At The Aubrey, A Hard-Hitting Cocktail Omakase Is Born
In Hong Kong, sushi omakase is a near-religion, with scores of devotees hotly debating each new opening, the different styles of sushi-making adopted by various itamae, the peak seasonality and provenance of each cut of fish, and more. At expertly polished hinoki counters across the city, well-honed sushi chefs ply their customers with nigiri after expertly assembled nigiri in highly choreographed fashion, all in the service of accentuating the optimal freshness of the neta (sushi topping). But what if, rather than jet-fresh fillets of kinki and ōtoro, guests were served a slew of cocktails tailored to their particular palates, with food taking a backseat?
That is the premise of the new cocktail omakase offering at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong's The Aubrey, which takes place at a dedicated bar counter seating just four guests. It's intended to be as much an educational experience as a savoury one, according to head mixologist Devender Sehgal. Rather than featuring well-known spirits from the West, Sehgal, a Japanophile, has instead committed The Aubrey's cross-cultural brand of Japanese gastronomy to heart with the use of base liquors such as sake, shochu, umeshu, and the lesser-known awamori.
But first, let's talk about that omakase bar. Both secluded and connected to the main bar area by virtue of a dramatically-lit wall of whisky bottles, the four-seater bar is intimate—maybe a little too intimate at times, making it a struggle to elegantly insert and extract myself from the high chair. Set up like the world's smallest stage, the space is the private world of Sehgal, a gracious host and a humble showman who quickly welcomes our party with a well-practised balance of professionalism and bonhomie.
The drinks start flowing. Our first of the night is the Rue de Vin Pomme d'Or cider hailing from the alpine prefecture of Nagano. Made using golden Fuji apples from the Tomi region, it is dry, light and pleasantly fizzy, and for all in our party, a first encounter with Japanese craft cider. From the kitchen of chef Yukihito Tomiyama, a starter selection of sashimi and nigiri arrives, including the Insta-famous hamachi topped with ants. A civilised start to the proceedings by any measure.
Then, we move into more familiar territory with the second "course", a tall drink that is something of a hybrid between a whisky highball and a chu-hai (shochu highball). The vanilla character of the Macallan 12 Double Cask is bolstered by the earthiness of the potato shochu and a welcome note of sweetness thanks to the addition of sherry, then lengthened with soda for an easy sipper. This is accompanied by a tomato, tofu and mixed greens salad that, paired with a long drink, left much to be desired—perhaps a more substantial dish to balance the cocktail would have been a better call.
Our first shaken drink of the night comes in the form of a yuzu daiquiri, a bright, zesty riff on the classic that uses a base of yuzu shochu. This makes for a natural pairing with a moreish chicken katsu sando—a one-two punch that hits all the right notes.
The fourth cocktail, the Merone, is a mainstay on The Aubrey's drinks menu for good reason. Made with seasonal Yubari cantaloupes, the award-winning barrel-aged Danryu awamori from Kamimura Shuzo distillery, Montelobos mezcal and Ancho Reyes chilli liqueur, it's an ode to summertime in Hokkaido that uplifts the saccharine fruit juice with smoke and spice, while the bourbon-like character of the awamori provides a backbone to the drink. With the Merone, we have soy-glazed tsukune (chicken meatball) skewers with egg yolk.
Our first truly personalised tipple arrives with the fifth cocktail, a little-known classic called the 20th Century that Sehgal whips up in honour of our drinking companion, Holly Graham of Drink magazine. He makes a rare concession towards the traditional makeup of the cocktail, which involves Monkey 47 gin, Lillet Blanc, white creme de cacao, and citric acid solution. Forgoing any Japanese influence this time, it's a hard-hitter that is thankfully served with the ostentatious A4 Kagoshima wagyu sando—the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the premium beef goes a long way in soaking up what feels like a sea of alcohol in our stomachs by this point.
With the final cocktail, Sehgal throws mercy by the wayside and chooses to go out with a bang with his riff on the Bobby Burns, a Manhattan-like cocktail that uses scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine. In this case, scotch (traditionally a barley-based spirit) is swapped out for barley shochu, which, free of barrel ageing, allows the barley to do most of the talking. Despite the liquid ingenuity, our eyes are averted with the arrival of the wagyu oxtail and bone marrow fried rice (presciently requested by Holly). Like a Chinook chopper descending from the skies in the final scenes of a war film to save a band of battle-hardened soldiers, this magnificent plate of carbs rescues us from certain inebriation and doom.
Undoubtedly one of Hong Kong's most premium cocktail-centred experiences, The Aubrey's cocktail omakase is Sehgal's love letter to the art of mixology and hospitality held in a beautiful whisky-lined shrine. The knowledge and craft is second to none, although one wonders how well normal guests would fare against a procession of six full-sized cocktails that even a posse of drinks editors could barely conquer, especially with the modest servings of light snacks included with the hefty price tag of HK$1,580 per person. Then again, what's not to love about the prospect of surrendering yourself to one too many finely made drinks?
Bookings for the omakase cocktail bar are released on the 15th of each month at 4pm, for the following month. Book here.