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 new column Handpicked, we’ve teamed up with Four Seasons beverage ambassador Lorenzo Antinori to identify some of the best bartenders in Hong Kong who can teach us how to use ingredients easily found in Hong Kong’s backyard (or supermarkets).
Each month, Antinori welcomes one of these top talents to the Four Seasons bar for a chat on everything from cocktail culture to modern mixology methods, before posing to them a unique challenge: to create a delicious cocktail recipe that incorporates local Asian ingredients. Below, read on for the inaugural column of Handpicked where Antinori sits down with rising bar star, Shelley Tai.
There are two key components to Shelley Tai’s heart — family, and flavour. Having been in the drinks business ever since she started her first job, Shelley cut her teeth at legendary clubs and restaurants such as Drop and Finds in Hong Kong. Her warm smile and elegant demeanour lends her strength as a host at work, where she never cracks under pressure. That unshakeable spirit stems from her grandmother’s teaching, who inspires her and reminds her to never show stress and never give up on anything she takes on. It came as no surprise then, when she took on a job at Quinary — the city’s foremost high volume multi-sensory mixology cocktail bar, helmed by master mixologist, Antonio Lai.
In a few short years, Shelley rose above the ranks through her participation in various cocktail competitions. Crowned Diageo World Class Hong Kong & Macau Bartender of the year 2019, critics have spotted her as the next rising star, and her creations are no small feat either. An accomplished chef as well, Shelley has a knack for marrying unlikely flavours together in her cocktails with impressive results. You might also find her cruising around the most innovative restaurant in the city or street food stands, in search of inspiration for her next creations.
Do not be fooled by her calm and seraphic appearance as she truly believes that anything you do, “do it with passion or not at all”. As a young lady in a male dominated industry, Shelley is confident that female bartenders are here to encourage and empower not just each other, but the greater community.
We sit down with Shelley Tai as she interprets star anise, a traditional Christmas flavour, for a festive Hong Kong inspired cocktail.
Could you share with us a little bit how your creative process has developed over the years — from working in a club to joining the team at Quinary?
It’s actually really, really different. So I started as a bartender in FINDS, the Nordic restaurant. There, I met Antonio [Lai], there we made a little bit of the [famous] Earl Grey Martini, which was mind-blowing already at that time.
And then, I switched to nightclubs for a few years. It’s actually the longest time of my experience in the industry. So I was at Drop, where, you know, it’s all about single mixes, it’s about speed, efficiency. People got so drunk every night. The thing that we made at Drop the most though — it’s a little different from other nightclubs — were the fresh fruit martinis, which Drop was really famous for. So at that time, cocktails were not very popular yet, but then we made a lot of like watermelon martinis, lychee martinis — like, a lot of it.
But after that, I didn’t want to continue because it’s actually really tiring and you don’t really know how far you can go from there, right, when you’re in a nightclub. I was a bar manager there that time, but then I didn’t want to continue. I asked Antonio, “Do you want to hire me? I don’t mind starting from a junior role.” So that’s how I started at Quinary two and a half years ago as a bartender.
So from a place where it was all about volume and fast pace, you’ve now established yourself at this bar where it’s about pushing the boundaries of flavours using modern techniques. Where do you get your inspiration from whenever you create cocktails?
I do observe a lot when I go out to eat or drink. I especially like going to restaurants and nice cocktail bars that do very interesting combinations of flavours or very different styles. So when I was in Barcelona, I went to Disfrutar, and checked out all these other molecular sources as well. It’s really amazing.
How would you describe the creative process at Quinary? Whenever you make a new creation, how do you guys come up with those recipes?
Quinary is a very different bar to other bars, I feel. We try to do a lot with not only special flavours, but we also like making different flavour combinations that aren’t classic pairings. We also try to make the presentation very interesting for people. Like even those people who don’t like to drink, they would want to come and try the drinks. It’s a whole package.
I think that’s very important because these days, with the industry in general it feels like there’s this need to make things complicated and we don’t always think about the consumers. You’re right, I think Quinary is a great balance between pleasing the guests with beautiful presentation, while at the same time you have a lot of modern techniques that you apply behind the scenes.
Now, the ingredient that we picked, because it’s Christmas time, is star anise. How did you tackle this ingredient in the cocktail and what sort of processes did you apply to make the ingredient shine through?
When I first found out about the ingredient, I tried to think of what I have had before with star anise. It’s a lot right? It’s maybe an Asian ingredient mostly found in a lot of Asian cuisine. For Cantonese, of course you have star anise in all this roast meat, within the ‘five spices’, and also in Vietnamese pho. It’s a very ‘winter’ spice — it gives a very wintery, spicy aroma. It smells very sweet. I wanted to pair it with Earl Grey tea, because I wanted to bring a little of this winter feeling into the drink.
When you think that this article might be read by a drinks enthusiast who would be able to recreate this recipe at home, you decided to make a syrup right? What was the challenge in tackling this ingredient and introduce star anise into a syrup format?
I felt like for star anise, many people use it with other different spices, like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves. It’s not commonly used alone, and not totally focused on this smell. That’s why it’s like a complementary flavour. This syrup that I wanted to make uses Earl Grey tea to also complement the flavour. I still want to focus on the star anise aromas and taste. I wanted to make it really easy to make anywhere and at home, so I used a pot to simmer the star anise in syrup. Then after I let it cool, I steeped Earl Grey Tea in the syrup — you want to do this when the syrup is room temperature, so that the tea isn’t too intense or bitter.
Can you describe the cocktail itself? What else is in it?
I used rye whisky because I also want that spiciness. Then, I have this star anise and earl grey tea syrup, and then I did a little bit of apricot liqueur for a bit of fruitiness — just a little bit. For the citrus I actually picked bergamot. Earl Grey tea is actually black tea that’s also made with bergamot oil. So I use a little bergamot and lime citrus mix to brighten up the cocktail.
This reminds me a lot of a sour style cocktail, right? Whenever you build a new recipe, do you ever have a reference in mind — what’s the creative process when creating a new cocktail?
For me, I actually like sampling it a lot with different spirits or different flavours and see which one I like the most. Sometimes I will just take a classic cocktail for reference. But I think that sweet and sour cocktails are just very simple and everyone really likes them — you just have to make sure it’s balanced. Everyone can do it at home!
Shelley Tai’s ‘Rise N Shine’, an Earl Grey and star anise sour
45ml Rye Whiskey
20ml Homemade Star Anise & Earl Grey Syrup*
15ml Citrus Mix (bergamot and lime juices)
5ml Apricot Liqueur
Build drink in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, then long-pour between your mixing glass and shaker to gently introduce more air and froth without watering it down too much. Strain into a glass with ice, garnish with star anise.
*Star Anise & Earl Grey Syrup
1. Combine 350g of water and 350g of sugar in a pan and heat until sugar dissolves.
2. Add 20 pieces of star anise and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Turn off the heat.
4. Once the syrup has cooled down, steep 10g of Earl Grey tea and let it infuse for 1 hour.
5. Strain through a filter, bottle the syrup and store in the fridge for up to 30 days.