Does Hong Kong's long-forgotten tradition of distilling unique spirits belong firmly in the history books, or are the tides just beginning to turn?

This story appears in the Hong Kong edition of the Tatler Dining Guide 2022, now available at all good bookstores and online.

On any given night, bars across Hong Kong can be found pouring an encyclopaedic array of world spirits that would make even the United Nations blush. A particularly itinerant drinker could conceivably begin their liquid journey with a refreshing Kenyan gin lengthened with tonic at Dr. Fern’s, before moving to Awa Awa for Okinawan awamori, and ending the night at The Daily Tot sipping on a rhum agricole from the tiny French-Caribbean possession of Martinique.

However, conspicuously absent from Hong Kong’s landscape of alcohol—and in spite of its long and once-proud history—is a category whose omission comes across as a blinding slight in hindsight: Cantonese liquor. No, we’re not talking about homegrown gins that sprung up in the wake of the global gin boom, and are based on a Western liquor to begin with. We’re referring to a far more esoteric and deep-rooted tradition with a centuries-old presence in the Guangdong region, derived from the millennium-old culture of Chinese baijiu and huangjiu (yellow wine). Today, however, the industry is almost non-existent, and seen as a historical artifact to Hongkongers—if they are aware of its presence at all.

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What is Cantonese liquor?

Above all, Cantonese liquor is distinct. Unlike Shaoxing wine, which refers to a specific style of huangjiu that must be produced in its namesake city and is known the world over for its use in Chinese cooking, Cantonese liquor is a catch-all term that refers to any liquor traditionally distilled in Canton, or modern-day Guangdong province.

Within this region, though, exists a world of difference. There’s Yuk Bing Siu, a clear rice-based liquor that is infused with pork fat before bottling to impart notes of milk, rose and pandan; Ng Ka Py, a medicinal wine fortified with the bark of the cortex acanthopanacus herb, once described by John Steinbeck in East of Eden as “the drink that tastes of good rotten apples”; and Mui Kwe Lu, a rose-flavoured sorghum spirit used as the secret ingredient in making Cantonese roast meats, cured sausages, and braised dishes like soy sauce chicken. 

The beginnings of these indigenous spirits can be traced back to a myriad of family-owned distilleries, many of which originated from the city of Foshan throughout the 1800s. Their formation built upon the area’s reputation for spirits-making, dating back to Foshan’s exemption from alcohol tax in the Northern Song dynasty and its history as a hotbed for the production of ceramics—all the better for crafting the jars in which spirits were to be made.

As these distilleries grew in size, the first place they looked to expand, naturally, was the burgeoning British entrepot of Hong Kong, just a day’s boat ride away on the other side of the Pearl River Delta. By the 1930s, just before the outbreak of World War Two, Hong Kong boasted over a dozen distilleries, many of which had clustered around Wing Lok Street and Bonham Strand in Sheung Wan.

Their presence proved to be prescient. After the turmoil of the Second World War, a massive influx of migrants escaping the ensuing Chinese Civil War created a huge market of drinkers overnight. During this golden era, Hong Kong’s distilleries opened multiple facilities around the city to accommodate the demand—so profitable was the trade that distillery owners could afford to build schools and temples in their own name, prompting sauce manufacturers and Chinese medicine makers to enter the industry for a slice of the pie. It was during this time that Cantonese liquor was exported all over the world.

The industry’s time in the limelight would prove to be brilliant but brief. From the 1960s onwards, sales of native spirits began to drop as foreign imports such as wine and beer began to snap up market share, wooing the drinking public with the promise of foreign sophistication. A frenzy of urban redevelopment in the 1970s forced many distilleries to vacate their ageing buildings, while the tastes of the growing middle class shifted irrevocably towards brandy and Scotch, or premium baijiu brands like Moutai and Wuliangye beloved by the Chinese business and political aristocracy. Even blue-collar workers, long a loyal customer base for local liquor, switched to cheaper rice wines imported from up north—caught in the middle, Hong Kong’s distilleries either downsized, switched to other industries, or moved their operations to mainland China, if they didn’t shut down completely. 

Today, Cantonese liquor is but a footnote in the city's own history, patronised only by elderly devotees or ageing restaurants. Only the 145-year-old Wing Lee Wai—at one point among the largest Chinese wine distilleries in China—still holds onto its shopfront at 124 Wing Lok Street, selling Cantonese spirits alongside more profitable fruits and seasonal hairy crabs.

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The search for a new identity

“My first encounter with Cantonese liquor would have to be mi jiu (rice wine), as it was a staple cooking ingredient in my household growing up,” says Dimple Yuen, the co-founder of Hong Kong-based gin brand, Two Moons Distillery. “Because of that, I’ve always had the misconception that Cantonese liquors were mainly used for culinary purposes.” Her perception is not uncommon among anyone below the age of 40 in Hong Kong, many of whom have little to no knowledge of Cantonese spirits, having grown up in a globally connected city.

The woes of Cantonese liquor can largely be boiled down to the absence of a distinct purpose within the crowded alcohol landscape of today. Seen as a historical artifact, the category lacks the perceived sophistication and pairing possibilities of wine, the approachability of beer, the gravitas of whiskey or cognac, or even the exoticism of sake.

So what else is stopping a mezcal-like revival for the likes of Cantonese liquor? Acclaimed mixologist Antonio Lai—whose cocktail bar Quinary is one of the few in the city to utilise the category in its menu—believes that the Western-centric compendium of classic cocktails—first formalised in New York and London during a “golden age” between the 1860s up until Prohibition, and which today forms the basis for many modern recipes—leaves out Cantonese spirits to the detriment of this local industry. In many cases, it’s easier for Hong Kong’s bartenders to incorporate native botanicals like burdock, Chinese angelica, or dried citrus peels directly into their drinks. “Cocktails made with Cantonese spirits tend to be overlooked when put up on the menu against more familiar crowd pleasers. It's only when a customer fully gives themselves to the bartender that we can introduce something so unfamiliar to a guest.”

Yuen, the gin distiller, echoes this line of thinking, adding: “I don’t think it’s the flavour—because it can be delicious—or production method that’s at fault, but the perception around these liquors with its deep-rooted history that just makes it a little ‘unfashionable’ to enjoy in this day and age.”

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A modern rebirth

Ultimately, the Covid-19 pandemic might prove to be the biggest catalyst for a coming renaissance of Cantonese spirits. With a near-complete halt to international travel over the course of more than two years, Hongkongers were compelled in many instances to turn their gaze inwards towards local culture and history. Among them, James H. Ting, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner, and investment banker-turned-bartender Dennis Mak had already been experimenting on marrying age-old Chinese medicinal knowledge with modern mixology for half a year by the time Hong Kong locked down its borders to the outside world.

“It just so happened that [during the pandemic], everything was put on hold,” says Ting. “People were able to realise a lot of things about their own lives and lifestyles.” Amidst heightened public awareness of health remedies, the duo, who originally met in high school, honed in on the yawning disconnect between the widespread perception of Chinese herbal wines as folk medicine, and their Western counterparts like Chartreuse and Bénédictine, which had long ago transcended their original function to become staple ingredients in mixology. Cocktails such as the Hot Toddy, known through the ages as an effective counter for colds and sore throats, also served as inspiration to Mak and Ting.

“Since I was a child, we have [kept] a big jar of homemade herbal-infused medicinal wine at home,” says Mak, the mixologist. “It represents the older generation’s way of caring for their loved ones and we would hate to see this tradition disappear.

Magnolia Lab was launched in August 2021, making it the first new Cantonese liquor brand in Hong Kong in several generations. Drawing on Ting’s formal training in TCM, the first two liqueurs are headlined by roselle, an antioxidant-rich flower bud, and magnolia, a flowering plant whose berries are known as “five flavour fruit” in Cantonese.

“In TCM, there are five flavours: bitter, sweet, spicy/pungent, salty and sour. Magnolia is one of the only herbs that capture all five flavours together. The more you drink it, the more that the bitterness gives way to other flavours,” explains Ting. “It comes back to our brand story, where we hope people can pause and reconnect with the things we have, with what’s in the glass. We know what herbs are inside, but is it the sum of its parts or is there something more?”

Made by the process of infusion, where herbs and botanicals are steeped in a blend of high-proof base spirits, the roselle and magnolia liqueurs clock in at 19 per cent and 33 per cent ABV respectively—a relatively moderate strength to better appeal to a younger, more health-conscious audience “who have some life experience and know how to appreciate different flavours or values that have been passed down through history,” as Ting puts it.

To this end, Magnolia Lab’s branding deftly mixes TCM properties with millennial-centric activations that evoke a keen sense of nostalgia. Its hefty brown-glass bottles resemble pharmacy bottles of yore, designed to simultaneously stand out on a back bar as well as blend in on the shelves of Hong Kong’s fast-disappearing provision stores. The brand has also collaborated with musicians and artists from the underground creative scene on physical mixtapes, put their drinks on the cocktail menus of hipster hangouts across the city, and invited the public to try their hand at infusing their own liqueur at pop-up workshops. 

“If we get to a point where you can show up [with a cocktail], drink and chat while your body is healed, then TCM could become a lifestyle aspect that everyone can enjoy—wouldn’t that be great?” asks Ting.

In a world that’s changing faster than ever before, can Cantonese spirits finally find their purpose, paradoxically, in the pursuit of health and renewed local identity? It’s still early days, but as the common adage goes: “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

A Guide to Drinking Cantonese Spirits

Yuk Bing Siu 玉冰燒

Made by macerating pork fat in rice spirit before bottling, Yuk Bing Siu literally translates to "jade ice spirit" and imparts notes of milk, rose and pandan. Clocking in at 29 per cent ABV, Wing Lee Wai's version also comes in a more contemporary, vanilla-scented bottling.

How to drink: Mix with tonic water as you would in a gin-and-tonic for a refreshing cooler. For a more sophisticated take, head to Bound by Hillywood in Prince Edward, which dedicates a whole section of the drinks menu to simple cocktails based on the spirit; or to Quinary, where the Yuk Bing Siu cocktail combines coriander slow-cooked Yuk Bing Siu with mezcal, Amaro Montenegro, applejack brandy and toasted glutinous rice syrup.

Ng Ka Py 五加皮

Made by steeping acanthopanax bark, polygonatum odoratum and jade cinnamon in sorghum spirit, Ng Ka Py is a potent medicinal liqueur that is bottled at 48 percent ABV. The liqueur takes its name from acanthopanax bark—in Cantonese, Ng Ka Py translates to "bark of five additions"—which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat problems of the liver, kidney, and joints.

How to drink: Due to its potent flavour, Ng Ka Py is best used in small amounts where a cocktail recipe calls for an Italian amaro. Try it in a Negroni by splitting the traditional one ounce of Campari with a half-ounce of Ng Ka Py for a slightly more bitter kick.

Mui Kwe Lu 玫瑰露

A straightforward rose-flavoured sorghum spirit, Mui Kwe Lu is best known for its use in Cantonese siu mei, to add fragrance to the likes of pork char siu and soy sauce chicken. 

How to drink: Use it as a substitute for any floral or perfumed liqueur, such as elderflower or lychee liqueur.

Magnolia Lab

Made by infusing a number of Asian botanicals in high-proof base spirits, Magnolia Lab's Magnolia and Roselle liqueurs are designed to entice a new generation of drinkers into the tradition of Cantonese liquors.

How to drink: The makers recommend pairing the more bitter Magnolia liqueur with tonic water to accentuate the taste of aged tangerine peel, while the lighter, more floral Roselle liqueur should be lengthened with soda water.

Luk Yung Tai Pao Wine 鹿茸大補酒

Local distiller Sam Seng is responsible for brewing this medicinal liquor, which can be found on the shelves of major supermarkets around Hong Kong. The brand's deer mascot hints at the liquor's main ingredient: deer antler, which is believed in Chinese medicine to revitalise yang energy, in turn nourishing the blood, kidney, bones, and joints. Other ingredients read like a roll call of the weird and wonderful, from male silkworm and gecko, to tortoise shell and parasitic loranthus.

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