Interview: bartender Antonio Lai (Quinary + Origin)

Bartender Hong Kong


How do you go about naming your cocktails?

I’m not really, really good at that. I always talk with my business partner, Charlene, and also my wife. Sometimes they have some really good names that come to mind. That’s quite important, a good name for a cocktail. For me, coming to my bar is more than just a drink. It’s an experience…We may not be the guy that makes the best cocktail, but again, if you have a good time, the guest will come back.

Tell me about your business partner. How did you meet?

She is the owner of Angel’s Share bar down the road. I was lucky enough to get introduced by one of our mutual friends, which is also one of the business partners here. “I know a guy, Antonio, he makes good cocktails, he’s doing consultancy and travels around the world.” I was helping my business partner, Charlene, to fill a consultancy for a whisky cocktail. She started to realize whisky could make a good cocktail, and we needed a whisky bar in Hong Kong. I mentioned that I really wanted to open a bar that had a bunch of crazy equipment, such as a roto evaporator, a centrifuge, more like a gastronomy restaurant, but based on that equipment. She was saying, “Okay, why not, what do you need?” I was like, “Money, investors, and a place.” I already had all the contacts for this equipment. I already learned what I need. She said, “Okay, get it then.” This is how we actually started Quinary. We’d been looking for places for four months, five months. Finally, we find here, between Lan Qai Fong and SoHo area. The first cocktail bar in Hong Kong, this is how we started.

What’s the most recent cocktail that you created, and what was your approach?

One of the most recent cocktails that we created is the KGB. It’s nothing to do with the agency. It’s Kyoho grape liqueur and grape juices, Gin, and tea Bubbles on top, served in a bathtub with a little yellow duck. So the yellow duck is for the guests. Either they can put it inside, or they can bring it back home. Some customers don’t like things that look edible in their drinks. Instead of that, we put it on the side, together, so they can take a picture. Eventually, because of how they look – again, it’s an experience, and I believe in a good presentation to give them a more fun memory. That is the most recent one I have created, and it’s been quite popular. People like it.

What is your top selling cocktail at Quinary, and why do you think that is the top selling cocktail?

The top selling cocktail cocktail is the Earl Grey Caviar Martini. The reason why it’s quite popular is the way it looks. They have a little bit of foam on the top, and start drinking it, they can smell the strong aroma of Earl Grey. Then sip it as well, they can have the extra texture of Earl Grey caviar. The drink is basically Earl Grey, apple juice, lemon, lime, elderflower syrup. Again, they go really well together. That is our best seller, and why it’s so popular.

Who do you look to in the cocktail world for inspiration, guidance or advice?

The whole reason why I started doing molecular is because the book – I cocktail del Nottingham Forest – written by Dario Comini, which is a gentleman in Italy who has his own bar called Nottingham Forest. It’s all about the molecular cocktail. 60, 70 different cocktails. Some of them are called FBI and CSI. He has things with dry ice, neat smoke. Cause I have that book, I realized cocktails could be that fun. I spent even more time on those gastronomy ideas. He is one of the main guys – I wouldn’t really say my model – but without him, I don’t even know what is molecular. Also, I was lucky enough to work in 69 Colebrooke Row in London, a guy named Tony C. He’s one of the guys who’s at super master level who gives me inspiration.

Tony Conigliaro?

Yes. Also, one of my best friends, Paul [Tvaroh], launched Bohemia in London as well. Those guys always give me crazy, interesting ideas, inspire me how drinks flavors, textures, can change, to make it more interesting.

What does a bartender have to be to work for you?

Passionate. Responsible. Willing to work and willing to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask. Those people that work with me are 24, 25, just because they have less experience, in a way, and they’re willing to learn something new, and they’re like a sponge. The things I tell them, they use, and that’s really important. I believe who I hire now is more for the future. I’m not saying I won’t hire a guy who’s 35 years old – I still will, of course – but if I have a choice, I want someone more young, and has passion. They might not have as much work experience, but then they can learn faster and understand, “For me, this is the way I do it. I believe my way is better.” They will just follow, in a good way.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

Believe it or not, a shot of vodka, I will go asleep. I don’t really drink a lot, but if you ask me where, I will probably just sit next to the beach having an apple cider, something my wife enjoys. Drinking cocktails, if I really have to drink a nice, good cocktail, in Hong Kong, I will probably say 001 or Honi Honi Tiki Bar.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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