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Hong Kong's Spirit-Driven Speakeasy


Pouring from her collection of more than 300 bottles, The Woods founder Victoria Chow’s newest endeavor aims to demystify liquor one sip at a time. By ELOISE BASUKI. Photographed by LEIGH GRIFFITHS.

Published on Nov 24, 2017


CALL ME AN AMATEUR, call me unsophisticated; when it comes to a stiff drink poured neat, it's hard to hide my gag reflex. To my untrained palate, whiskey is a mouthful of cigarettes, gin smells like floor cleaner, vodka—a slick of burning petrol. Cocktails I can get behind, but sipping on straight spirits? I'll pass.

Despite my inhibitions, Victoria Chow, Hong Kong mixologist, savvy bar-owner andall-round spirit enthusiast, is standing before me with a flight of her finest liquors, hoping to change my mind.

Victoria Chow in The Woods' Annex.
Victoria Chow in The Woods' Annex.

We're at The Woods' Annex, Chow'sdrinking spot and offshoot to her innovative cocktail bar, The Woods (thewoods.hk), in SoHo. Squeezed behind the storefront of Kwoon (kwoonbythewoods.com), another of Chow's recent ventures selling artisanal, freshly canned cocktails, The Annex is not another trendy bar but a mini spirit library, flush with a 300-strong collection of Chow's favorite bottles from around the world. "Every time I travel I love visiting distilleries. To be able to see the process while you're there and have it explained to you by the makers—it makes a big difference," she says.

For Chow, The Annex is about passing along this knowledge, something hard to find in the spirit world in otherwise sophisticated Hong Kong. "Everyone talks about Bordeaux wines—how expensive they are and how hard they are to make," she says. "But when it comes to spirits, you shoot tequila, or you put them in a cocktail. You don't really think about who is behind them or where they're from."

Kwoon's canned cocktails include a tom yum cooler and a gin-spiked chrysanthemum tea.
Kwoon's canned cocktails include a tom yum cooler and a gin-spiked chrysanthemum tea.

Groups of up to eight can book online for a masterclass with Chow or one of her bar managers—90-minute tasting sessions that run through key flavors, tell the stories of the distillers and explain how best to drink each spirit or mix it in a cocktail.

In my case, Chow has picked a lineup of gin, rum and, my most feared bottle, whiskey. "You said you had a hard time liking whiskey, so of course I had to give it a go," she says, living up to her stated aim of pushing guests to experiment a little. We start with a couple of gins, which Chow has chosen after learning about my most memorable cocktail, a fig-and-honey martini topped with a wedge of blue cheese. With the saltiness of the cheese in mind, Chow pours me St. George Terroir from California (also Chow's native home), and the Spanish Gin Mare, two of her most savory gins.

Using botanicals foraged from around the distillery, Douglas fir pine, coastal sage and bay leaves gives the St. George gin an earthy flavor profile that isn't overwhelmed with juniper. "This is called a 'terroir' gin because it really gives a sense of place," she says. "All of California's redwood forests have Douglas fir, so it smells just like the woods—it reminds me of home." Likewise, the Gin Mare is also loaded with local ingredients—the second-generation distillers using typical Mediterranean flavors like rosemary, thyme and olives as botanicals in their bottles. "I like this in a gin and tonic with a sprig of rosemary," Chow recommends.

Chow pours a tasting flight.
Chow pours a tasting flight.

As we move on to the whiskey, I'm still feeling skeptical, but open to a change of mind after tasting such varied gins. Chow hands me the High West Campfire whiskey, from Utah. "They blend bourbon, rye and scotch, but the Scottish peat is not overpowering, the bourbon mellows it out," she says. I take a sip and I know what she means. The amber liquor is warming, honey-sweet and smoothly smoky. "I don’t hate this," I say, a little in disbelief. "It really does feel like you're by a campfire roasting marshmallows," she nods.

While I still wouldn't drink this straight even in my darkest hours, it's helpful to realize all whiskeys are not created equal, and that blended varieties, rather than single malt, are probably more to my taste. With knowledge comes power, and with power comes the ability to not embarrass myself at the bar. Which, itself, is pretty neat.

 


The Woods' Annex is open by appointment only. Book online at www.thewoods.hk/annex; GF/64 Staunton St., Central; masterclasses start from HK$300.

 

 

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Chow pours a tasting flight.
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