If you accidentally walked past Little Lab, founder Cyrus Li wouldn't blame you. The buttonhole cocktail bar is a low-key space, with just a couple of high tops, vintage lamps, and a street art-inspired mural in the back.
The experimental Hong Kong spot specializes in Chinese interpretations of classic cocktails, using local ingredients and Asian infusions, such as oolong tea, lychee, and homemade ginger honey—and the concept was created by a bartender who learned most of his chops on Wikipedia. Well, kind of.
Li worked on the floor at Quinary, helmed by award-winning mixologist Antonio Lai, one of Hong Kong's most decorated bartenders. Then 23, Li learned how to keep customers happy and the bar full.
But he wasn't content with working in someone else's bar. He wanted to run his own place, so he took the plunge and opened Little Lab a year later. At the time, Li's mixology skills were pretty basic. But he studied the art of foam and fire on his own time, reading endless Wikipedia articles. Soon enough, he was able to tackle more complicated techniques, such as distillation and dehydration.
When Little Lab first opened in 2013, Li put Hong Kong culture under a microscope, and distilled his discoveries in his cocktails. He quickly earned a reputation for creating out-of-the-box cocktails hell-bent on mirroring local culture. But the bar, located on Staunton Street in Hong Kong's expat-heavy SoHo district, went a little too niche for its clientele.
Within months of opening, Li garnered attention for a rather radical drink called "The Newborn"—a potent mix of rum, beer and homemade ginger vinaigrette that came topped with a marinated quail's egg to bring the point home.
The drink was a play on a traditional sweet pork knuckle and vinegar stew that new Hong Kong moms are encouraged to consume after giving birth. According to Cantonese customs, the therapeutic soup is meant to fuel recovery.
"Everyone said that drink was great. They liked it but didn't know why," says Li. "It was really difficult for foreigners to understand."
And who has time to explain the symbolism on a busy Friday night?
Foreign palates didn't always agree with Li's most inventive creations, so in late 2016 he collaborated with award-winning local bartender Reeve Yip to create a more refined menu that continues to focus on local ingredients and nostalgic concepts, but with more digestible reference points.
The Newborn didn't make the final cut on Li's new menu.
"Our concept is still Hong Kong ingredients and Hong Kong culture," Li explains. "When I was growing up, people drank cream soda with milk and ate a lot of ginger—we try to emulate these kinds of things. We use everything we can from Hong Kong, like dry orange peels to make the whisky sour.
In the three years since opening, Li has learned to refine his cocktails. A leather menu outlines two pages of creative concoctions, including an Eastern Old Fashioned made with kaffir lime syrup and dried tangerine peel; an Oriental Julep with ginger and honey; a Far East Sangria, mixing together Chenin Blanc, Bacardi, berries and ginger honey; and a Sichuan Bloody Mary containing numbing Sichuan peppers.
But Li's most celebrated drinks are still the ones that pay homage to Hong Kong's culinary heritage, such as the creamy "Coffee, Tea or Me?"—a nod to a yuenyeung. Served at Hong Kong's retro cha chaan teng diners, the old-school refreshment comprises strong black tea, coffee, and condensed milk.
"I drank this when I was a kid every day," says Li.
To capture the essence in cocktail form, Li's recipe calls for Iron Buddha tea leaves, spiced rum, Iron Guanyin tea syrup, milk, walnut bitters, Belgian blonde ale, and a tequila that's been "slow cooked" with roasted coffee beans. Served in a copper mug, the drink arrives topped with a crown of tea leaves, toasted with a torch to release a stronger aroma.
"The Iron Buddha tea balances out the sweet flavors and the milk and syrup, so it's really smooth," says Li. "The smell is really important. It changes the whole cocktail experience."
Meanwhile, the dainty "Beauti in the East" combines a bit of tea, fire, and foam. Served in a martini glass, the cocktail combines oolong tea, lychee liqueur, and an oolong-infused vodka that's made fresh daily in-house.
As if a lightbulb has gone off in his head, Li asks if I have time to try one more. He begins slicing up cucumber and pulverizing some mint, muddling it all together. He combines the Scottish gin with cucumber, lime, and Bulgarian Damask rose syrup in a molecular shaker to enhance the carbonation.
He pulls out an Erlenmeyer flask—a triangle-shaped laboratory container—pours in the bubbly mix, and adds a few sprigs of mint as a finale. Dubbed the "Hendricks pH3," the off-menu tipple will debut ahead of Hong Kong's humid summer, when the humidity hovers around 90 percent.
"I have a lot of secret formulas," says Li. "Sometimes customers ask for a surprise cocktail, so I come up with something that matches our Little Lab style.