Five minutes with Leon Lee
Over the last four years, Leon Lee has been one of the driving forces behind Beijing’s blossoming craft cocktail scene. First setting a precedent for quality drinks with Apothecary, he has since opened Bar Veloce focussing on wine, and more recently, Janes & Hooch in a more speakeasy style. Here are some of the renowned bartender's thoughts on the Beijing drinks scene:
“When I first came to Beijing, cocktails were a necessary byproduct of entertainment and partying rather than an artistically-driven, creative cultural industry like fine dining and wine. Honestly, that hasn't changed a whole lot over the years, but the difference today is that there is a niche market for cocktails and spirits.”
“We used home-made ingredients and tried to do everything in a craft style to make classic cocktails but this was out of necessity as there weren’t many products available to bartenders – for example we made our own bitters. Things have changed a lot in the last three years.”
“Having said that, while there is now a deluge of products giving greater selection in China today, bartenders are often constrained by price. We end up having to use utilitarian spirits, not necessarily what we believe to be the best match when considering flavour profile, texture, aroma and colour.”
“Bartenders are the number one sought after blue-collar talents [in China] besides makeup artists. There have been times when we’ve been so short-staffed it’s not funny!”
“Everybody wants to be a bartender; no one wants to be a server. In our training plan, everyone is tasked with learning the material and gets time with a trainer. Following that is a series of tests. If they pass those tests on the drinks, techniques and service, they get a pay rise. It means that our bartenders also get out on the floor, acting as cocktail sommeliers.”
“A lot of people who become bartenders or chefs in China don’t go to Cordon Bleu, they don’t go to the Culinary Institute – there’s not as much artistry involved so they’re not used to trying a lot of Western herbs and spices – not even appreciating the difference between lemons and limes. As a bartender, a lot of the training I do is about experimenting, tasting and learning.”
“In the last few years it has become more important to open an aesthetically beautiful place, but the quality of cocktails has also improved across the board and hopefully us bartenders have been part of influencing that. Customers are also more aware – now they know what an Old Fashioned and a Sazerac are.”
A longer interview with Leon talking about the Beijing bar scene and Apothecary in particular will be in the next edition of DRiNK Magazine.
By Paul Mathew, a British bartender, drinks consultant and associate editor of DRiNK Magazine in Asia. He is based in Beijing, owns a bar in London, and regularly travels in-between looking at bartending styles and trends.