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Drink Trends in Asia

by Liza B. Zimmerman

PHOTO: PEDUCKK

A recent month spent in Thailand and Japan gave me a somewhat skewed perspective on the Asian bar scene. While bartenders in Tokyo—along with cutting-edge, multi-cultural drinks destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong—are distilling Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Thai drinks market remains a bit more traditional.

Local light beer drinker and Tiki drinks are still the go-to beverages in Thailand. The fact that taxes are incredibly high on imported wines, combined with the dearth of high-quality local production, account for a limited wine market. The bulk of the imports are inexpensive Chilean and Australian wines, many unfortunately corked from sitting in the sun.

The beverage director of a Southern Thai-based resort hotel chain joked that the best present friends from Australia can bring when they visit him is good wine.

Japanese Focus

Japan has, in many ways, been one of the leaders of both classic and experimental cocktails. Some of the country’s best bartenders, such as Hidetsugu Ueno , previously employed by Tokyo’s iconic Star Bar and currently the owner of Bar High Five, has long focused on classic drinks and carving ice into glittering diamonds.

When I interviewed him recently, he insisted that the Japanese have primarily excelled in improving drinks essentials, such as cocktail shaker—so it doesn’t jiggle on the table as result of dents from ice—and bar tools. He added that many of the muddlers and other fancy tools reported to be Japanese aren’t even made in Japan.

I beg to differ about how much the Japanese have contributed to recent drinks creativity and innovation. The country has long been a laboratory for seriously experimental drink production, some of which is over the top and reminiscent of the rice crispy foam that recoagulated in your mouth once served at El Bulli in Spain.

Toyko's Mandarin Oriental serve classic gin drinks.

Many of the higher-end, Tokyo hotel destinations, such as the Mandarin Oriental, are serving classic gin drinks and fruit-infused slushy drinks. The Park Hyatt Tokyo focuses on classic international wines, offers a few Japanese selections and has a good sake list with a dedicated sake sommelier. Thankfully you won’t find sake-based cocktails practically anywhere, but you will encounter beautifully built Fernet Branca-based drinks  at a handful of edgy bars like Rocking Chair bar in Kyoto.

The Japanese are kings of savory so it’s no surprise that foie gras- and miso-based vodka are turning up at cutting-edge venues, reminiscent of many of the unusual combinations that Southern Wine & Spirits bar evangelist Francesco Lafranconi was creating in the early 2000s. I remember being stunned by the foie gras-garnished cocktail he served at Restaurant Daniel more than a decade ago in New York, but can’t say I loved the flavors.

Thai Trends

In Thailand drinks make great use of local, tropical fruit juices, such as leycce and passion fruit with a variety of international spirits. If you head out to local music bars like Yellow Zoe in Chiang Mai or go rafting down a Northern Thai river the drink of choice is the local SangSom rum mixed with super-sweet Coca Cola made with real sugar. “Buckets,” or oversize servings of Long Island Iced Tea-like concoctions, heavy on the booze and the sugar are also popular.

At Sri Panwa, a luxury hotel just outside of Phuket, Thailand , the drinks are based on exotic local juices, such as the local mango, lychee and watermelon juice. The property’s beverage manager Pakorn Chansawang also pairs sparking wine, or off-dry Riesling, with the spices that are an essential part of Thai food. He adds that unoaked Chardonnays and some rosés also work well with the chile-, and sometimes vinegar- and sugar-laden, local cuisine. Light reds can also work with these foods, if they are lightly chilled, he recommends.

Japanese wines.

The Centara Grand resort in Krabi, across the island from Phuket, serves a beautiful bottle of simple French rosé that works as well with the spicy Thai appetizers as it does with fresh lobster and shrimp. The local Monsoon Valley Colombard also pairs well with the food and the grapes from the hilly Hua Hinregion are harvested by elephants! Group director of food and beverage operations for the Bangkok-based Centara Hotels & Resorts, Winfried Hancke, added that, “Beverages which have sweetness go well with the food as it contains sugar.” 

It’s ironic that Thai drinkers are known to appreciate sweet drinks when they travel to Japan. So a handful of bartenders, including Shuzo Nagumo, who has three Tokyo-area bars, have been dissecting the sweet-savory profile in the classic sweet and sour Tom Yum Soup seafood-based soup. The drink may have been created for Thai food lovers, but clearly Japanese drinkers of all backgrounds appreciate its flavors.

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