In 2017 I went on my first international trip, and my first completely solo trip. I headed to Hong Kong. The ten days I spent there gave me a ton of personal fulfillment and growth. Suffice it to say, this country has a special place in my heart, especially as a bartender. If you ask me about this trip in person, I wouldn’t shut up about it for days. You’ve been warned.
Hong Kong feels like a splice between a city and a small country. Officially, Hong Kong (or HK as many locals refer to it) is a Special Administrative Region of China. Previously, HK was a British colony for 99 years. Hong Kong essentially being on lease to the British Empire hugely influenced the food and beverage culture, including cocktails. Cocktail culture in Hong Kong is considered one of the best in the world, with influences from Japan and London pushing the envelope. Molecular gastronomy is a common theme here, but not exclusively so. Cocktail bars are prominent, and I would stay away from anything touristy. Talk to the locals, and be prepared to spend some serious money. The cost of alcohol in Hong Kong is not what you would expect if you’ve traveled other parts of Asia. Overall, Hong Kong breaks down like this: accommodations are expensive and booze is expensive, but everything else is reasonable. Some establishments are more extravagant than others, but like any large city or place there’s hidden gems and unassuming places. A place like Hong Kong has so much history, is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, and with the high number of wealthy folks the standard of service is quite high.
What to Drink
It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of choice in Hong Kong. Have a battle plan. It’s best to know what you’re looking for before you head out your hotel door. Any bar that’s worth going to tends to have its own specialty. One of my first nights in Hong Kong I went out to the SOHO district and compiled a list of bars by asking around. Two weeks later I landed back in Toronto found that I barely got through a quarter of the list. Don’t be afraid to do some research on the bar before going out, as most places have extensive information online. Many cocktail-focused bars also specialize in custom cocktails (a concept I discovered during my stay).
Here’s what I would recommend to look for when going out: classic cocktails, molecular mixology, gin and gin infusions, Single Malt Scotch, and Japanese whiskey.
The love of gin comes from that British influence, and because of hot climate you’ll find more fresh herbs, vibrant tropical fruit, and even colourful vegetables in the wintertime. The idea here is to highlight and explore the gin’s botanicals. Several bars will focus on this exclusively, while offering seasonal gin and tonic specialties, and house-made gin infusions crafted with the latest technology. The variety and selection of gin at these ‘gin houses’ will quench the thirst of many spirit enthusiasts. Expect gins from Scotland, England, Australia, Spain, New Zealand, Japan, and Belgium to name a few.
Single Malt Scotch and Japanese whisky finds a special home in several bars across different Hong Kong neighbourhoods. The influence of Japanese expats carved out a scene in many bars, and this includes all the beautiful details that come along with Japanese style of bartending and service. Bars that specialize in whisky will typically have both Scotch and Japanese libations. Expect a selection of rare and well-aged.
Gin and Tonics, Japanese-style highballs, sours (of any kind), Single Malt Scotch and Japanese whisky served neat, and classic cocktail standbys with liberal variations (Old Fashioned, Manhattans, and Martinis.)
I also want to mention snake wine (think hyper-local, medicinal, Jagermeister-like). I know the locals do drink it, but you wouldn’t see it offered on cocktail menus, nor would you find it in your regular liquor store.
As someone who’s been living in Toronto for ten years, Hong Kong’s drinking hours and rules felt like definitive culture shock. There is technically no laws imposing specific drinking hours in the region. While there is no drinking permitted to any persons under the age of 18 I was never personally asked for my ID at any time during my trip. Most establishments dictate their own hours. Typically, bars open as early as noon and have a 2am last call. On weekends that last call gets extended to 6am. This is certainly a case for ‘establishment dependent’ as I like say. Also don’t get phased by people young and old drinking in the streets – the 7/11 sells many well-known European and Asian beers.
Again, culture shock, followed by some boozy-fuelled joy. Alcohol in Hong Kong is quite accessible to the average person. As I mentioned above, you can buy beer and small bottles of wine from 7/11 at all hours of the day. Grocery stores also have a great selection of booze that also include local libations like Chinese plum wine (yum). The bigger, fancier grocery plazas will have glass cases of top-shelf spirits. Liquor stores feel like independent ventures with no large company, chain, or government body harshly regulating them. Here you’re not necessarily going to save on money with the price of alcohol, but you’ll find stuff you wouldn’t at home. Some liquor stores let you sample the wares before you buy. The one I visited in Central, Liquor Land, had proper ISO glasses for tasting.
Price Per Drink
Take a deep breath here. Price per drink can seem a little much, but remember that the standard tends to be quite high here. Hong Kong is home to many bars that are found in the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The primary reason for this cost is that everything you drink, especially the well-known brands, have to get imported in from somewhere else (think import tariffs, and taxes).
A cocktail can cost anywhere from 150-200 HKD on average. That can be anywhere from $25-$30+ (Canadian dollars) depending on the exchange rate.
These are prices I’m grabbing from the fancy cocktail bars in the entertainment district. If you’re venturing out into different neighbourhoods, or frequenting the less ritzy establishments the price per drink won’t be as steep.
Beer prices will seem slightly better (10-15$ depending on the current exchange rate), but the availability of beer will differ depending on where you are. The grocery stores and 7/11s will have a selection of well-known European brands. The local craft beer movement was still in the beginning stages during my visit in 2017. It’s important to note there are many beer-centric bars that will probably cater to any palate.
Wine by the glass is similar to the cocktail prices I’ve quoted above. This all depends on the quality of wine of course, and many cocktail bars will also pride themselves on a good selection of sparkling.
It is important to note that most establishments will have a 10% service charge on their bills, so no need to tip on top of that. Always check the bill to be sure, but 9 times out of 10 this will be the case.
What to Wear
This honestly depends on the neighbourhood, but also the establishment. If we’re talking about SoHo, or a Japanese-inspired whisky bar the dress casual code is assumed at minimum. Think young professionals in finance, business men and women, and would-be lawyers running away from the office for a few hours.
If you’re having drinks at The Pontiac, or a shisha bar in Causeway Bay Area shorts and T-shirts are perfectly acceptable. However, these casual situations still call for designer shoes and brand-name polos. If you’re not sure which category the bar falls under, do an internet search. A quick visit to their webpage will either explicitly state a dress code, or pictures and prices will give you a very clear idea.
Transit and Taxis
Getting around in Hong Kong is pretty easy to navigate, as long as you pay attention to where you’re going. The cool thing about this place is that most transit has announcements and signs in both English and Cantonese. Google Maps integrates almost flawlessly to the local transit system.
Although different branches of the transit system (e.g. subway vs. buses) operate under different companies – the transit system as a whole can be accessed through the Octopus card. The Octopus card is an all-in-one, contactless stored value card. Users can upload money onto the card by simply going to a 7/11 and handing over some cash to the person behind the counter. This means not only is it used for breezing through turnstiles and tapping onto buses, but also making small purchases at bigger chain stores like 7/11 (duh) and McDonalds. A couple different options are available to tourists, but either way the card is good for pretty much forever. If you’re planning on using transit often, and you should, an Octopus card is a worthwhile investment.
Aside from public transit, there are the Urban Red Taxis. The colour distinction is important, because at the airport you’ll see different colour taxis, and the red ones take you to HK proper. The other colours include New Territories Taxis (green), and the Lantau Taxis (Blue). Taxis only take the local currency, no credit or debit here. There can be a bit of a language barrier here, so be sure to know your destination and citing local landmarks can be helpful.
If you’d rather not spend your cash on taxi rides, Uber is widely available. When using the Uber App be conscious that you’ll be quote in HKD, so don’t get confused by the prices. However, no matter what you’re mode of transport Hong Kong traffic is a real thing. In rush hour, paying extra for an Uber Black might not save you.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here. Navigating Hong Kong as a visitor gets interesting when you don’t know too much of where exactly you’re going. It’s important to talk to locals, because they will give you the best recommendations. As far as bars go, stay away from anything that’s catering to English-speakers, often these are tourist traps and insanely overpriced.
SoHo-Central: As the name suggests, Central is the city centre of Hong Kong. In Central lies the banks, the high-end shopping malls, and the best luxury hotels. Yes, some of the best bars also live here. SoHo is the entertainment district located in Central where the nightlife keeps the streets bustling long after the sun went down. Suggestions include: The Pontiac and Quinary in SoHo proper, and J. Boroski and Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour in Central.
Causeway Bay: Bordering Wan Chai, another well-known district near Central, Causeway Bay is a retail epicentre. This area borders the ocean with a harbourfront, houses the island’s biggest public park Victoria Park, and has its own Times Square. The area will feel more informal and relaxed than Central and SoHo, featuring more beer versus gastronomic cocktails. Suggestions include: San Ka La.
TST/Kowloon: TST is an abbreviation for Tsim Sha Tsui, a shopping and nightlife district well-known to tourists. TST is in Kowloon, an easily accessible subway ride from Central, and technically on mainland China. This area is popular among visitors for it’s life-sized bronze statue of Bruce Lee, and the harbour tours aboard the Star Ferry. If you know where to go you can skip the touristy areas and find local haunts. Suggestions include: Butler and Zhang Men Brewing Company.
Mong Kok/Kowloon: Mong Kok is another central area for shopping, with a mixture of old and new buildings structured around narrow streets. If you want to experience proper, traditional Cantonese street food Mong Kok is your new home. This is where you should spend that sweet, sweet cash. No ATMS in sight here. Suggestions include: TAP: The Ale Project and Alibi.