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Antonio Lai Recollects the Year Hong Kong Returned to China for Cherry Heering’s Bicentenary

Cherry Heering has turned 200! Like all milestone birthdays, it’s only natural for friends to reminisce on times gone by and look to the future. It is the many bartender ‘friends’ of the brand that have cemented Cherry Heering’s position as the quintessential cherry liqueur and a must-stock for every bar, and hence it’s only natural that they should be the ones to reflect on its rich history. Over the coming weeks, we will share the musings and memories of 20 legends of the bartending trade as they reflect on a particular year in the history of Cherry Heering. As good birthday guests never turn up empty handed, they’ve each also created a bespoke Cherry Heering cocktail to mark the celebration and cheers to another 200 years.

WORDS BY JENNY ADAMS

1997 was a pivotal year for the island of Hong Kong. As remembered by bartender Antonio Lai, it was a time of political change and of nostalgic flavours and flair.

“I remember having my first drink at a bar in 1997 and watching the bartender flair with such ease and grace,” recalls barman Antonio Lai, warmly. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to be just like them.’”

For some, a moment like this might prove a passing fancy. For Lai, it would change his life. That change in his career path would in turn change Hong Kong’s bar scene for the better, forever.

Today, you’ll find Antonio Lai in a dapper suit several nights a week tending to eager crowds at his bar, Quinary. The crowd is often equally split between locals and expats, foreigners there on business and tourists looking to experience the best liquid flavours in a town known for its culinary melting-pot prowess.

When Cherry Heering sought a slew of great tenders around the world to commemorate their 200th anniversary in 2018, Antonio Lai was the obvious choice for Hong Kong. They posed the question, “What year would you choose in our 200-year history to build a drink around and why?”

For Lai, it had to be 1997 – the year of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. It was a year of hot summer nights and the ubiquitous Long Island Iced Tea.

“The handover ceremony of Hong Kong in 1997 officially marked the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the People’s Republic of China,” he says. “It was an internationally televised event, with the ceremony commencing on the night of June 30, 1997 and finishing on the first of July.”

As the outside world changed forever for the citizens of Hong Kong, inside his own head Antonio Lai was plotting a course that would change the city’s landscape for drinks. He didn’t know it at the time, but his decision to pursue bartending full-time in that year would result in the city’s modern love affair with his current playful takes on serious libations. From a start in flair bartending at Hong Kong’s Planet Hollywood in these new ‘90s days, he would go on to be a leader in molecular drink creation. Lai and his partners would eventually form Tastings Group, which today owns and operates five illustrious craft cocktail bars in the city, including Origin, Angel’s Share, and the Envoy bar at the Pottinger Hotel.

When you mention 1997 to him, his first thought is of nights when seemingly endless amounts of Long Island Iced Teas were ordered. He set out to recreate the original – a drink often maligned for being too many spirits at once – to make it something proud and palatable.

“I chose the Long Island Iced Tea because of its controversial nature in the world of modern mixology,” he laughs. “Some bartenders have been known to refuse to make them altogether. I served it with a twist, by using Cherry Heering instead of Cointreau for a bright red version that’s the same colour as the flag of Hong Kong. I added Aquavit instead of vodka for a Danish interpretation, as homage to Cherry Heering’s long heritage. This cocktail was my memory of a new chapter to come, both for my home country and the world of cocktails.”

He named this new drink The Hong Kong Island, which on the surface might sound simple, but it holds a double meaning in Cantonese. The word ‘Hong’ sounds like the word ‘Red’ in the language, a nod to the hue of the flag and to the colour of Cherry Heering in the bottle.

“It’s shaken in a Perlini shaker and strained with a float of Sprite/lemonade, garnished with lemon twist and a cherry and served in a Sling Glass,” says Lai.Sprite Super Lemon was released as a Slurpee flavour in Hong Kong in 2003, and I was instantly hooked, because it reminded me of Super Lemon – a popular sour candy in Hong Kong, especially amongst kids. Growing up, cherries were my favourite fruit, but it was subject to seasonal availability, so I could only enjoy it for a few months during the year. So, I think of this as a combined realisation of my favourite childhood flavours.”

Today, if you have the pleasure to sit at any of his illustrious outposts in the city, you’ll open menus to find Multisensory Mixology – a term he coined for his drink design style. Playful uses of smoke and rare Japanese fruits alongside tiny moments of detail and adept skill with citric acid make each concoction truly one-of-a-kind. You’ll also find a plastic flamingo or a little bathtub replacing the glassware, because Lai is still a kid at heart, if anything. Those days of Planet Hollywood certainly taught him that.

THE HONG KONG ISLAND

Glass: Sling glass
Garnish: Lemon twist and a cherry
Method: Shake in a Perlini shaker and strain. Float over Sprite/lemonade.

Ingredients:
15ml Aquavit
15ml London dry gin
15ml White rum
15ml Blanco tequila
20ml Lemon juice
20ml Cherry Heering