As one of the most evolving continents in the drinks industry in recent years, there's never been a better time to be a bartender in Asia. We caught up with Paul Mathew – a bar owner and drinks consultant with 20 years’ experience who has been based in Asia for the past 7 years, to find out more about the trends emerging from this part of the world.

With perfect timing, I was asked to write about emerging trends in Asia just as I leave. After 7½ years in China and Cambodia, I’m heading back to London to re-engage with one of the most mature drinks markets in the world, tinker with my three bars there, and ponder the next steps.

One of those steps is to consider what the current trends are around the world. Our industry is a dynamic one, and most venues don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching customers flow through the door. We constantly need to evaluate what our customers want (or what we think they will want) and play with our models to keep them excited - in Asia this is particularly true as our markets can be incredibly energetic.

When I moved to Beijing at the beginning of 2009, the ‘craft’ cocktail revolution was in its early stages, but soon there were speakeasies with rules and hidden signs, secret doors and dimly-lit whisky bars cropping up in apartment buildings and malls across town. Similarly, the diversity of brands in the market went from a rather upsettingly small selection of what I’d been used to in London to a plethora of new products, all clamouring to be part of the Middle Kingdom’s rising cocktail culture. Bartenders were embracing this, keen to show off their skill, as well as the ingredients and flavours of home in competitions like DIAGEO RESERVE WORLD CLASS™. Then came molecular mixology, craft beers, tap rooms and an explosion of small whisky spots with encyclopaedic back bars.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the changes have been even quicker. The last two years have seen the arrival of the first importer specifically targeting cocktail culture, as well as the first micro distillery making international spirits, first commercial craft brewer, and the first decent cocktail bars with bartenders who understand the spirits they’re using and can tailor bespoke drinks for the consumer. It’s a small market and the starting level is low, but overheads are small and enthusiasm is high!

Those two cities are vastly different in terms of size, culture and style, but both have followed certain Western trends of speakeasy-style venues, increasingly spirituous drinks and classic cocktail recipes, but if this path continues, what’s next?

Trends

Traditionally bar trends have been driven by the likes of New York, San Francisco, London and Melbourne, but Singapore has recently matched them for creativity and diversity, and more and more people are starting to look East for ideas.

Locality

Taking all those cities as guides, we have seen ‘local’ becoming increasingly popular in Asia, whether that’s craft brews or local ingredients like pomelo or shiso .

Foraging

Has had a particular turn in the spotlight in the West. In Asia this is perhaps harder, but its equivalent could mean using seasonal local fruits like the kumquat fruit or spices from traditional markets - things that don’t usually appear in classic cocktails.

Batch preparation

This has lost the stigma of ‘premix’ and is hugely beneficial to both speed of preparation and delivering a consistent standard of drink. Batch preparing the spirits, liqueurs and bitters in a Fish House Punch or Singapore Sling for example, or batching everything fresh each day for high volume serves.

Molecular mixology

Has evolved too, with less foams, airs, caviars and smoke, and more behind-the-scenes creativity involving rotavaps and sonic homogenisers to give unique, stable ingredients that can set a drink apart – something epitomised by Singapore’s Operation Dagger.

Spirits

Gin has exploded in popularity across Europe over the last few years, driven by Spanish balloon serves and the quest for exotic botanicals. Variations on a G&T will no doubt continue to flourish across Asia, whether we see exotic new products from small distilleries based in the region, or more access to the limited edition releases from familiar faces like TANQUERAY’s™ Bloomsbury or the resurrected TANQUERAY™ Malacca gins. Whether or not these are available in local markets, it would be great to see more locally sourced garnishes finding their way in too (pomelo and lemongrass are two favourites in my G&Ts).

Rum might also be a spirit of the moment in Asia with premium aged brands like ZACAPA™ offering a trade up that attracts the whisky and cognac drinkers.

Lower alcohol cocktails

And fortified wines (including vermouths, sherries and amari) are riding a wave too, something that may particularly suit Asia where I’ve noticed many customers looking for less alcoholic, but equally carefully constructed and well-presented drink options. I’ve worked on one menu of lighter highballs, all using a smaller spirit pour but with in-house flavoured sodas for example, or you can work with classically lighter cocktails like the Bamboo.

The talk of venues

These days seems to be more “dive” than “speakeasy”. I put both in quotes as the new “dive” is no more a dive bar than the modern “speakeasy” was an illegal drinking den, but to describe it more favourably, perhaps a trend towards local bars rather than hidden bars – relaxed and unpretentious venues where bartenders are more likely to greet you by name and you’re welcome whether it’s a JOHNNIE WALKER™ Bobbie Burns cocktail you’re after, or a beer and chaser! The Pontiac in Hong Kong might be a good example here – laid back but with great quality drinks and a bit of attitude!

To the future

It has been interesting to see the passage of drinks trends around the world in the last few years. The concepts that work in different markets, and those that don’t. London at the moment seems to be in thrall to sake, bao buns, Japanese bartending techniques (still) and street carts, so the trends are by no means one-way. Already our London venues have participated in two Baijiu Cocktail Weeks supported by SHUI JING FANG™, and I gather the first baijiu bars have opened in the USA and Europe in the last year. Who knows, maybe the next drinks trend will be uniquely Asian!

Do you work in Asia? What trends are you seeing? Tweet us at @diageobarac, share your photos on Instagram @diageobarac or like us on Facebook – we love to hear from you!

The WORLD CLASS, TANQUERAY, ZACAPA, SHUI JING FANG words and logos are trademarks © Diageo 2016

The TANQUERAY™ and WORLD CLASS™ words and associated logos are trademarks ©Diageo 2016