Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Antonio Lai on Drinking with Your Eyes

Antonio Lai knows all too well that in this Instagram-happy age, before cocktails touch the lips of guests, they drink them in with their eyes. “As we look at the trends today, almost everything appears on social media in an instant,” says Lai. “When a dish is served ... patrons proceed to whip out their phones and take a picture, editing and uploading it almost immediately. The same thing happens with drinks. Therefore, it’s only natural to place a focus on enhancing the aesthetics of cocktails through creative presentations.”

Lai’s Hong Kong bars, including Quinary, Origin and The Envoy, have become well-known for their thoughtful (occasionally mind-boggling) appearances, ranging from mile-high foam on the Earl Grey Caviar Martini to a malty chocolate-and-ice cream concoction served inside a giant ceramic egg.

Below, Lai explains how presentation can not only help elevate the physical beauty of a cocktail but also allow guests to have a wholly immersive drinking experience.

Lai suggests using unique glassware with cocktails like he does for the KGB, left, at Origin and the Prey at Quinary.

A good garnish can’t save a bad cocktail.

“Before we dive into cocktail presentations, we must have a delicious-tasting cocktail to start! A very good drink is most important—and has to be executed well—before we can move on to explore other elements of the cocktail.”

Consider unique glassware.

When considering the presentation of cocktails, first ask what kind of glassware to use, if we are even using glass at all! Anything can be a cocktail vessel these days. For example, the KGB at Origin: During Prohibition, when alcohol was widely unavailable, many turned to making their own gin in bathtubs to avoid detection and persecution. We serve the KGB cocktail (gin, grape liqueur, elderflower syrup, lemon juice, lime juice and white grape juice) in a miniature bathtub, with a heap of ‘bubbles’ and a cheeky little rubber ducky.”

Antonio Lai.

Antonio Lai

Think about engaging all the senses.

“Another question is: Does it engage one or more of our five senses? At Quinary, we have the Prey cocktail, which is strained into a highball glass, then placed inside a brown paper bag with an elastic band secured loosely near the top. Cinnamon smoke is pumped into the bag, and as the guest picks up the drink to sip from it, the motion releases lovely aromas of cinnamon smoke, which complement the cocktail’s flavors.”

Are you actually enhancing the guest’s experience?

“Amazing garnishes and presentations should enhance the drinking experience, not merely add fluff and glitter to it. For my group of bars, many of the unique cocktail presentations tie in with the inspiration of the individual cocktail, and some are even interactive. This is how we create a more memorable experience for the guests, thus adding value to their enjoyment of the drink.”