Cover A bottle of Magnolia liqueur (Photo: Magnolia Lab)

Founded by a Chinese medicine practitioner and a mixologist, this startup is looking to make neglected Cantonese spirits great again

Hong Kong has become a regional powerhouse in craft alcohol production in recent years, and today is home to over 20 craft beer breweries, at least half a dozen gin labels, and even a homegrown brand of umeshu. Yet for all the commotion, the city’s own long history of native Cantonese spirits—in which distilleries like Wing Lee Wai and Sam Teng created liquors such as pork fat-infused Yuk Bing Siu and deer antler wine throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries—has almost completely fallen by the wayside. Magnolia Lab is looking to change that.

As the first Cantonese liqueur brand to emerge in well over a generation, Magnolia Lab is the brainchild of investment banker-turned-mixologist Dennis Mak and registered Chinese medicine practitioner James Ting, two high school friends who shared a passion for local culture. “Since I was a child, we have had a big jar of homemade herbal-infused medicinal wine at home,” Mak says. “It represents the older generation’s way of caring for their loved ones and we would hate to see this tradition disappear.”

See also: The Women Working To Remake Hong Kong’s Craft Beer Scene

Magnolia Lab represents Hong Kong’s penchant for the meeting of East and West; in the case of its two new “oriental botanical liqueurs”, Hong Kong’s tradition of medicinal wines meets Western mixology to appeal specifically to a younger, more savvy generation of drinkers.

At 19 per cent ABV, Roselle approximates a more bitter Aperol, utilising key ingredients like the titular flower, jujube, dried ginger and Chinese angelica root to create a final product that is tart, sweet and earthy, and according to Chinese medicine, packed with benefits like lowering blood pressure, liver detoxification, and improving sleep quality. Mixed with soda water, it makes for a refreshing summer drink with a side of medicinal goodness

Meanwhile, the stronger Magnolia, at 33 per cent ABV, can be compared to an Italian amaro for its pure herbal complexity. Made by infusing magnolia berries, sun-dried tangerine peel, mulberries and sandalwood, among others, it features the five primary flavours of sweet, salty, tart, bitter and pungent—which in Chinese medicine correspond with the five elements of nature and their conduits to the various organs of the human body. With a bitter, earthy and exotic profile, Magnolia is best suited to providing an underlying note of bitterness to heavy cocktails like the Old Fashioned, or mixed with tonic water for a complex long drink.

Related: 8 Of The Healthiest Cocktails In Hong Kong

To bolster its credentials among millennials, Magnolia Lab is debuting at Tai Wo Tang, a former Kowloon City apothecary that was revitalised into a third-wave coffee shop, where a selection of Magnolia Lab cocktails is available to order. The startup also sought the talents of some rising Hong Kong musicians and producers, such as Mike Orange, Panther Wong, Stephane Wong, and popular creative haunt Bound, for a series of mixtapes that capture the feelings evoked by a sip of its products.

Launched during the pandemic, when city dwellers stuck in Hong Kong came to rediscover previously overlooked aspects of the city’s rich heritage, Magnolia Lab marks a tentative first step into a cultural reckoning with the obscure realm of Cantonese spirits-making. 

“Magnolia is one of the only herbs where the five flavours are present,” says co-founder James Ting. “You have to stop and pick apart the flavours to get the whole picture—just like this past year where, by stopping our lives, we were able to take a step back and appreciate all the trials and tribulations we’ve been through.”

To find out more, including where to purchase a bottle, head to Magnolia Lab’s website.