Ashley Sutton has brought a wave of fantasy to a city that constantly craves a break from reality. With a $4 million budget from Dining Concepts restaurant group, Sutton opened three bars in Hong Kong this year, each offering its own alternate reality.
Ophelia and The Iron Fairies transport visitors to imaginary lands of peacocks and iron mines, while J. Boroski takes a 180 with a minimalist vibe. Ophelia, the most elaborate of the three, is a sensory adventure tucked away in a commercial building in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district. Sutton took the concept of a peacock and went wild—more or less turning the bar into the majestic bird itself, with thousands of real peacock feathers sprouting from artwork on the walls and behind the bar.
The theme continues in every cranny of the bar, with welded feathers encircling arched doorways, hand-etched bird footprints on the copper bar, a throne flanked by two preserved peacocks, and green and blue lighting overhead. All night, saucy cheongsam-clad entertainers dance in cages and lounge on platforms reminiscent of opium beds.
"I have always been in love with the colors of the feather of a peacock," says Sutton. "The way it walks, the way it looks, the way it matches the feeling of the Far East and that bygone colonial era."
Full of in-your-face flavors, the cocktails are as colorful as the body-painted entertainers. The signature drink, Uncaged, is a blend of tequila, cherry puree, agave nectar, orange liqueur, and grapefruit served on a towering bed of crushed ice and dressed up with dried flowers. The Sapphire Pursuit looks comparatively demure, but this Aviation variation is no lightweight, thanks to a combo of gin, lemon juice, grapefruit, maraschino, and creme de violette.
While Sutton has become renowned for building fantastical drinking dens in Bangkok—including Maggie Choo's, Mr Jones' Orphanage, and A.R Sutton & Co. Engineers Siam—he doesn't even like bars. His career, he says, unfolded by accident.
It started, of all places, with a children's book. While still a teenager working in an Australian ore mine, the Perth native penned The Iron Fairies Trilogy, a dark fairytale series about a miner who lives underground and hand carves fairies for 400 years. Years later, he built a workshop in Bangkok where he could craft his iron fairies—tiny figures with various personalities.
People visited his fairy-making factory, stayed to enjoy the atmosphere, and began requesting snacks and drinks. The place slowly evolved into the first Iron Fairies bar, and invitations to design spaces across Asia quickly followed.
"I never wanted to design bars, but now that's all that people know me for, so they keep asking," says Sutton. "I only go to bars because I have to design them. I'd rather design a spacecraft, submarines, commercial crafts, and crazy hotels and resorts."
But even if his heart isn't in the bar scene, Sutton hides it well. Located in a basement on Pottinger Street, the enchanting Hong Kong branch of Iron Fairies feels like a labor of love.
"I love working in basements—it's good for my designs," says Sutton. "They're hidden away and they enable people to transport to another world."
Indeed, entering Iron Fairies feels like you're tunneling into an underground factory with iron tables, raw leather, heavy brick, and iron chandeliers. Overhead, thousands of preserved butterflies create a canopy of color. Just like the rest of his bars, nearly every detail inside is handmade.
"My grandfather was a carpenter, so I spent my early days watching him build boats and houses and all that with timber," says Sutton. "He taught me a lot about quality of work, craftsmanship, and how to use tools and natural materials correctly."
A live jazz band plays in the corner, while diners eat sliders and sip on smoking, sparkling concoctions. The cocktail list is largely designed around the atmosphere. One of the signature drinks, Smoke in a Bottle No. 1, is a garden of herbal and smoky flavors comprising blueberry vodka, elderflower liqueur, homemade sage cordial, lemon, and creme de cassis—but the definitive flavor comes from smoked cacao nibs.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Pink Tako is on the lighter side made with house-infused cranberry gin, homemade cranberry cordial, yuzu, and egg white, garnished with a curl of dried octopus that adds a salty, savory aroma.
Next door at J. Boroski, the design takes a backseat to the cocktails. The sleek, minimalistic speakeasy is more suited for cocktail connoisseurs who can't handle the sensory overload in Ophelia or The Iron Fairies.
Once you phone for its 'secret' location (it's connected to The Iron Fairies), the staff at J. Boroski will fix you up, no matter what ails you. I visited the speakeasy the day Donald Trump was elected, so that was a tall order. As I plopped myself onto a stool, bartenders Anthony Edwards and Miu Leah vied to make a cocktail that would cure the deepest of depressions.
There's no menu at J. Boroski. The game here is to express your preferred flavors and mood, and let the bartenders craft a suitable cocktail. Leah suggested a whiskey sour with orange and caramel, while Edwards concocted a chili-strawberry gin martini.
Each offered its own flavor of salvation. The whisky sour was light and creamy, thanks in part to a hand-blender that created a silky foam. The martini was strong—Edwards showcased the liquor's flavor, and accentuated it with a welcome tickle of chili and a subtle sweetness from muddled strawberries.
While sipping on the whisky sour, I explored the intimate watering hole. The tunnel-like bar has a curved wall, leather stools, and a perfectly symmetrical ceiling lined with preserved beetles.
"Boroski bar is purely sophisticated and sexy—I based it on [friend] Joseph Boroski, a clean cut bartender from New York who would like the minimalistic style," Sutton said.
Sexy is right. There are semi-private booths in the back, as well as a dedicated 'sex' room where an endless stream of porn plays from a tiny TV. This literal hole-in-the-wall feels more like a practical joke than an earnest addition—you get the feeling that Sutton enjoys throwing people off kilter.
"I never want to do anything predictable," he says. "I wanted to take these three bars and make them unique and magical.