In the 5th episode of the series, Arlene Wong fills us in on why it's her life goal to raise awareness around Okinawa's "national" spirit

While chefs are often celebrated in grand oeuvres and Netflix documentaries, bartenders, despite their careers being predicated on interacting with the public, don't often get their dues when it comes to pop culture. Through The Stirring Glass is a video series by Tatler Dining that aims to flip this script on its head, with a look at the life and careers of six Hong Kong bartenders, each of whom captures their experiences in three cocktails made for the camera. From childhood memories to getting their start in the industry, all the way up to the current day, watch as Hong Kong's best mixological minds recount their journeys so far through the bottom of a stirring glass.

For a tropical paradise just a 2.5-hour flight away, Okinawa holds surprisingly little sway in our city's food and drink scene. This, despite the Japanese archipelago's distinct food culture, encompassing everything from bitter melon and taco rice, to black sugar and its indigenous distilled spirit, awamori. Awa Awa, a Peel Street gastrobar named after the latter, is looking to change that, with co-founder Arlene Wong making it her mission to give the overlooked spirit its time in the sun. 

Indeed, Wong's career has always veered towards the unconventional. Having spent her formative years in the States, she majored in photography in New York before returning to Hong Kong. Transfixed by tales of drama and intrigue from her friends who worked in the F&B industry, Wong decided to dip her toes beginning with a barista role at 18 Grams in Causeway Bay, though, finding the early opening times and low pay disagreeable, she eventually landed a managerial position at Butcher's Club—thus beginning her shift towards the vast world of nightlife.

See also: All About Awamori, The Japanese Spirit You Should Be Drinking Now

Stints at 11 Westside and The Pontiac followed—during the latter, Wong began to distribute alcohol as well as participate in bartending competitions. One would prove to be especially formative: at the 2019 Hong Kong Coffee in Good Spirits competition, Wong placed as a finalist with her Sundown cocktail utilising 36-hour kombu sous-vide awamori and freshly brewed coffee. Her deft balancing of coffee and awamori in her cocktail entry caught the eye of Australian coffee liqueur brand Mr. Black—for whom she would later become their Asia brand ambassador—as well as awakening in her a newfound curiosity for Japanese culture.

These threads eventually culminated in the opening of Awa Awa with Elliot Faber of Sake Central and with the support of the Okinawa prefectural government, in which drinkers with an acute case of wanderlust can indulge in awamori-based cocktails as well as a full food menu of Okinawan specialties. Bedecked in Okinawan paraphernalia and tropical patterns, it's a transportive hideaway from locked-down Hong Kong—though Wong sees her responsibility extending beyond merely providing a good time, instead seizing the opportunity to educate the city on the allure of a spirit rich in history and terroir. "It's been a long journey," says Wong, looking back on her decade in the F&B industry. "I feel like I was born to do it."

Get to know Wong a little bit better in the video above, where she walks us through three cocktails that represent each stage of her career; and don't miss the rest of Through The Stirring Glass here.

Arlene's Cocktails

Scout's Secret

Spiced bourbon, sherry, Fernet Hunter, Mr. Black Columbia Single-Origin, Angostura bitters

Sundown

Kombu sous-vide Ryukyu Ohcho awamori, freshly brewed coffee, lemon, ginger syrup

Andean Condor

Ryukyu 1429 awamori, Nusa Cana spiced rum, Okinawa pineapple tepache, Campari, lime, syrup


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