You may have never considered Gruyère cheese as an essential item in your cocktail, but once you meet Agung Prabowo, you’ll realise that it is not only fantastically feasible, but also makes for a highly addictive sip, bearing very much the stroke of utter mixological genius.

And yet if you know Agung Prabowo, you’ll know that Gruyère cheese is barely just the half of it. The man known to put the ‘neat’ into ‘a neat Old Fashioned’ helms the bar at The Old Man in Hong Kong; a bar which he co-founded with fellow industry heavyweights James Tamang and Roman Ghale. This year, the Soho speakeasy took home two of the most renowned prizes in the industry. The Old Man was officially crowned the Best Bar in Asia 2019, sponsored by Perrier, and the Best Bar in China, sponsored by Perrier.

Whilst the big win came as no real surprise for cocktail aficionados who have long known and loved the spot, it is still a truly impressive feat in itself. Having opened just in 2017, the bar that is named after Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is inspired by the novelist’s favourite ingredients and combinations, and made waves across the region very soon after its launch. Today, we chat to the man of the hour about his experience of over 20 years in the industry. With a motto that reads, “every drink has a story to tell”, consider this the riveting tale of how Agung Prabowo and his team made it to the very top, and how they became the best bar in Asia.

(Also, we weren’t kidding, Gruyère features in Agung’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ gin cocktail, which you’ll get to try this season at his special Bangkok pop-up. That’s right – read on to find out more)

All images via Asia’s 50 Best Bars

The Old Man Hong Kong Team
From left: James Tamang, Agung Prabowo, Roman Ghale

Before we get started: a virtual round of applause is in order! Congratulations on your big win. How does it feel to top the list for Asia’s 50 Best Bars this year?

Thank you, we never dreamt that we would be number one in Asia. We have been so honoured and fortunate. To be honest with you, we still find it hard to believe. This achievement means a lot to us. On behalf of our team, I would like to say thank you to all our guests and our family in the food and beverage industry around the world, who have always shown support and love for what we do. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this accolade without them. Our journey has just started, and we will continue to work hard as a team. 

What makes The Old Man a great bar?

It’s not just about drinks or place, but the overall experience plays an integral role. At The Old Man, the bar concept, the cocktail concept, and the service must all be top-notch. The team itself is another factor that keeps our guests coming back. They are always serving from the heart. It is the entire experience – from the moment you step through our doors to the last drop of your cocktail that makes a truly memorable experience.

Agung Prabowo & Team
James Tamang & Agung Prabowo (Co-Founders) of The Old Man, Hong Kong, China winner of The Best Bar in Asia and of The Best Bar in China with Mathieu Marchal, Asia, Oceania and Africa Business Development Manager, Perrier
For those who do not know, The Old Man’s cocktail list takes its inspiration from Ernest Hemingway’s novels. A very interesting feat. Walk us a little through your creative process?

I normally spend six months to develop our cocktail list, and my admiration for chefs has directed me towards experimental cocktails. The cocktail concept is inspired by distinguished writer and avid drink lover Ernest Hemingway. Driven by Hemingway’s libations of choice, all our cocktails are titled after his classic novels, connecting drinks to the legendary muse’s imagination, while revealing the cocktails sipped whilst writing his iconic works.

How do you think Hong Kong has risen in recent years to become a serious worldwide hotspot for cocktails?

The cocktail culture in Hong Kong has changed rapidly. Bars here are starting to pave the way and bartenders are gaining confidence. Guests’ palates have also evolved. It is clear that the bar scene in Hong Kong has come of age. It’s got the talent, creativity, and the venues.

Agung Prabowo behind the bar at The Old Man Hong Kong
Agung Prabowo behind the bar at The Old Man Hong Kong
Which is your favourite bar in the world? Why?

Currently, it’s The Old Man! But not because I own it, or because it is the best bar in Asia. It really provides a different feeling when you are inside.

And what is your favourite late-night post-drinking snack?

I have stopped having post-drinks late-night snacks because I want to avoid ruining my routine the following day. When I do go out, I always head to Employees Only Hong Kong, because of their late night food and drinks. The team there is solid, I love them!

Tell us your hangover cure (if you get hangovers at all).

There’s no cure for hangovers. Try not to drink too much and drink in moderation when out with friends. If I do drink a lot the night before, I always slurp on spicy ramen or go for a run or a jog in the park to sweat it out the next day.

Death in the Afternoon cocktail
‘Death in the Afternoon’ cocktail
A behind-the-bar secret nobody knows?

Tiptoeing. At 5 ft 5, I am not very tall. But tiptoeing makes me look taller every time I’m making a drink [smiles].

What are your thoughts on the current trends in the bar scene at the moment?

Experimental or culinary cocktails are a strong trend in 2019, where culinary gadgets are employed along with an intense, dedicated preparation process. Sustainability is a trend that is not going away, and I believe it will be stronger towards the end of the year. Bartenders are no longer ‘playing in the safe zone’ as they push their creative limits. Think, cocktails with unusual ingredients presented in a simple, unpretentious manner. Dry classic cocktails are also a strong trend as more female patrons order these cocktails. Lastly, the trend gaining a lot of traction is definitely guest bartending shifts.

What is a trend you’d like to see flourish?

I’d like to see bartenders open their own places or create their own products, like spirits, liquers, or mixers. I know it is not easy, but I believe all bartenders have the passion to do it.

A Farewell to Arm cocktail
‘A Farewell to Arm’ cocktail
Have you ever had a chance to drink in Bangkok? If so, which bars did you enjoy?

I have had the chance, and I love the drinking scene in Bangkok. The city has many talented bartenders and mixologists, and the cocktail culture has emerged in the last years. I have many friends in Bangkok, and all of them are like my brothers! It’s hard to name only one bar, but every time I visit a bar in Bangkok, I always have great drinks and a great time.

Bartenders often tell us that bartending isn’t really a profession you seek out. You just always kind of fall into it. What’s your story? How did you get into mixing drinks?

Long story short: back in the day, working in the bar industry was a taboo where I was from (Jakarta, Indonesia), with many people disapproving of these jobs. In fact, even my family was not fully supportive when I first started out, until I proved it to them.

In 1999, I was part-timing as a busboy while studying hospitality. One day I saw a bartender preparing drinks, entertaining guests, and taking orders behind the counter, and was impressed. It was this idea of a one-man show that made me fall in love with bartending, and it’s why I decided to stop my studies and start working as a bar-back. I cleaned glassware and the bar for a year.

The movie Cocktail also shaped my bartending skills and career, and because of that, I’ve won many competitions in the country and Asia. Subsequently in 2005, I moved to Hong Kong and continued to develop my style of mixing. And now I am into incorporating culinary techniques in my cocktails.

Agung Prabowo
The Indonesian-born bartender at the Asia’s 50 Best Bars award ceremony
Do you have any advice for any aspiring bartenders out there?

Never stop learning and always believe in yourself. Every day, we are learning from others, whether it is within or outside of the bar. I’ve treated bartending as my hobby and I treated my hobby as my job [smiles].

And for those of us who prefer to do the drinking: there is undoubtedly a special relationship between bartender and guest. What are some of your best experiences with guests at your bar?

The best thing is when you witness the life journey of your regular guests – from when they were single, to when they have a family of their own. I am also blessed to have witnessed the growth of their children, and from time to time, they still do visit me at the bar.

Lastly, before we leave you to celebrate your success. Drinks are on us tonight: which bar should we head to, and what should we order?

Cheers! Thank you… You should come to The Old Man Pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. For three months, from June to August, we will be serving various cocktails from our V1 and V2 menus. Let’s toast with a ‘Hemingway Daiquiri’ and follow with ‘A Moveable Feast’ cocktail!

Agung Prabowo

Be sure to check out the very special The Old Man pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, running from 1 June to 31 August, daily in the lobby.

The Old Man, Lower G/F, No.37 Aberdeen St., Soho, Central, Hong Kong; Open Mon-Sat 5pm-2am, Sun 5pm-12am.

Lisa Gries
Managing Editor, Bangkok
Lisa loves to travel, and is always on the lookout for the world’s best nap spots. She’s a serious Asian art history nerd, and has a knack for languages and coffee table books. She hopes to publish her own novels one day, one of which will likely be called ‘All The Great Conversations I Had In A Bangkok Speakeasy.’ It’s a work in progress.