A Serious Drinker's Guide To Hong Kong Gin
It was as much of a shock to the Hong Kong bar and avid drinkers’ community as it was an “I knew something didn’t feel right” moment when we learned that Handover Gin had been passing off spirits imported from New Zealand as Hong Kong-made. The company did not hold a valid distilling license and the still in their warehouse appeared to exist solely for the purpose of marketing, all of which led to the arrest of the founder in April 2020.
This incident drew my attention to how important it is to understand the provenance of what we drink – the same way we now demand such information for what we eat. I spent the past week speaking to the only two licensed gin distilleries in Hong Kong, as well as two other Hong Kong natives distilling gins elsewhere but drawing inspirations from our city, to understand their ethos and journeys, and here are their stories!
My first visit of the day. I alighted from my taxi a little confused that I had just been dropped off amongst Taikoo’s slew of office blocks in Quarry Bay. The majority of my (many, many) brewery and distillery visits around the world usually involved driving to the very outskirts of town where rent is more affordable and square footage is more generous, so this was certainly an exception to the norm.
Upon meeting Jeremy Li and Nick Law, it became clear that the selection of this address was very much intentional as they hoped to demystify the production processes behind gin through encouraging visits and making their space as accessible to the public as possible. They had spent over half a year literally hopping up and down the MTR lines looking at potential sites before settling with their current space.
This entire journey started at the end of 2017 when the two friends, driven by their love of gin and inspired by Four Pillars from Australia in particular, decided to go on an adventure to Scotland to learn the secrets of distilling. They certainly got the adventure they bargained for, given that without too much planning ahead, they landed themselves at the start of a harsh Scottish winter. Within 48 hours of arrival, they were caught in the mountains in a sudden blizzard, driving in the dark without chains on icy roads to complete an hour journey that turned into six. It all turned out to be worth it as many of the distillers they learned from in the area continue to be mentors to this day.
NIP opened its doors in the summer of 2019, but not before more hiccups along the way. Their custom copper still, designed specially to suit the space and NIP’s specific functions, took ten months to make, and when the time came around for the manufacturer from Germany to come install all the pieces in person, delays in construction meant the site was still not ready and they were unable to reschedule. Jeremy and Nick ended up putting all the pieces together themselves while Skyping with the makers. “You know that feeling when you’re doing a puzzle and you feel like you’re missing a piece? Or worse, when you are almost done and you have pieces left behind,and you can’t figure out if they’re extras or if you messed something up? Yeah. There was a lot of that,” sighed the pair.
Luckily, no parts were missing, and the still appears to still be standing upright on the day I visited. From that still comes a gin with subtle Hong Kong touches. A few local botanicals featured include longjing and shoumei tea leaves, snow pear, ginger and Osmanthus. The spirit itself is long on the palette, and designed to stand just as well on its own as it does within the cocktail. A peek under the bottle also reveals the Chinese symbol for “victory”, another homage to Hong Kong as it is often seen in vintage drinking bowls and signifies a toast or a cheers. With that fun fact in mind, we “yam seng” to the new distillery.
My second visit of the day is to Two Moons in Chai Wan. Founders Ivan Chang and Dimple Yuen welcomed me into their bar and distillery show room that immediately showed a woman’s touch when it came to the décor and design details. There are elements of copper that alludes to their still, and the mythical creatures used in their branding are full of whimsy.
As we dove into the stories of the still itself, affectionately named Luna, I learned that its acquisition process did not come easy for them either – with the original manufacturer hesitant to supply to a country which has no history of distillation whatsoever.
Along with that same problem and sentiment was the process of obtaining an official license to distill in the first place, where previously only local rice wine and sauce companies have been certified to do so. Although the paperwork part of the process only took two months, it was a cumulation of over a year’s worth of site visits, consultations and learning in tandem with the Customs and Excise and licensing bureau of Hong Kong. When it all finally came to fruition, the whole department came to congratulate and celebrate with them – a heartwarming gesture to behold given we normally villainise bureaucracies in our city!
With Luna gleaming in the background, Dimple reminisced on when she and Ivan would soak various botanicals in high proof spirits for fun to mimic the process of flavouring gins. She sheepishly took out a bottle with bold, handwritten letters “VIRGIN,” which contains the first mini run of a distillation that they made during a one-day training course that solidified that it was what they wanted to do together and as a business. The current Two Moons release is actually based on this very first combination of botanicals they experimented with that is more akin to a classic London Dry style, despite having veered in many other directions and iterations that included red dates, goji berries and black sesame. That is not to say that those flavours won’t be making an appearance, as the duo are most looking forward to bottling special releases as they continue to experiment with local and seasonal produce. Rest assured there will be a gin with a flavour profile suited to each type of discerning drinker soon.
Perfume Trees Gin
Going backwards to perhaps one of the first Hong Kong natives to dabble with creating his own gin, I spoke with Kit Cheung who started Perfume Tree in 2018. Having spent 18 years behind the stick in Hong Kong and London bars, Kit found there was no one liquor that exuded the soul of our city the same way Japan had shochu and Russia had vodka. While gin may not be an automatic association to Hong Kong, he would rely on the choice of botanicals in order to tell the story.
Kit and his friend and now business partner, Joseph, spent two years doing research and development, combing Hong Kong’s streets for the best and most evocative botanicals. Two that ended up being Perfume Tree’s most distinct include sandalwood – reminiscent of incense burning in temples, and white champaca, the little white flowers often sold on the busy streets and found tied to taxi air conditioners for their fragrance. Kit made sure that each of botanical he sourced from Hong Kong came from a store with over 50 years of history, most of which have been passed down from generation to generation. There were certainly no expenses spared, as over fifty pounds of champaca flower is needed to produce every 10ml of its essential oils. The botanicals are then shipped to a trusted distiller in Holland (the alleged birthplace of gin in the form of genever) who agreed to help with his new mission.
When asked what the hardest part of his journey has been, Kit laughed and said “Honestly, it’s drinking a lot! There were a lot of test batches, and many of them were not very good but in order not to waste anything, we end up drinking all out mistakes!” Keep eyes peeled, as Perfume Tree are in the process of establishing their own distillery in town this coming year, so we can all help take a load off his trail runs!
My final meeting of the week was with Shakib Pasha, a man of many passions and projects, to talk about his newest creation, Porcelain gin. You may know him as the proprietor behind Foxglove and Dr Fern’s, or founder of beer distributor Bestbev, or brains behind local cider maker Neonotic Brews.
When a Japanese gin project he had been working on for a year hit some speedbumps, it was serendipity that an old friend of his, Hubert Tse, reached out to collaborate with his family business of distilling spices in China’s Liaoning province, home to some of the country’s largest spice markets.
It all seemed perfect with easy access to a unique range of botanicals, but things got interesting when they realized that juniper berries, the only critical botanical for producing gin, was considered an illegal import to China. They ended up sourcing the berries from Mongolia – making them the first and only gin maker to do so. It is featured prominently in both iterations of their gins, the Shanghai Dry and the Mandarin orange edition. The farm that grew the berries was only used to selling to traditional Chinese medicine companies, and in tiny quantities. Being able to find juniper regionally meant they did not need to resort to using bottled essences which compromises the quality of the final product.
Another big differentiating factor about Porcelain is the packaging. The ornate bottle resembling a Ming vase was designed in collaboration with Shakib’s friends at local Hong Kong brands Loveramics and Lalacurio - a great testament to collaboration and local talent. While their production costs five times that of regular glass bottles, the team believe that it enables them to have a life beyond the gin – all while looking great on a bar shelf.
After chatting with our city’s pioneering gin makers, it occurred to me that all their stories centered around a coming together of friends, and a genuine quest for quality and adventure. The next time you are at a bar (and hopefully that is soon!) don’t be overwhelmed by the selection of gins at hand. Support local where you can, but also ask your bartender to tell you the stories behind the bottles and the brands. You’ll be surprised how a spirit can take you on an adventure of your own.