Is drinking a cocktail or three good for you? If history and current wellness trends are anything to go by, the answer is yes. We explore the subject and where to go in Hong Kong for a glass of healthy goodness.
Stroll down any old street of Hong Kong and you might find yourself catching the glare of a snake in a jar peeking through some rice wine, its essence waiting to be consumed for all its healing powers. Indeed, such medicinal ingredients – that is, ingredients that are beneficial for health – have a long history of being delivered in alcoholic form.
Former museum curator Matthew Rowley’s acclaimed book Lost Recipes of Prohibition: Notes from a Bootlegger’s Manual remarks that sometime around 77CE, a physician who served Roman Emperor Nero wrote a treatise on the preparation of compounded medicines, which included wines, bitters, and various alcohols.
It’s a tradition that has continued since; some prominent examples include chartreuse, originally made with some 130 herbs, flowers, and plants, said to be good for a range of maladies. Another is the jade-hued absinthe, which is derived from a selection of botanicals and was recommended for several health issues; it was given to French and Swiss troops in the 1800s as an anti-malarial.
Then there’s the classic gin and tonic, which dates back to the early nineteenth century, credited to the military force of the East India company based in South Asia. The force received gin rations and added tonic containing quinine, which was also thought to ward off malaria. Gin itself is based on juniper berries and its origins are as a medicinal liquor, with juniper having a lengthy history as a medicinal herb.
Right here in Asia, the most famous alcoholic medicament needs little introduction: snake wine goes back even further than its western counterparts. The wine made from rice or grain is infused for many months with snakes, preferably venomous and whole. According to experts, it was first consumed in China in the Western Zhou dynasty (1040-770BCE). Considered a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) curative for many ailments and a reinvigorating virility tonic it is still consumed throughout Asia. Interestingly, snake wine was also used by the Ancient Greeks for similar health benefits, while in Brazil snakes are steeped in Cachaça (fermented sugar cane juice) to be used for impotence, insect bites and rheumatism.
Other species in such wines include dried gecko, sea horses, scorpions, centipedes and even baby mice – all said to be beneficial for a range of issues from hair loss to liver problems.
With this long history of beneficial intoxicants coupled with an increasing focus on wellness in all areas of life, it is no surprise that a growing number of bars in Hong Kong are experimenting with these ingredients to create health-promoting cocktails.
“I believe wellness-focused cocktails are a growing trend, not only in Hong Kong, but globally. Since plant-based, health-conscious dining has become an essential part of the industry, the modern cocktail and spirits enthusiast is also therefore interested in more wellness-focused cocktails,” says Shakib Pasha, co-founder of Dr. Fern’s Gin Parlour. “We founded Dr. Fern’s with the vision to create botanicals-driven gin and tonics and cocktails prescribed to maximise our customers’ wellbeing, immunity, and happiness at the same time.”
Case in point: the Tropical Antidote, new at Dr Fern’s and a favourite of Pasha’s, made with lemongrass infused Widges London Dry Gin. “The aromatic Asian grass is well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties and may help protect against winter sniffles, while the inclusion of pineapple not only adds fantastic tropical flavour, but a dose of bone-strengthening vitamins B and C. A pink salt rim completes the antidote with a tangy twist and ensures fluid balance.”
Hutong bar manager Ryan Cheung, who also holds a foundation certificate in Chinese medicine, agrees. “Medicinal and botanical ingredients used in cocktails is definitely a growing trend. I think it will continue to grow as consumers continue to ask more questions about what is going inside their bodies, with many of the tried and tested botanicals certainly more trusted, and enjoyed, by today’s drinkers.”
At Hutong, atop the new H Zentre and with its Chinese apothecary vibe, the signature cocktail menu features plenty of concoctions that take inspiration from traditional Chinese botanicals, herbs, and spices, from the superfood-chic turmeric to the long used TCM ingredient ginger. One of Cheung’s favourites is the Fortune Teller, a heady mix of chamomile infused Two Moons dry gin and Oriental beauty tea featuring heavily fermented non-roasted white tip oolong tea that is high in antioxidants believed to improve immunity and accelerate metabolism.
“I chose this gin as it features a delicate harmony of 12 botanicals including citrus, almonds, and juniper berries that balance with the delicate chamomile flower, which itself is used to treat many health issues. This fragrant blend acts as a floral base to complement the rich botanicals of the Oriental beauty tea adding fruit and honey notes, with a splash of elderflower liqueur and apple juice to bring all of the botanicals together,” explains Cheung.
Crediting the trend to a combination of curiosity and wellness is Lorenzo Antinori, beverage manager at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. “Among bartenders these days is a growing curiosity in exploring the world of flora and fauna and with it, herbs, plants, and spices that belong to the world of medicine. Awareness on health drove us to experiment with ingredients that carry certain properties.”
Driven by his own exploration and innovation, Antinori and the team use long established beneficial ingredients in the cocktails at Argo. For example, the signature martini features its own bespoke gin distilled with dried mandarin peels that are “often used as a warming agent to help the functions of the stomach, and like the fruit itself are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.” For its punchy Bark, Leaf & Love, it includes sandalwood, often used in aromatherapy, as well as ginger. All these ingredients are carefully chosen not only for health but for their aromatics and flavour profiles.
See also: Four Seasons' New Cocktail Bar ARGO Is A Celebration of Innovation, Creativity and Rarity
Adding to the mix is Umesh Mall, bar manager at Potato Head Hong Kong and its Eksotika Bar. He’s no stranger to using a myriad of tropical herbs and age-old ingredients directly sourced from the Indonesian islands in his cocktails. Take the sweet, pungent, and sour Beras Kencur that is inspired by Jamu, a traditional Indonesian herbal health tonic, based around roots and rhizomes, that is drunk to prevent and treat many ailments from easing cold and flu symptoms to treating indigestion. “Jamu is thought to have originated over 1,300 years ago in the Javanese Royal Courts and is still widely consumed throughout Indonesia,” explains Mall fondly.
In fact, other coveted botanical ingredients like turmeric, ginger, agave, pandan leaves (sometimes used in traditional medicine), and yuzu (said to fend off colds and relax the mind) are regular fixtures on Potato Head Hong Kong’s cocktail menu, while the Barong Zombie features a splash of absinthe, and – true to its name – is the strongest of the bunch.
“As mixologists, using medicinal ingredients in cocktails can help to bring awareness that modern cocktails are not only for enjoyment of the drink itself, but they can also be enjoyed to restore nutrients and boost the immune system,” says Mall.
In essence, although that may not be their focus, we’re seeing more and more bars in the city offering cocktails served with a side of wellness. So remember: next time you order a cocktail, in addition to lifting your spirits, it could also boost your health. Of course, all things in moderation, and for long-term health you are probably better off consuming beneficial ingredients in their natural form – although who says you can’t wash them down with a superfood-laden cocktail or two? Cheers!