Under the stringent quarantine policy, Hongkongers haven’t been able to enjoy a good night out at bars for a long time — the good news is bars are finally reopening as the government lifts its social distancing restrictions. This week, The Loop HK has Holly Graham, author of the newly published Cocktails of Asia: Regional Recipes and the Spirited Stories Behind Them (published by our parent company Man Mo Media and available at book shops in Hong Kong), to talk about her passion for booze and the cocktail scene in Hong Kong.
How did you get into cocktails?
I’ve always loved a good cocktail, but when I started out as a food and drink editor, I found after a while my passion for writing about food never matched that of spirits and cocktails. I became tired of writing restaurant reviews. Instead, I wanted to focus on the intricacies of booze, so found myself diving deeper into the bar industry to learn more.
What is “Cocktails of Asia” about?
Cocktails of Asia shares the recipes, stories and history behind the cocktails, bars and people that define this spirited region — from India to Indonesia, China to Japan, and everywhere in between.
Why did you want to write a book about cocktails in Asia?
In my role as managing editor of DRiNK Magazine Asia, I cover the whole region and have spent the last 11 years living across Thailand, Korea and Hong Kong. It’s given me wonderful opportunities to explore, and the industry has welcomed me with open arms, so this is my love letter to the people and places that make our bar scene so special.
How are cocktails in Asia different from the rest of the world?
It’s a tough question to pinpoint what defines a region’s cocktails, but after traveling more in the West, I think that Asian cocktails have daring flavor combinations. Things you’d never expect to see together or just can’t find elsewhere in the world. I have to admit, every time I travel outside of Asia, I can’t wait to get back home for a good drink!
What is the essence of Asian cocktails?
Again, it’s hard to define but lots of Asian cuisines are so culturally specific and many countries here have access to incredibly fresh produce. You see these cultural elements replicated in drinks, combined with gorgeous produce and you’ve got flavor profiles you’ve never dreamed of, tapping into layers of say, umami, spice or sour that you just can’t experience elsewhere in the world. I always chuckle to myself when I think of my last trip to London, and people will be like: “Hey so we’ve got this Southeast Asian ingredient called pandan” — and I go on to tell them I grow it on my roof in Hong Kong!
What is your favorite cocktail?
My favorite cocktail is one made with heart and delivered with good hospitality. It could taste terrible but as long as I’m having a good time, it doesn’t matter. That or a 6:1 ice cold Gibson.
What do you consider to be the standout moments of your career?
Of course writing my first book has been an incredible achievement — one that I don’t think has quite sunk in just yet! Another huge moment for me was making the Bar World 100 — a list of the most influential people in the industry. In 2020 I was a new entry at 26, and come 2021 I jumped 14 places to 12. It was incredibly special to me as I never thought of people looking at me in that way — I have used my career to celebrate and champion others, and it was fantastic to be recognized for my advocacy. There are lots of awarding bodies for bars and bartenders, but not so many for us writers! Plus the look on my mum’s face when I told her made it all worthwhile.
What makes Hong Kong unique in the bar/cocktail scene?
Hong Kong has been through hell and back, but the resilience of our bar scene never fails to make me swell with pride. Through protests and harsh pandemic restrictions, the scene has continued to innovate and fight tooth and nail to survive. We’re such a tight-knit family — everyone wants the best for one another and the camaraderie is something visiting bartenders always comment on. We’re a small city, gotta love thy neighbor!
What’s next for author Holly after Cocktails of Asia?
I’ll be continuing to promote Cocktails of Asia across the globe as much as possible, but when I was thinking about what could be next, a wise man said to me something along the lines of, follow the path you’re on, and the rest will come. So I guess I will dine out on the book for as long as I can until the next adventure comes along!