Randy Lai ventures beyond his home bar in search of Hong Kong’s most delicious Martini, and the mixologists poised to revitalise the beverage for an exciting comeback.
Like most addictions popularised over the past year and a half – who could forget the meteoric spike in online searches for “how to make sourdough”? – my initial motive for fixing Martinis at home was, predictably, to drown out the internal screaming that runs concomitant with a worldwide health emergency. Those days when I felt especially helpless – typically, the result of another lockdown, new restriction or some horrible announcement of yet another untimely venue closure – I resorted to the “direct pour” method: in effect, a searingly cold glass of gin, where the presence of vermouth could best be described as “ineffectual”.
But as Hong Kong wobbles gingerly into the third quarter of something like a “normal” year, my appetite for the drink has taken on a decidedly more appreciative guise. Last year, consuming them (and the pivot to making cocktails at home in general) seemed crucially like an act of self-care. In 2021, the Martini symbolises a return to form, typifying a whole class of well-made classics that we now have the pleasure of falling in love with on an evening out, following many months of homemade analogues.
Of course, some will argue that the drink’s elemental simplicity makes it a poor choice of standard bearer in the mission to re-open bars and encourage over-the-counter drinking. How could any cocktail made with just three ingredients (namely: gin, vermouth and ice) possibly be good enough to warrant a return to the notoriously outbreak-prone realm of bars and restaurants?
The first salvo to this mostly rhetorical invective is fired from across the harbour. The triggerman in question? Simone Rossi. A veteran bartender of London’s Dorchester Hotel, he now heads up DarkSide, Rosewood Hong Kong’s sultry hideaway for jazz, classic cocktails and premium aged spirits. Ranked No 40 on Asia’s 50 Best list, the bar stirs up one of Hong Kong’s most popular Martinis, and a litany of beverages made in the same minimalist style. “In order to foster interest in the classics, we first needed to have a very well-rounded signature,” says Rossi. “That’s why we created the Martini Vs Vesper, as a kind of baby step for casual drinkers, taking the traditional gin/ vermouth pairing and making it a little more light-hearted and approachable.”
To the layman, the signature concoction will appear uncannily similar to the archetypal Martini, served – in the hallowed tradition of transatlantic supper clubs – in a long conical glass, always chilled and garnished with a green olive-esque morsel. Available on a spirited base of either vodka or gin, it’s a surprisingly mellow evocation of a beverage that’s frequently typecast as boozy, bone-dry denouement. Rossi says that this recipe, incorporating two kinds of Mancino Vermouth (aromatised wine produced by adding botanicals to a base of Trebbiano) and wakamomo mountain peaches, is an “evolution” of the classic Martini, one that accommodates the distinctive preferences of Hong Kong’s local drinking culture. “Nowadays, many people are looking for something that’s less unhealthy and low ABV. Aside from its lower alcohol content, our Vs Vesper utilises a range of ingredients that mellow out and balance the entire flavour profile. It’s a lighter drinking experience, with floral notes and a texture closer to the wetter side of the palette.”
The success of the Vs Vesper does, of course, track with the Martini’s well-earned reputation for versatility. Sherry, amaro, pickled onions: time and time again, the basic equation of ‘gin plus vermouth’ has a way of reconciling cameo ingredients with surprisingly scrumptious results. “That’s why it’s so underrated,” says Rossi.
“As a category, there are few drinks better for showcasing lesser -known liquors, because of the outsized way in which these impact the strength, structure, or complexity of the basic recipe.” For discerning types on either side of the bar, the Martini’s potentially infinite variability – actuated by no more than a slight tweak in the proportion of gin, vermouth, or ice – has often made it the subject of fairly detailed scrutiny. Back on Hong Kong Island, in the belly of the financial district, drinkers will find Kyle & Bain, an intimate alcove that seats no more than 20, where the entire beverage programme (notwithstanding one or two curveballs) reads like Martini-fuelled Magna Carta.
Opened by award-winning Seattleite bartender John Nugent, who’s also behind Asia’s No 20 bar, The Diplomat, it feels – to put it mildly – like the sort of establishment that’s long overdue in Hong Kong. Dismayed by the absence of bars capable of whipping up anything more than a tepid Appletini, Nugent took matters into his own hands (with an assist from local hospitality group Leading Nation), culminating in a space where the “golden age” of the Martini remains well and truly alive. “Among the cocktail community, Martinis have always been a fixture,” says Nugent, “but within broader popular culture they gradually became this kind of abused, overly diluted drink. Many of our customers responded warmly to the idea of a bar that would challenge those misconceptions. At the same time, we were becoming acutely aware that what Hong Kong lacked was a place where drinkers could discover a wide assortment of Martini-style recipes, ranging from forgotten classics to modern interpretations.”
Each section of Kyle & Bain’s menu is inspired by the various “building blocks” comprising a classic American Martini. Essentially a four-act structure, cocktails pivot around spirits, vermouth, ice, soigné (the so-called “special element” that really ties a drink together, as Nugent explains) or some combination thereof. Start on a reassuringly strong note with the Gimlet: a boozy yet balanced number, located in the Spirits chapter of the menu. The recipe traditionally calls for equal parts gin and lime juice; on top of which Nugent shepherds in complementary flavours of genever, mastiha (a herbal liqueur originating on the Greek island of Chios) and a “salad cordial’ made by flavouring the eponymous preparation with leeks, cucumber and a variety of other bright, crunchy vegetables. Round, refreshing, yet also mouth-wateringly savoury, it adds a distinctly culinary facet to the Martini’s already-manifold personality.
Turn the page, and you’ll be greeted by the Vermouth section. Unlike the previous spirit-inspired chapter, this part consists of drinks that are driven by mellower, low-ABV ingredients. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they all must include vermouth,” says Nugent, “but it’s a catch-all we use to describe our lighter-drinking cocktails – those utilising aperitifs and fortified wines”. The pithily named Just Grapes is a helpful example. A tipple of Nugent’s own invention, it’s built on a base of two spirits – gin and Armagnac – then stirred over ice with verjus and Lillet Blanc (a fairly typical aromatised wine, made by blending Bordeaux grapes together with citrus liqueur). For good measure, a handful of muscat is garnished prior to serving, hammering home the drink’s essential qualities with the aid of a simple visual flourish. Semi-sweet, balanced and on occasion fruit-forward, these are – for lack of a better phrase – another excellent “gateway drug” to the realm of stiffly made cocktails.
In conversation with devotees like Rossi and Nugent, it’s clear then that the Martini remains a rich, somewhat underrated seam for innovation, just waiting to be mined. As always, the million-dollar question is whether such labours will produce a comeback that lasts; or whether the drinking public will simply lose interest and hurry on to the next thing. For a barman like Nugent, who’s staked much of Kyle & Bain’s reputation on the Martini’s inexhaustible possibilities, Hongkongers’ proven appetite for “simple things, done well” – whether we’re speaking of tuna temaki or a Tuxedo No 2 – gives him no small measure of confidence.
“I think that at any bar striving for excellence, it’s our job to guide customers into the same world that we ourselves have derived so much valuable experience and pleasure from. Even if you’re not ‘into’ the classic dry Martini, we have the elements to make something that’s going to be delicious, approachable and unlikely to alienate you.” The Martini: a beverage for the people, by the people. Now there’s a thought.
(Hero image: Kyle & Bain’s signature martini)