Cover Source: Pale Ink

"If Perfume Trees Gin was a romantic letter to our hometown, the launch of Pale Ink in 2021 is a chapter of the gloomy chaos the world witnessed in the past few hundred days."

In the post-national security law Hong Kong of 2021, where the practise of restaurants and other businesses identifying as "yellow" or "blue" to signify their political allegiances has quietly dissipated, it seems that the only colour left is grey. That is the premise that pervades the launch of Pale Ink, a coffee liqueur from the creators of Perfume Trees Gin that seeks to capture the city's conflicted psychological landscape in the wake of the turmoil of the 2019 pro-democracy protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Named both after a traditional Japanese shade of grey, usuzumi-iro, and a classical Chinese painting technique wherein diluted ink is used to capture the humility and virtues of Zen Buddhism philosophy, Pale Ink is, on the surface, a perfectly innocuous product. Marketed as the world's first sugar-free coffee liqueur, Pale Ink uses Natvia, a zero-calorie natural sweetener extract, as a substitute for sugar, offering a healthier alternative to traditionally sugar-rich coffee liqueurs with just 150 calories for every 100ml of liquid.

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The first batch of 2,000 bottles was created in collaboration with Gary Au, the founder of homegrown cafe chain Urban Coffee Roaster and the winner of the 2021 Coffee in Good Spirits Competition. Future batches will be made in partnership with other coffee roasteries around the world, offering slightly divergent flavour profiles each time that will be sure to appeal to spirits collectors and coffee enthusiasts alike.

The complexity of the double-cold-brewed coffee and the base of Perfume Trees Gin, in concert with the low sugar content, allows notes of white champaca flower and Indian sandalwood to shine through, making Pale Ink more than suitable to enjoy neat, as well as mixing into an espresso martini. 

But it's really the grey space of meaning where Pale Ink drives its message home. A glance at its monochrome website reveals pathos-laden quotes such as "The forgetful man is blessed; But since one is given the responsibility of memory from our times, why not plough on with a bittersweet heart?"

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Perfume Trees Gin co-founder Kit Cheung conceived the idea for Pale Ink one morning, waking up for his first cup of coffee while still tipsy from drinking gin the night before. "In this blurred state, it was the perfect canvas to capture our emotions over the last few hundred days," he recounts.

True to its name, Pale Ink inhabits a liminal space between extremes: between sweetness and bitterness, waking and sleeping, sobriety and intoxication, leaving and staying, black and white. Local calligrapher Sellwords, who rendered the original Perfume Trees Gin wordmark in playful, contrasting strokes, this time opted for a skeletal, unbalanced composition for the Chinese characters that make up Pale Ink, precariously bent to one side like a wind-battered itinerant of yore. Gone too are the cheery, blue-sky illustrations that adorn Perfume Trees Gin bottles; instead, Pale Ink's faded, austere label features a scroll-like landscape enshrouded in fog—or could it some more nefarious substance, perhaps?

Indeed, amidst an ongoing battle over what we are allowed to remember or forget, Pale Ink stands largely alone for its subtle recognition of recent history and the "hypnopompic state of mind" that Hongkongers find themselves in these days. For now, the ink is still wet, and the jury is still out. Whatever words are written about the present remain to be seen.

Pale Ink launches on December 1, 2021, for HK$528 per 500ml bottle. Purchase a bottle or find out more about tasting workshops online here.

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