Hong Kong’s only tiki cocktail bars — Honi Honi and Mahalo — are both helmed by the same guy: Max Traverse. Having just won two awards from the Asia’s 50 Best Bars Awards 2016, Traverse talks to The Loop about his hyper-organized style, causing drama in primary school, and how to make a real Old Fashioned.
A little background
Max Traverse opened Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge in 2012, followed by Mahalo Tiki Lounge in 2015. Originally from France, Traverse made his name in London before moving to Hong Kong, where he helped to open Le Boudoir. He managed the bar as a bartender, general manager and more before eventually opening Honi Honi. He is also behind the city’s annual Rum Fest, which takes place every May.
When did you start to really study cocktails?
I wasn’t good at school. I had to double up on a couple of things in school, and was still making a lot of drama in the school, causing trouble. The school director asked me what I wanted to do — I said, “Tell me what I have to do to be a bartender.” And the director suggested I go to hospitality school. It was really hard work. After a few years, everyone else dropped out except for five or six students. It’s a tough life, always working at all hours.
You spent eight years in London. How’d you get your big break?
I eventually moved to England because I wanted to learn English. I told my mom I was going for six months, but of course I was there for eight years. I didn’t speak a word of English at first. I couldn’t learn on my own so I had to pay for some classes. I called in a family favor and got a job at this famous club [Monty’s Club], which is closed now. It’s where a lot of chefs and bartenders started from — Jamie Oliver, too. Once you start working in good bars, the network brings you to the next opportunity.
You’ve created so many drinks over the years, anyone you keep going back to?
I’ve been making cocktails for over 20 years. I probably made 4,000 to 6,000 per month at Le Boudoir for a year and a half. I created this one [in his hand] in London, so I keep it really close to me. It’s like a gin and lemongrass Tom Collins. Here we do another twist with kaffir lime leaves. It’s really nice, refreshing and a bit different. I used to be well known for my Old Fashioned, because I used to infuse my own sherries with bitters and so on.
It seems like it’s hard to get a decent Old Fashioned in Hong Kong. What’s the right way to make it?
A lot of bars think they know how to make an Old Fashioned, but they don’t. You have the original way — sugar, bitters, a tiny bit of soda to melt the sugar, bourbon. Then you stir it slowly, at least five minutes for one drink. If you see a bartender start muddling the cherry or orange, just tell them to stop and change your cocktail. Or maybe just go.
How has the cocktail scene evolved since you’ve been here?
For a while it was on Le Boudoir. Then it was Quinary, then oh wow — not many, actually. Oh lala. Let me think — yes, also Lily & Bloom. When I first arrived, it was all about New York in Hong Kong. Then mixology. Now it was all about London, because all of these London bartenders are coming here to open their bars. Those are the original cocktail bars, but now it’s a lot of boring same-same-same-same. The good thing is that Hong Kong is now on the map and we are seeing more respect for the cocktail bars.
So why did you choose to open two tiki bars?
When I thought about what concept I wanted to bring to Hong Kong. I thought about what was missing in the city. And I thought the city is so busy, people work so hard, so why not bring the city a bar that will remind you of your travels? It will remind you of a vacation and feel like an escape. So people can feel like they’re on holiday, when they’re not on holiday. People need that — open space, terrace, green plants.
Bartenders have to really know how to talk to people. Does it come naturally?
Telling good stories and listening is part of the job. You have to learn how to talk to customers even if you’re shy. I was really shy — what me, shy? Yes, I was shy for a long time. When I came to Hong Kong, I think that trip [backpacking for a year around Asia] just really opened me up. In London, I tried to hide a bit. We are like psychologists — in French, we call it the priest. You listen most of the time. You can’t solve people’s problems but you’re here to try to help people forget sometimes, and feel like they belong somewhere. You come here to have fun and to disconnect a little bit.
What did you learn from your years of working in restaurants and bars?
You can tell that a customer is looking for something, just from their eyes. They look up, they need something. You can tell that, hardly even looking. You can see it because you’re trained to keep track of the floor. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, but I’m tracking and checking constantly. You can see everything.
You’re rubbing the table a lot. Is there something wrong with it?
I can see there’s an alcohol stain here, and can feel that it’s not as clean as it should be. My eyes are constantly looking, looking, constantly obsessing over things. I’m really a maniac. I like everything organized and spotless. Everything needs to be sharp, clean. For example, that cushion should not be like that. That table should have four chairs, not three. I’m crazy about things like that. It’s the most beautiful defect that I have.
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