Cover Head bartender Kenzo Lee with his team (Photo: 25:00)

The head mixologist of the Central speakeasy on why he chose to dedicate his tasting menu to a typical day in Hong Kong

In a city of seven million, how each person's day unfolds is entirely unique to them—that being said, there are familiar touchpoints throughout the day that are shared among Hongkongers, whether it's a strong cup of milk tea from your favourite cha chaan teng in the morning, a comforting charcoal-fired claypot rice in the evening, or singing Cantopop ballads late into the night among friends.

Kenzo Lee, the head mixologist at Central speakeasy 25:00 (also stylised as Twenty Fifth Hour or XXV), sought to capture this wealth of experiences within a new tasting menu titled A Journey to 25:00. Encompassing six cocktails with snack pairings that are structured over the course of a day, this liquid degustation translates the quintessential experience of living in Hong Kong in 2022, along with personal touches drawn from Lee's own fond memories of food and drink—a return to the nourishing power of flavour and nostalgia in the midst of the mad world we inhabit, if you will.

In Lee's world, the day begins bright and early at 8am with Yum Cha, a shaken drink of Johnnie Walker Black Label, cold brew jasmine tea, elderflower, grapefruit, green apple, lemon and mint. Served with chrysanthemum pu'er jelly, it's a cheeky nod to fervent karaoke singers and their ubiquitous drink of choice, whisky mixed with green tea, as their all-night session overlaps with the morning ritual of yum cha.

At lunch, a drink of coconut oil-washed rum with melon, roasted pineapple and lime is served two-ways in a coupe glass and as a gazpacho; meanwhile, dinner is a two-drink affair of bourbon-based plum wine accompanied by drunken sea snails, and a bo jai fan-inspired mix of shiitake sous-vide gin, Amaro Montenegro fat-washed with lap cheong, and elderflower, served with a rice cracker. Dessert consists of a scoop of alcoholic ice cream, while the last "cocktail" is a simple stroke of genius—double-boiled soup with a sidecar of cognac to warm the heart.

Here, Lee speaks to Tatler Dining about how this simultaneously comforting, eye-opening, and thoroughly local cocktail experience came to be.

Read more: How to Build a Cocktail Menu: Arkadiuz Rybak of Darkside

Tell us about the concept of your new tasting menu. What was your motivation to create it?

I truly treasure Hong Kong’s traditional culinary culture, and so I wanted to celebrate this through a tasting menu that takes guests on a chronological journey of a typical day in the city. I intentionally wanted the menu to only be available only to guests seated at the bar, in order to have an intimate experience with each guest.  

What are your biggest sources of inspiration? What are the most basic building blocks that you begin with when designing a new menu?

I take inspiration from what is around me—the people, the city and even my mood inspires my cocktails. I take an entirely sensorial approach when building my cocktails; by activating all the senses as well as adding special unexpected touches. This could be an interesting ingredient or presentation—it depends on what I’m fixated on at the time. My most recent cocktails have been inspired by [falling in] love, even the bad bits like heartbreak. So this pushed me to pursue bitter ingredients and incorporate them into my drinks.

Why did you decide to structure the menu as different times of the day?

“A Journey to 25:00” takes you through a typical Hong Kong day, whilst paying homage to Cantonese dining culture in cocktail form. Naming the cocktails based on the time of day is pretty self explanatory, from early morning Yum Cha to our last signature homemade Chinese soup cocktail, the ‘Twenty Fifth Hour’—a medicinal pre-slumber nightcap.

What were some of the limitations with serving food along with cocktails?

Firstly, we do not have a full kitchen so we had to get creative in terms of what we could prepare. It’s also important that the food and cocktails are balanced. They must complement, not cancel each other’s flavours.

Tell us about some of the different formats of cocktails that you explored

I believe that in this new age of mixology, cocktails can be presented in different formats other than the traditional form of a liquid in a glass. I try to think outside the box to present different cocktails in surprising forms like Chinese soups, or a western gazpacho as is the case with the Nothing cocktail. One of our guests’ favourites is the Hong Kong milk tea ice cream cocktail. Getting that cocktail right is quite a challenge as alcohol has a low freezing point, but I think our gelato-like consistency is perfect without compromising on the spiked flavour.

How do you strike a balance between easy drinking and spirit-forward, long and short drinks, etc? What informs these decisions?

The tasting menu is structured to start on a refreshing note with the first cocktail being quite low in ABV. As the Journey to 25:00 menu progresses, we move into spirit-forward cocktails, before finishing with a low-ABV libation so that guests can end the evening with a more soothing drink. This structure I believe is the best chronological order for the palate.

What are your thoughts on the current trends in mixology?

I try not to necessarily follow trends, however I do believe it's important to acknowledge what is happening in the hospitality scene. For example, these days, when I create a new menu, I will try to include low-ABV drinks as guests want to ease into the evening with something less potent. However, I wouldn’t consider these drinks highlights. I like to explore unique flavours and creative presentations that offer guests an unexpected experience.

25:00, 13/F, Luk Yu Building, 24-26 Stanley Street, Central, Hong Kong; +852 5546 8540, xxvhr.com


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