Hong Kong native Antonio Lai has traveled the globe to work as a bartender, cadging knowledge and techniques along the way, before returning home. Lai now co-owns two bars in Mid-Levels with Charlene Dawes: progressive Quinary and playful gin-focused Origin. We met at Quinary, where Lai better explained his background and approach.
What does a cocktail have to be to go on the menu at the Quinary?
We have some things that are classic, and some that are a little bit crazy, or molecular style.
The Earl Grey Caviar Martini is one of our most popular drinks. We sell this cocktail, almost 1000 orders per month. They have two different methods, using the gastronomy methods, caviar, and also air. We have the smell and texture of the caviar, along with mouth-feel. We combine these in our drinks to give something special to our customers.
Also, we have something not quite simple, which is slow-cooked tea cordial that we make in here with a base of oolong tea. Not just color. So it’s vodka, cordial, and soda water. That almost sells 800 per month.
It’s between half-and-half. We have some things that are crazy-wild, but we also have some ordinary taste-good cocktails. This is what we believe. If all the cocktails are wow, it will be a little too much, sometimes. Sometimes people just want a really nice cocktail. We need to get the balance in Hong Kong. That’s why we have both.
You have another shop?
We have a new shop called Origin, which is original gin. We distilled gin with a lot of Asian influences in there. Shiso vodka, lemongrass gin, shiso gin, Earl Grey lemon, cucumber coriander, grapefruit lemon, and a few more. It’s a familiar concept, because gin is something people drink around the world, but not much yet in Hong Kong. That’s why we decided to open a gin bar. We have 15 different gins, which we distilled or slow-cooked on our own, plus 60-something gins from around the world, that we’ve been collecting more and more at our bar.
Is that also at this neighborhood?
Yeah. 10 minutes down the road. We also have a whiskey bar called Angel’s Share, but nothing to do with the one in New York. We have 80+ whiskeys over there, five minutes down the road. From here, to 10 minutes down the road, we’re lucky enough to have three different outlets. We also have different kinds. If people like cocktails, they will come to the Quinary. Whisky, Angel’s Share, and gin, Origin bar. If they want wine, we have a wine bar as well, also down the road. Open a bar with a concept that matches certain clientele. This is what we’re trying to do. A gin bar? Gin is actually getting more popular and more popular…More and more are coming as well. Now we have five different tonic waters. Again, because the gin is becoming more popular, people are thinking of a selection of different tonics. We kind of believe gin will be going higher and higher this coming year.
Are you from Hong Kong originally?
Yeah, originally from and grown and educated in Hong Kong. Lucky enough, I’ve traveled to different places. I worked in Beijing, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, Germany, London, Paris.
Is that all?
At what point did you know you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?
When I was 16 years old, in college, I started going to the hotel training centers. After that I started working as a server and realized how cool the bartenders behind the bar were, juggling the bottles. After that, at 18, I started working as a bartender and chatting with people. At that point, I thought, “I’ll be a bartender the rest of my life,” and maybe a bar owner. From 19 years old, after that, I realized cocktail knowledge is more important than juggling bottles. I started getting more into it, and by 23 years old, I was more of a cocktail person.
What do you remember about your very first night behind a bar, and where was that?
Really exciting. I was 19 years old, and there were a lot of things that I didn’t know. The only thing I knew at that point was, “Those people juggling bottles is so cool.” It was quite an experience, because I was actually working at Planet Hollywood, in the old days when they still had one in Hong Kong. It was quite a lot of fun. Because my English wasn’t that good, I always had a little bit of stress to talk to the guests. At the end, I think, “It’s actually quite exciting.” It was really, really fun.
How do you go about naming your cocktails?