In the high-rise kingdom that is Hong Kong, even the cocktails reach towards the sky—particularly the city's most famous drink, the Earl Grey Caviar Martini, an impressive number that sports a sky-high coiffe of white foam and bed of bright orange boba-like beads below.
The signature drink at Quinary in Hong Kong's buzzy SoHo neighborhood is a sight to behold, and the architect who designed the molecular masterpiece still casts a shadow over the city's cocktail scene.
When Antonio Lai opened Quinary in 2012, there were only a handful of upscale cocktail bars in town. Nearly all of them were inside hotels, and almost none of them served anything beyond the classics. Then Lai opened his molecular-cocktail-bar-slash-epicurean-laboratory and changed everything.
When I sit down at the bar for a taste of the drink that put Lai and his first establishment on the map, I fumble on approach, circling the mound in search of an entry point. "Just suck it," suggests the award-winning mixologist. Double entendres aside, his strategy works.
Seconds later, I've tunneled through the airy Earl Grey-infused foam for easy sipping. On a muggy, 90-degree day in Hong Kong, the martini is a refreshing wake-up call. The zesty ingredients—lemon and lime, elderflower, cucumber, Ketel One citrus vodka and Cointreau—offset the city's humid weather. The "caviar" beads (actually Earl Grey tea mixed with sodium alginate) pop in my mouth, topping off each sip with a last little hit of bergamot.
Frothed with an aquarium air pump, the drink's aromatic foam crown can stand tall for up to 30 minutes, thanks to a molecular ingredient called soy lecithin. Meanwhile, the caviar beads—which are created by being pushed through a handy tray that generates 96 drops in a few seconds—sit at the bottom of the glass. "From ticket to table, we can do the martini in less than three minutes," Lai says. "It looks like it should take a longer. And that's exactly what we want."
Lai is accustomed to working fast. Shortly after opening Quinary, he followed with several new bars: Angel's Share, Origin, The Envoy, and VEA, to name a few. Still, the Earl Gray Martini remains the bartender's magnum opus. The famous cocktail took Lai about two months to perfect, though he continuously tweaks the technique to improve the flavors and efficiency. "Even four years after opening, this is still the best selling drink. We sell around 800 a month," he says. "That's more than HK$1 million (US$128,950) a year for just one cocktail."
But a best-selling drink isn't enough for Lai. He wants to stimulate all five senses in every sip. "I want you to be able to see it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture," he says. "It makes a more memorable experience."
And in order to stay competitive, Lai will need to remain memorable. Today, the cocktail scene is evolving faster than you can Snapchat that martini—just last week I counted five new openings. As for Lai, he is counting on his creative recipes and high-tech techniques to stand out in the crowd. Constantly experimenting, Lai's bar counter could easily double as a science laboratory. He regularly uses a centrifuge, rotary evaporator, vacuum machine, sous vide, and carbonate bottling system to create new flavor profiles and textures.
"Less than seven places in Hong Kong have a rotary evaporator, and we operate four of them," says Lai. "We use culinary skills to invent new flavors. I can easily make a classic cocktail, but very few bars can replicate our drinks."