Header image courtesy of @tinshing.umeshu (via Instagram)
While Hong Kong has no shortage of world-class bars, prestige is normally conferred to those who utilise fine spirits imported from famous alcohol producers like Japan, Scotland, the United States, and other far-flung places. However, did you know that Hong Kong has its own small but burgeoning scene of craft alcohol producers? (There is also a varied and thriving craft beer industry, but that is its own beast worthy of its own dedicated article—which we have already written!) From fun and fizzy hard seltzers to craft gins spiked with local botanicals and traditional rice wines, here are the local alcohol brands to know. Cheers!
Capitalising on the historic use of herbs in Chinese culture, mixologist Dennis Mak co-founded Magnolia Lab, a homegrown liqueur brand whose products sit somewhere in between Chinese medicinal wine and herbal Italian digestifs like amaro or fernet. The brand launched in August 2021 with two flavours: magnolia and roselle.
The former complements the complex and nuanced magnolia berry—which is known as a “five flavour fruit” for its combination of sweetness, saltiness, tartness, bitterness, and pungency—with ingredients prized in Chinese medicine: tangerine peel, mulberries, and sandalwood. The latter, which is made with roselle, jujube, Chinese angelica root, and dried ginger, is touted as being “particularly beneficial for women” due to its ingredients being considered warming in traditional Chinese medicine.
Staying true to its Hong Kong roots, Magnolia Lab is stocked in old-school mom-and-pop tuck shops, as well as artsy cafés and bars like Tai Wo Tang and Bound Kowloon.
Inspired by the sweetness and sourness of life, Tinshing Umeshu is a Hong Kong-made plum wine that launched at the end of 2020. Made without additives or machinery, every frosted glass bottle of this tangy, sweet liqueur is brewed slowly and simply in Hong Kong by founder Eddie, who steeps green plums in rice wine for a year to produce the umeshu. The result is a tangy, sweet liqueur that goes down a treat whether it’s on the rocks, in a simple mixer, or as part of a cocktail.
To emphasise its handmade branding, Tinshing collaborated with two local businesses—So Mood Studio and Impressive Press—to create its unique green-and-white labels, which are made by embossing handmade paper with a letterpress. While the brand does occasionally pop up at local handicraft festivals, you can grab a bottle year-round by messaging Tinshing directly on Instagram or visiting their Pinkoi shopfront.
While umeshu (梅酒; plum wine) is most commonly associated with Japan, there’s actually been a locally produced plum wine on the market for the last year! The brewers at indie umeshu brand Ex Plum Wine do everything from washing the plums to steeping the fruit and bottling the liqueur right here in Hong Kong—To Kwa Wan, to be exact. Each green plum is carefully selected before being steeped in alcohol for one whole year to infuse fully before the sour-sweet liqueur gets bottled. Those who enjoy espresso martinis, coffee shochu, and other caffeine-spiked spirits may be interested to hear that Ex recently released a coffee-flavoured umeshu, which you can try in highball form at Dio in Soho.
Founded by two friends, Jeremy and Nic, whose lack of experience in the F&B industry informed the brand’s name (“Not Important Person”), NIP Distilling takes inspiration from the enduring Hong Kong spirit to make, well, a Hong Kong spirit. Inspired by their love of craft gin, the duo ventured to Scotland to learn the art of making gin from veteran distillers at the end of 2017 and launched their brand two years later (coincidentally around the same time as Two Moons) after extensive experimentation led them to their signature rare dry gin recipe.
The spirit, which is flavoured with longjing and shoumei tea, as well as 陳皮, snow pear, ginger, and osmanthus, is an homage to Hong Kong flavours and culture, as indicated by the 勝 (victory; sing3) character on the bottle, which is found in old-school Chinese drinking bowls (you know, like at Tung Po).
Besides their flagship product, NIP also produces limited edition and collaborative releases, like G0T, a ready-to-drink lemon tea-inspired gin and tonic made with local mixer brand Carbonation, “Awakenings,” a festive spiced apple gin, and most recently, 800M, a Lunar New Year release spiked with auspicious additions like mandarin, oolong tea, lotus seeds, ginger, and gold flakes.
Learn about the history of gin, the distillation process, the botanicals that go into NIP’s rare dry gin, and Jeremy and Nic’s plans to expand their repertoire on a private tour of their Quarry Bay facility, where you’ll also get to see April, their custom-made copper still that was assembled by the duo themselves.
While there are quite a few gin brands headquartered in and inspired by Hong Kong, there are in fact only two licensed gin distilleries in Hong Kong. Two Moons, a Chai Wan-based distillery, was founded by Hongkongers Dimple Yuen and Ivan Chang after the pair experimented with gin infusions and decided to create a complex and balanced spirit that would taste just as good straight as in a craft cocktail.
Yuen, who is Hong Kong’s only female head distiller, produces Two Moons’ signature dry gin in small batches in the brand’s namesake, a custom-made 100-litre copper still called Luna. Besides the requisite juniper berries, the spirit is also flavoured with Asian botanicals like 陳皮 (can4 pei4), an aged tangerine peel prized in Chinese medicine and cooking, Chinese apricot kernel, and Chinese almonds, as well as other aromatic ingredients like pink peppercorn, lemon, vanilla, and tonka.
Learn more about Two Moons’ history, distilling process, and the history of gin in general (or should that be gin-eral?) with a private tour of their facility, where you will get to see Luna and taste some craft tonics. Alternatively, you can purchase Two Moons’ star product from their website or at retail stockists, or try it in cocktails at gin-focused bars like Origin, Dr Fern’s Gin Parlour, and Ping Pong Gintonería, as well as other esteemed drinking establishments like Tell Camellia and Doubleshot by Cupping Room.
With its visually striking Chinese tiger-inspired motif and grown-up take on “cha chaan teng flavour”, this alcoholic lemon tea brand is targeting Hongkongers with a thirst for nostalgia (and cold “ling cha”). Made by the team behind DIY cocktail brand Homeshake Cocktail, Tipsy Cat is a more sophisticated, drinkable take on the vodka-and-lemon-tea concoctions that many Hongkongers will no doubt have tried during their younger days.
At five to seven percent ABV, it’s also a more sessionable option—and the beautiful glass bottles make for a lovely keepsake, too. The popular brand has recently added to its lineup with a carbonated can version of the original still bottled tea, both of which are widely available in bars and shops around Hong Kong, making it almost as convenient to pick up as a boxed lemon tea. (Almost.)
For all the light and low-cal associations of vodka soda with extra flavour in a portable, ready-to-drink format, check out Only Beverages’ flagship drink, the Only Vodka Soda. Made from vodka that’s been distilled five times, this 80-calorie drink touts itself as a way to enjoy alcohol without sacrificing health and wellness—not only is it free of artificial flavours, sweeteners, or preservatives, but it’s also gluten-free and suitable for those on vegan and keto diets, too. Currently, two fresh and citrusy flavours are available: Tahitian lime and yuzu ginger, both of which contain zero sugar and zero carbs.
Another homegrown hard seltzer to hit the ready-to-drink market within the last few years is BubbleMe, a sparkling alcoholic beverage infused with vitamin C and “a hint of fruit flavour.” Branding itself as a “new approach to guilt-free drinking,” BubbleMe is an alcoholic seltzer that’s light in more ways than one, with just 83 calories a can, two grams of carbs, and zero sugar or gluten. Currently, BubbleMe comes in three easy-to-drink flavours—strawberry Earl Grey, lychee lime, and mango peach—which lend themselves well to cocktails, too.
Craft beer enthusiasts will likely be familiar with Double Haven, a relatively new but already popular craft brewery based in Fo Tan. What you may not know is that the brewery is also behind the city’s first-ever hard seltzer, Dragon Water!
While hard seltzers may carry a slightly less-than-prestigious connotation in the United States, Dragon Water is a craft product through and through, with a light sparkling mouthfeel and subtle, pleasantly refreshing flavours like cucumber watermelon, lemongrass lime, and ginger blood orange. The Double Haven team, who named the brewery after the serene harbour of Yan Chau Tong, clearly take pride in their seltzers, with tasting notes befitting a craft IPA or Berliner Weisse accompanying each and every flavour.
We can’t talk about local alcohol without touching on rice wine—and while most mainstream brands are produced in mainland China, there’s one craft producer that’s been based in Hong Kong for over a century. Founded in 1876 by Guangdong native Wong Sing-hui, Wing Lee Wai, which translates to “eternal fortune and fame,” established its headquarters on Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan in 1905.
During its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Wing Lee Wai was a highly regarded rice wine brand known for its signature 五加皮 (ng5 gaa1 pei4; herbal wine) and sweet, floral 玫瑰露 (mui4 gwai3 lou6; rose dew wine), which were commonly consumed at lavish banquets.
While classic rice wines fell out of vogue for a few decades, there’s a growing taste for the traditional liqueurs among trendy young Chinese consumers. You can now try its rice wine at its longstanding headquarters on Wing Lok Street (where you can enjoy the wine with some hairy crabs), or at trendy bars like Bound by Hillywood, which showcases the brand’s yuk bing siu (玉冰燒), a Cantonese rice liqueur flavoured with pork fat, in its signature cocktail menu.