Antonio Lai is a globally awarded mixologist who pioneered the "Multisensory Mixology" concept in Hong Kong. His first bar Quinary has been consistently voted as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars since 2013, and he has opened at least 5 other bars, many of which are the first of their kind.
He's got 20 years of mixing experience - and he's allergic to alcohol.
We're big fans of Antonio, not only because he is a genius with flavour, but also because he is a fellow tea "infusiast". His notorious creations include the Earl Grey Caviar Martini, Oolong Tea Collins and Ceylon Sour.
We are absolutely thrilled to have Antonio creating a new Tea Cocktail Menu for Plantation Tea Bar, launching June 2023 (Stay tuned on Instagram).
We can geek out about tea with Antonio for hours, but here's an excerpt from our latest chat that we thought you might enjoy:
Why do you love tea?
I've always loved tea. It tastes great, there is so much variety. And I'm not allergic to it.
Plus, I have so many good memories with it. Ever since I was 10, my dad would bring his own tea when we went to restaurants, and we'd often go on family trips to Shenzhen just to buy tea. Milky Oolong 金萱烏龍 is one of my favourites.
How did you come up with your famous Earl Grey Caviar Martini?
Around 12 years ago I was learning all the molecular mixology techniques - how to create foams and mists, use liquid nitrogen, etc. I wanted to create a drinking experience that engages all five senses, so I was experimenting with different textures, sounds and visuals as well as aromas and flavours.
Inspired by the tea culture in Hong Kong, I tried various teas and I liked the flavour of Earl Grey most as a foam. The deep notes of the tea plus the bright notes of bergamot work nicely together. I tried it as a caviar too - little spheres of tea that burst in your mouth. Then I combined all these techniques into one martini and voila!
What’s it like being a mixologist when you're allergic to alcohol?
I'm so allergic, I can't even take 10ml of whisky (I'm a cheap date). I'll either throw up or pass out. But I love the bar scene and the experimental nature of my work. I like being on the frontlines and talking to people (my teachers always told me off for talking too much. Now I've made a profession out of it.)
Anyway, when mixing drinks, I put two drops on the back of my hand to taste the flavour. That's it. I think being allergic makes me extra sensitive to the nuances of aroma and flavour.
What is it about tea that makes it an interesting medium to mix with?
Tea is as fascinating as alcohol is. There are so many different types of tea and they all have vastly different characters. And it's very versatile. That makes it very easy to mix with.
I'm learning more about tea every day. I never knew about Duck Shit Dancong 鳳凰單欉鴨屎香 until I started partnering with you guys and am now tasting many new teas and getting better acquainted with them.
I've always wanted to have an opportunity to focus in on tea like this, so this partnership is very exciting for me. A new challenge. And I can't wait to share the new menu with Hong Kongers soon!
Are there any tea and alcohol pairings that are consistently good?
It depends on the tea. And the quality of the tea. But generally, a Taiwanese Milky Oolong 金萱烏龍 goes well with vodka. For a more complex profile, you can combine it with whisky.
Certain types of Puerh tea go well with whisky, too. We paired your Tangerine Puerh 小青柑 with Macallan single malt scotch whisky, like an Old Fashioned-style cocktail and they go really well together. I served that in Dubai and it was very popular.
Which tea are you enjoying most at the moment?
Recently, I've been loving Tangerine Puerh 小青柑. When I brew that tea, the citrus essence from the chenpi comes out strong, and the texture is very silky. It's a comforting tea that I like to drink day and night.