The first time I tried to go to Quinary (located at 56-58 Hollywood Road), it was so packed that my friends and I moved on to another bar.
Last Wednesday, I finally succeeded in joining all those cool people, who were happily sipping on cocktails that I had previously missed out on.
Of course, I was there with the strangest person in the room, who caught me off guard by blowing the foam of his Earl Grey Caviar Martini all over my unsuspecting face.
After a casual chat with Antonio Lai, resident “mixologist” (more on this later), I hungrily stored away his business card in order to arrange an interview for later in the week.
During the course of our interview, I learned that Quinary’s concoctions aim to be multisensory, giving a whole new meaning to my foamy experience.
Quinary’s got that clean old-school vibe that has become popular in Hong Kong’s bar and restaurant scene. But, unlike some others, it’s more than just appearances, because Quinary has some seriously cool, legitimate equipment to back up their concept. To find out what that is, and more, keep reading!
Bakker’s Bites (BBITES): What is the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?
Antonio Lai (A.L.): Honestly for me, more or less, it’s the same. It’s only a term designed to give the reader, or the customer a better impression. Mixologist sounds more professional but at the end of the day, what they have to do – to ensure that the guest enjoys the cocktail – it’s the same. This is the most basic requirement. Bartender… mixologist? It’s just only a name. If the guest doesn’t like the cocktail or my service, I’m nothing.
BBITES: How much responsibility do you feel to come up with new creations? Or are you more interested in perfecting classic cocktails?
A.L.: I think I’m in the middle. The classics are knowledge and the key of success; if you don’t understand the classics, you won’t be able to create or recreate a good cocktail. By understanding how the classics work, you’ll be able to achieve something new and interesting.
Of course, new techniques are always good; they are my passion, as you can see with our equipment in the bar. But you have to learn how to walk before you learn how to run: knowledge is most important.
BBITES: Can you tell me more about the concept behind Quinary?
A.L.: The name is related to the five senses. The books I have published use the term “multisensory mixology”. A cocktail is no longer a cocktail anymore… I can make a cocktail where you get pleasure from just listening.
It’s about sound, smell, taste, texture and the visual… sometimes I can bring back old memories through the drink. For example, a bubblegum vodka; it’s like eating the bubble gum but you’re drinking it. It’s a classic taste that many people may have forgotten: old pink bubble gum.
That’s the reason I prefer “multisensory” instead of “molecular”. If I give you a glass of water, H2O, it’s molecular too, so it can sound stupid. But then again, if I tell a guest I’m doing molecular cocktails, they will understand what I’m doing because the term is more widespread, due to the impressions of molecular gastronomy.
BBITES: When did you start your career in Mixology?
A.L.: It was around four years ago, when I was in Italy. I bought a book called “Barchef & Molecular Mixologist”. After I bought that book I started looking into it and I found it quite interesting. Nobody was doing that in Hong Kong at the time, so I thought “why not me?”.
It was difficult to find information about those techniques at the time. I started researching for methods and products in order to make multisensory cocktails. I imported from places like London and Spain. It took me a while through trial and error, but that’s the only way because everything starts from scratch.
BBITES: How do you get inspired to make a new cocktail?
A.L.: Sometimes, I like to remix something in a fun way. For example, my Panda Colada. It’s a way to make a classic more interesting, and the guest will have a memorable experience: this is the idea.
A.L.: I believe in sharing. The idea behind my books is to include everything: by reading and studying the methods, bartenders can understand the techniques and apply them to their own work.
Both books are bilingual in Chinese and English. I understand that a lot of people in Asia might not speak really good English, so by publishing it in both languages, more people can use it. And of course, English is the common language outside of Asia. I want to ensure that everyone is able to understand.
(cont.) I’m not saying I’m the best in Hong Kong, but I’m always trying to think of ways to share my knowledge in Hong Kong so others can raise up their level. This is important because Hong Kong is a very famous city, but we’re still not that strong in cocktail culture.
I’m lucky because I travelled a lot and have seen many things; I pull everything I think is good and put it together. If I want, I can switch Quinary into a school in the daytime: I have a white board, black board and a projector but haven’t done any classes here yet.
So far, I’ve done a few seminars. Those seminars are without charge for bartenders… if you asked me to attend something for a few hundred dollars, I’d think “maybe not,” but if it’s free, that’s another story. Everybody wants to make money, but education is more important than money. I always hope the future of bartending in Hong Kong will be better. Someone has to do it, so I’d like to be the one.
If I open the bar school here, the bartenders will be able to get hands-on experience and use the machinery we have here at Quinary. The layout of Quinary took the idea of this future school into its design.
I want to be one of the top mixologists in the world; being the top in Hong Kong is not enough for me.
It was a pleasure to chat with Antonio (thanks Antonio!!), and I hope you enjoyed reading our interview 🙂 . Above all, I was inspired by his attitude towards his trade. Giving credit where it’s due and openly sharing his knowledge with fellow bartenders in Hong Kong, Antonio remains a humble, dedicated and hardworking individual.
Before signing out of this post, please check out this quick video (below) of Antonio giving me a rundown of some of the snazzy equipment found behind the bar at Quinary, including such exciting devices as a centrifuge and evaporator.