All photos by the author.

Why This Hong Kong Bar Is Serving Canned Cocktails

KWOON's handmade cans spotlight local ingredients like dried sour plums, tangerine peel, and chrysanthemum.

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Jul 17 2017, 4:00pm

All photos by the author.

"I'm a big fan of tart drinks, so this one's my favorite. You gotta like shrubs to like this, though, and shrubs are a very divisive thing," Victoria Chow tells me. For uneducated mixology philistines like myself, she explains that a shrub consists of fruit that has been macerated in sugar and vinegar for days. Once pressed and strained, it produces a mouth-puckering elixir with an intense yet elusive fruity flavor. For this particular drink, Chow uses pineapple and apple cider vinegar, although she's experimented with plenty of other produce to match what's in season. "We've added some five spice powder to give it a bit of a Hong Kong feel. It's perfect as an aperitif on hot summer days like this."

With that, she hands me a can and pops one open herself.

"Cheers," she says, and aluminum hits aluminum with a slight clang.

Victoria Chow filling a can at KWOON by the Woods. All photos by the author.

As promised, the beverage inside is intensely flavored with just the barest hint of sweetness. Pre-fab cocktails normally evoke cringe-inducing memories of sugary, Smurf-hued concoctions along the lines of Smirnoff Ice, but the offerings at KWOON by the Woods are in a different league. A tom yum-inspired tipple features makrut lime-infused vodka spiked with lemongrass and bird's eye chilies; the Barley Sunny uses malted barley, grapefruit zest, and dried tangerine peels; the Desert Rose mimics a tequila negroni, but with milder Aperol standing in for the Campari and a touch of dried sour plums. Although it's never stated on the menu, all these canned cocktails come with top-shelf spirits like Fair, a yuppie-friendly vodka distilled from fairtrade Bolivian quinoa, and Ocho tequila.

"People see the cans and they're suspicious. They're like, 'Where did this drink come from? Was it made in a factory?'" says Chow. Until a few months ago, ready-made drinks in Hong Kong meant Marks & Spencers canned gin and tonics loaded with preservatives. In contrast, everything on the menu at KWOON consists of all-natural, easily pronounceable ingredients. "It was a perception problem when people saw packaged products. People think 'made in China' even though it says 'made in Hong Kong' right here."

Canning at KWOON.

If this seems different and possibly risky, that may because Chow is used to doing things her own way. After graduating from UC Berkeley and working in advertising in Hong Kong, the California native found herself itching to do something outside the ordinary. In 2014, she and her two sisters, Juliette and Regina, launched The Woods, a subterranean bar with seasonal, produce-driven tasting menus of avant-garde cocktails like the Poddington Pea, a pale green mix of gin and Chartreuse with fresh snow peas, pea sprouts, and Granny Smith apple, or a Barbie Dreamhouse-pink negroni infused with beets.

"At The Woods, we like to be really experimental, so we design all the drinks to be a little bit more fun, the kinds of things you can't just do yourself," Chow says. Depending on what's fresh at Central Market across the road, that might mean a savory concoction with Tanqueray, rocket, and tomato water, or something even more daring. "We used curry fish balls as the inspiration for a drink and it didn't taste half-bad. Nothing's a literal take, of course—we tend to keep it more conceptual."

The bar at The Woods.

In this hyper-competitive town, it pays to stand out and The Woods has morphed into something of a popular date spot. Eager to continue their winning streak, Chow and her crew opened KWOON just up the street from their original location. The bartenders behind both venues are the same, but at this new venture martini and rocks glasses step aside for cans, all of which are designed either by Chow or a rotating Hong Kong guest artist.

"Every time I went on a boat trip, people just expected me to make cocktails. I'm like the resident bartender," Chow says with a laugh. While it made her popular at parties, she realized quickly that being stuck behind the counter was a lot less fun than day-drinking on a sunlounger. "Usually people just bring beer and wine because it's easy, but as soon as cocktails come along, I pack my ice, my shakers, my strainers, juice some lemons beforehand, and it just becomes this whole shebang that you don't need to do if you can avoid it."

With that in mind, she wanted to come up with a way to get similar results with minimal effort. Though some guests do come by KWOON to sip on-site, most of their customers order in bulk and take a cooler to the beach. At first she tinkered with the idea of bottled cocktails, but quickly realized that the bottling process sacrificed much of the carbonation and produced a ton of garbage, since glass is trickier to recycle in Hong Kong. Canned drinks were the only logical solution, but since no one else around was making them, figuring out the logistics required considerable trial and error.

Victoria Chow.

"It took us about six months to come up with things, because we sort of had to figure it out along the way," she says. Perishable ingredients like fresh fruit or even lemon juice can quickly cause a cocktail to turn rancid, which is why the team turned to shrubs or oleo saccharum, made by extracting the aromatic oils from lemon peel with sugar, to add brightness.

"Most of the flavors are a little bit challenging, but that's how we want them to be," she says. "A lot of people ask us, 'Do you have a gin and tonic?' Just pour your own damn gin and tonic."

Straight-up spirit-based cocktails would've made matters simpler, but as Chow points out, "They're easy, but as lovely as Manhattans and negronis are, it's not recommended that you drink them all day. We wanted this to be something you could drink all the time, on boat trips, festivals, that kind of stuff. It's junk trip season and I don't want a negroni on my junk trip."

KWOON's cocktails feature local ingredients.

Instead, the offerings here hover around 8 percent to 12 percent alcohol, meaning they're potent enough to sustain a pleasant buzz without knocking lightweights to the floor. Despite the fancy ingredients, take-out drinks go for around HKD$50 (US $6.50), which pales in comparison to the HK$200 (US $25) offerings at The Woods.

"We had to bite our lip to do this, but if it's HK$100, people are going to go, 'I'm not going to pay this for something that comes in a can!'" says Chow. Part of the incentive for having a bar at all rather than just going wholesale was to show people how much work went into the process. Even by Hong Kong standards, KWOON is tiny, but the space features murals by local artists and an on-site canning machine where guests can see their beverage packaged to order. "If people come in here, the first drink I give them is always in a can, because I want to acclimatize them to the idea so they're not so freaked out when they see them outside."

Despite its bitty size, this neighborhood bar has big ambitions. One of the biggest five-star hotels in town, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, has already picked up the cans as a special addition to their minibars and other brands have been sniffing around the joint. Down the road, she'd like to open a Tokyo-style vending machine in the middle of nightlife hub Lan Kwai Fong.

"Before we opened, we were still doing our development stage at Lane Crawford, which is kind of the Saks Fifth Avenue of Hong Kong. They caught wind that we were doing the canned cocktails and they said, 'We want 10,000 cans and we want them now,'" remembers Chow. "So we had two weeks—even though we had no facilities ready, we had nothing ready. But you don't say no to that."

The KWOON team.

She adds: "A keg makes around 60 cans. So we were like, '10,000 cans, no problem! OK! We absolutely can do that in two weeks!' We were doing experiments out of kegs with hoses. The canning machine was barely calibrated. It was all hands on deck, because it was impossible not to be."

While the results were worth it, Chow isn't in a hurry to repeat the grueling process any time soon.

"We took turns canning, because we timed it with this machine and we realized if we stopped at all, we wouldn't make it on time. It was literally three of us doing the canning while one person slept for ten days straight," she remembers with a grimace.

Chow hands me the concoction in question. The Madame Ching is a sultry blend of dark rum, palm sugar, and ginger, best enjoyed warm like a Hong Kong-style hot toddy. "This was the notorious drink that none of us could ever smell again. It's etched [into our minds]. You know how smell memories are really powerful? This one is killer."

At the moment, their petite kitchen can handle the demand, and low-tech solutions like shaking kegs to dissolve CO2—"It's a great ab workout"—are sufficient, though they may need to upgrade to bigger digs in the future. For the time being, Chow and her colleagues are concentrating on nailing the basics.

"We focus on adding a local touch to the cocktails. We're quite proud to be identified with Hong Kong, because almost no one else is really doing craft cocktails in cans right now," says Chow. "When we came up with this concept, we really wanted to push the boundary, because it felt like we were doing something really new."

Drinking something truly local and artisanal out of a can certainly qualifies as a novelty in this town, but it isn't hard to get used to. When I leave, I stuff a High Tea, with chrysanthemum, gin, and lemon, in my bag for the road.