here, we’re getting to the essence of craft gins – whose strengths lay in the disparate, and often local, flavours on offer. Simon Disler, Director of distributor Drinks 99, says, “The key to gin’s popularity is distilleries producing and selling in their own localities. All the British, American and Australian gins first achieve huge success and loyalty in the 30 square kilometres surrounding their distillery. The popularity then spreads from there.”

Photo: Four Pillars Gin

Four Pillars uses botanicals indigenous to Australia, such as lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry leaf, which help make the taste distinct from other gins on the market. Fragrant, dry and summery, the Rare Dry tastes like the colour pink. Monet’s Waterlilies in a glass.

The genesis of the ginaissance

But Europe is far from finished with the water of life.

“Credit should go to Spain”, says Jay Khan, “for reinventing the gin and tonic as a long summer drink served in a goblet with more imaginative and creative garnishes.” And it goes beyond those fashionable balloon glasses and a coil of orange peel. Juan Martínez Gregorio, the Spanish co-owner and founding partner of Ping Pong 129 Ginoteria in Sai Ying Pun, asserts that, “There has been a global renaissance of gin spearheaded in Spain. Hong Kong and the rest of South East Asia have been a little late in seeing this but have now grabbed the trend with both hands. But it’s not surprising. South East Asia shares similar weather conditions to Spain, which makes it the ideal place for a G and T: a long refreshing drink, originated in humid and hot weather.”

The interior of Ping Pong 129 in Sai Ying Pun, where indecisive drinkers can order a “gin flight” for a taste of this and that. Photo: supplied

Europe in general has revitalised its gin production, and relatively new names have set trends in Hong Kong and worldwide. At the forefront of a gin distilling renaissance in England, in 2009 Sipsmith installed the first traditional copper pot distillery in London in almost 200 years. Other English producers followed, and the citrus-laden Sipsmith London Dry Gin is now a fixture in Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel, among other preeminent establishments. But from Spain’s Gin Mare to France’s G’Vine to Napue rye gin from Finland, European gin production most certainly no longer equates to ‘Made in England.’

From Germany, Monkey 47 is a premium brand in the craft tradition – despite being snapped up by beverage behemoth Pernod Ricard last year. Aromatic and modern in style – rather than the dominant juniper notes of the traditional ‘London Dry’ gins – the Monkey 47 maestros use forty-seven different botanicals (less than half that number is more common), including local Black Forest cranberries, to produce a rich, melt-in-your-mouth gin. That it is sold in 500ml bottles at 700ml prices does not prevent Monkey 47 from flying off the shelves all over town. In vogue in the gin bars, it is also the fastest selling gin for both HK Liquor Store and The Bottle Shop. And it is special…

Photo: supplied

Just not as special as the Monkey 47 Distiller’s Cut. Hungie Fong, Bar Manager at Ori-Gin, introduced me to this seductive vintage gin. Every year, the good folks at Monkey 47 make a special gin where they add a new guest star forty-eighth botanical to each vintage. 2016 saw honey invited to the table, and the result for this humble correspondent may well prove financially ruinous. It’s that good.

Hong Kong is riding the gin train with gusto. I advise you to take that train.

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