In a city of increasingly picky drinkers, we often dream of making the kind of fascinating cocktails found at Hong Kong’s most cutting-edge bars — all from the comforts of our own home. Here at our column Handpicked, Four Seasons beverage ambassador Lorenzo Antinori invites top talents from the Hong Kong bar scene to teach us how to use ingredients easily found in Hong Kong’s backyard (or supermarkets). The challenge: To create a delicious, easy-to-make cocktail recipe that incorporates humble Asian ingredients.
Beckaly Franks is a force of nature. Her energy and positivity are contagious, exactly like the vibes at her mighty Hong Kong home, the Pontiac, a craft cocktail dive bar, celebrating inclusivity and rock and roll. Her career has been surrounded by art, music and cocktails; from fond memories of a Shirley Temple sipped at her parent’s bar Idaho, The First National Bar, to the times at Jo Bar and Rotisserie In Portland, where she entered her very first cocktail competition, all throughout her years at the award winning Clyde Common.
Now in Hong Kong, between a layback, and a dance over the bar counter, Beckaly as usual is devoted to the craft and the pursuit of flavours in her creations, constantly working toward making The Pontiac home for all the patrons and bartenders of the local community.
For this iteration of Handpicked, no better ingredient than ginger would have represented the fierce Beckaly Franks. We sat down with her to learn how she unfolds flavours from this traditional spice and incorporates it into a modern classic cocktail.
It’s interesting these days how the perception that people have about bartending is almost like a science, but in reality we deliver flavours to people. What do you think? Can you share your experience working as a mixologist today?
Just to get some verbiage into context and out of the way because you brought up a) delivery and b) the science. There’s two schools of thought when it comes to this: There is a bartender or mixologist and this is a very, very old, beaten down conversation, but when anything’s “-ologist” it’s the science or the study of, right? So it’s not a negative connotation to be a mixologist. It just means that you’re applying knowledge and you’re learning about said flavours and the history, geography, terroir, flavours, everything as it is, how can we manipulate it and deliver it.
In my school of thought, you can be a mixologist and not know anything about being a bartender. Now, that doesn’t mean that being a mixologist is wrong. And you can also be a bartender — you can make vodka sodas all day and you’re still hands down a better bartender than any versed, educated mixologist. They’re just two completely different schools of one occupation — just two different styles.
For myself, in my delivery, I of course am a bartender first. But I’ve spent well over a decade studying from wine to spirits, travelling around the world. So my approach and my application looks casual, and we bring it to people in an accessible format. But I would still consider myself a mixologist as well, by all means.
No matter what you do or no matter the technique or your background, I think it’s important that we deliver cocktails and experiences that are accessible for people. Cocktails shouldn’t be something that’s just for the small group of connoisseurs.
And that is just it. And that’s one of the reasons why a bar like the Pontiac had instantaneous success almost five years ago. Yes, it’s a Western concept. It’s not an American bar, but it’s a Western concept of hospitality — the doors are quite literally open, you know, like we’re so open that sometimes people don’t get it. You don’t need a secret passcode to find us. You don’t have to stand on one foot and say the ABC’s backwards to get a code. We are aggressively of the mantra that you can sit with us, not that you can’t; or that you have to be specialised or there has to be an event.
And not to say that any of those styles of bars are wrong. The experience that they’re trying to get to the guest is different. The whole notion of [the motto] ‘We are the Pontiac’ is the collaboration between the bar and the guests, and getting people to open up to feel A) that it’s comfortable to be at a bar by themselves, B) to open up to exchange and establish rapport with a bartender, to actually have that camaraderie. This is five years ago and it’s come so, so incredibly far now. You can see it with some of the most successful recent opens, i.e. Coa and The Old Man and so on and so forth.
Doors are wide open. This space itself is, we’ll just call it rustic, with collage walls and neons and, and then we let it just kind of be whatever it is. But it’s almost harder to build a programme when you don’t have anything. Things that we don’t have: a kitchen, we don’t have storage, we don’t have a back room, we don’t have a basement. We don’t have an attic. That also helps back us into the corner that we sort of want to be in, for being that style of bar is a back bar-driven bar.
How did that affect how you designed the bar program?
We designed the program to teach people for sure, but more just to be accessible. So take just the wording. At a specialised bar like a speakeasy, depending on what style it is, you can’t read the menu. And that is ostracising because — think about it: If your eyes just blur out, you’d just order like, a vodka soda, you know? The guests should not have to be looking at a glossary in the back. They should be able to just go to a bar and order a spot-on, high calibre craft cocktail. Now if they want to talk about it, then we get into the juice, then we get to flex our geekiess. But first and foremost, we just want you to sit down and have a good time.
For this project, we picked an ingredient for you: ginger.
So on brand!
Exactly. You know, I think we picked ginger for two reasons: It’s the winter season, cold weather. But as well I picked ginger because I think somehow it represents your personality: Fierce.
Spicy, but like super good for you?
Really good for your immune system, good for your gut, it might hurt going down but you’re a better person for it? Yeah, sounds about right! [Laughs].
Ginger is such a humble ingredient that is common in every culture. How did you tackle this ingredient in your cocktail — the Hobnail?
In every culture it all comes down to ginger. The reason why our ginger is the bomb: we make it fresh every other day. Originally the reason why when I was developing the menu for the Pontiac, why I had that specific ginger syrup on deck, is because I was making ginger beer. I hail from the house of Morganthaler, so trust, our ginger beer is famous, notable, and I know how to make it. I really wanted to bring that to Hong Kong, but I couldn’t control the temperature in The Pontiac, so, I have the ginger syrup served on deck.
You always start with your base spirit and then you think about how you want to modify it. I knew that I wanted to use the ginger to go in there. With any aged spirit like whiskey, regardless of where it’s from, you’re going to have the oak contact, and the maturation that you need to cut through. You need to cut through it and like open it up. So the ginger is going to get in there. It’s not going to overpower, per se, all of those wood note flavours. The ginger gets in there and it turns up all of these flavours, turns up the toffee, turns up the cinnamon, it just pinches them on the nipples a bit!
Tell us a bit more about the ingredients in the drink.
Okay so we have our spirits, our sugar and our modifier — our flavour component, ginger, which is also the sugar as well. In the Pontiac programme I preach a lot about mouthfeel and viscosity. All of our syrups are rich syrups. A regular, syrup would just be one-to-one: one part sugar, one part water. Most of the other syrups that we have in-house are two-to-ones. The ginger syrup is one and a half parts sugar to one part ginger extract that you make in house, such as ginger juice.
And then there’s Angostura bitters: one of its primary flavours is cinnamon, which really just digs in and compliments. Then you have the Averna, which is perfect with it. You get a stewed orange marmalade flavour, but also some chocolate and tobacco in there. And then obviously a fresh lemon. I can’t stress this enough. Fresh lemon just makes the world of difference.
How did you make sure this cocktail was creative yet delicious and tasty?
When I was building it, I knew I just wanted my banger. I created what’s called a ‘crush factor scale’ from one to ten. But any drink that goes on the Pontiac cocktail menu has to fall between eight and 11 on the crush factor scale (it’s a Spinal Tap reference). I needed a cocktail that was just like a no brainer to trick people into start drinking craft cocktails, in SoHo and in Central where there were no cocktail bars really five years ago.
Everybody was drinking Japanese whiskey five years ago, right? So doing scotch, they were going to drink the scotch. Then we integrated fresh ingredients, a house ginger syrup a little Angostura and some lemon juice, we threw in Amaro in there, but like people don’t know what that is but I’m sticking it in, you know what I’m saying? In the end, instead of saying ‘orange garnish,’ I’m saying orange oil. People will be like, well what’s that? We were plugging in tiny things to start conversation.
What do you think it takes to make a modern classic cocktail?
Well, in my humble opinion, the Hobnail is a modern classic for me now. You’re never going to see a clarified cocktail become a modern classic. It’s not going to happen. Because it’s not accessible. Classic cocktails are the kind of cocktails that hopefully everybody can make. It has to be able to cross cultures and it has to be something that is mentally and physically accessible for everyone else. Penicillin. That’s the best example — and the Hobnail is actually not too different from the Penicillin to be fair. You have to be able to make it.
You spoke about your palate and reading flavours — how did your background influence you or help you develop that?
It depends on how far back you’d like to go. Growing up, we had an herb shop or my stepfather owned the building where the herb shop was in. I lived next to a hill. I was my own little hunter and gatherer. We grew plants. My grandma’s a botanist, she understood herbs, the effect of the herbs, the smell of the herbs. I grew up on her four acres, tending the garden. It’s always been part of me and I’ve been very, very fortunate to be surrounded by that growing up.
I’m hyper passionate about alcohol and hyper passionate about history and geography. I’m specifically drawn to Italian digestifs, I’ve worked with Fernet Branca previously. And that is going back to it — inside its fundamentals is aromatic and roots and bitters and botanicals and the history of it and everything plays a certain role. With the craft of bartending, that’s just how you apply all of those passions.
Anything else that makes this particular drink so special?
The drink just hits the veins so hard, half the time I’m like, we should just name The Pontiac The Hobnail. It’s just cult. Other people have put it on their menu. It really does show that for being a craft cocktail, you don’t have to be all up in the lab about it. It’s a super thought out, well balanced craft cocktail with all of the right components that you can make at home or anywhere.
The Pontiac’s ‘The Hobnail’
45ml Scotch whisky
20ml ginger syrup*
20ml fresh lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon Averna Amaro with ice
Shake and strain into a chilled glass filled with ice. Top with orange oil (peel and squeeze orange rind over the drink), garnish with twist.
1.5 parts sugar to 1 part pure ginger extract (ginger processed in a blender and fine strained).