The honey badger is a tough little codger, an animal considered one of the most fearless in the world. Centuries ago, its ancestors’ DNA must have been hard-wired to make it believe it could take on six lions at once, as a popular YouTube video claims. And the cocktail it lends its name to, does it proud: a virtuous mix of Bourbon and Chartreuse, with flavours of rosemary, lemon, ginger and honey. Getting to the Honey Badger, however, is no easy thing, housed as it is on the cocktail menu of Stockton, a speakeasy bar in Hong Kong’s Wyndham Street. For those not in the ken, a speakeasy is a style of bar, dating back to Prohibition-era USA, wherein you had to know where the bars were and how to get into them – “speak easy and enter”.
Stockton’s website offers little clues, apart from an enigmatic line, “down a dark alleyway, look for a light bulb”. It does have a street address, but as per my prior experience in looking for speakeasies, an address sometimes is of little help. And that was the case here too, despite being accompanied by two Hong Kong residents. Once we did get there though, our path in had been smoothed. A local bartender friend had passed word on to Ajit Gurung, a talented South Asian bartender, part of the bar team at Stockton, and we were let in.
An assortment of cocktails was ordered, including the aforementioned Honey Badger, as we took in Stockton’s interiors, which were dim, eccentric and buzzing. The walls were strewn with works which appeared to be created by disciples of Dali. There’s one in particular, that is fairly vivid – a bow-tied gent with a tree growing out of his skull, the effect compounded by his face, which is distorted into two separate halves, both sharing three eyes.
Great bartenders and cocktails don’t always have to be difficult to find, and our next stop in our bar hop is the Bar at 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside of Italy to receive three stars from the Michelin Guide. We start with one of their signatures, the 8 ½ Negroni, which features a few tricks, including the addition of Barolo (a style of Italian red wine), which helps in making the drink mellower, and hence helping turn an order for one, into two or maybe even three.
Devender Sehgal is one of India’s finest bartending exports. His passion for bartending and his obvious gifts have led to a glittering career and taken him to where he is today, bar manager at Otto, a Michelin star restaurant. A far cry from his early days, when he had to drop out of school in eighth class and work as an apprentice in a bike repair shop, earning a few rupees a day to supplement the family income. I’m here today with my friends, however, to also taste another of Dev’s signature cocktails, The Optimist, which could very well be his credo, considering his journey.
Day two of our bar hop takes a friend and me to two more bars; the first is to the Hong Kong outpost of Zuma, the modern Japanese restaurant. Michito Kaneko, a Japanese bartender, (and the 2015 winner of the Diageo World Class competition) is doing a guest gig there and I figured it was too good an opportunity to pass up as Japanese bartenders occupy a special place in the Cocktail Harbour world of bartending, owing to the meticulous attention they bring to their craft behind the bar, as they do in other fields.
I scan Michito’s special menu for the evening, have a quick chat with him and decide to try Amber Time, made with top shelf blended Scotch, Sauternes wine, sherry, Earl Grey syrup and a touch of white vinegar. Sublime. I wish I could have stopped for more, but Hong Kong had much more to offer to the tippler, with a dizzyingly large number of bars to choose from.
For a drinks brand, the origin story is everything, and Monkey 47, a gin from the Black Forest region of Germany, has an especially colourful one. According to their origin story, it drew its inspiration from a gin earlier created by a British Wing Commander called Monty Collins in the late 1940s.
Creation myths are always of interest, but more so to actually drink the gin. And this was the perfect evening, as Arijit Bose, the Asia Pacific brand ambassador for Monkey 47, was doing a guest gig at Foxglove, another speakeasy bar. Foxglove proved easier to find than Stockton, and as my friend and I had arrived comparatively early, we were easily granted admission, through a sliding door, which from the outside only had a colourful array of umbrellas. Inside is a jazz club, with a long bar on one side, a stage for the band, and lots of low seating. “A foxglove is no ordinary flower and she is no ordinary woman” is a quote on the wall. This gift for understatement gives away Hong Kong’s British roots — the foxglove is considered an extremely poisonous plant.
Arijit serves us a quick couple of G&Ts first, as he completes his preparations for the night. We sample these as the jazz band gets to work and lays down some swinging tunes. The guests mirror the island’s cosmopolitan make-up, and hail from all corners of the planet. They look as if they’re Mid-Levels bred, one and all (the Mid-Levels in Hong Kong is an extremely expensive residential area). From Foxglove’s signature menu, Bose recommends the Black Forest Sour; named for the Black Forest region the Monkey originates from, Monkey 47 Gin and Lillet Blanc Vermouth, combined with rosemary, lemon and egg white (and hopefully no foxglove!). I drink it with relish and determine to try and replicate this at home if possible.
As I settle my bill and approach the bar to bid adieu, I’m offered a shot of gin, and it seems rude to decline. Damn fine gin, damn fine bar.
The writer is the co-founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm and founder-CEO of Bar X, a bar products retail venture. Follow him at @tulleeho.