A glass act
At just 26, Ricky Liau is already a key figure in HK bar culture
When Ricky Liau told his family he wanted to drop out of design school to become a bartender at the age of 18, they couldn’t understand his decision. “My parents were not at all supportive of the idea,” he says. “They did not think of bartending as a career; they thought I would waste my time getting drunk.”
But Liau soon proved to his parents that bartending is serious business and now, at just 26, he is one of the strongest influences on Hong Kong drinking culture.
After five years’ bartending experience in Australia, Liau brought back an abundance of knowledge to help bar owners refine their operations, train bartenders and design menus.
“I have been hired as a consultant by several bars to help improve their operations. I also do bartending work at Wyndham the 4th on Wyndham Street. I love it so much – meeting new people, catching up with friends, creating new drinks, refining classics,” he says.
In May this year, Liau was crowned Hong Kong’s best bartender at the city’s World Class Bartender of the Year final. He will go on to represent the city against bartenders from more than 50 countries at the World Class Global Final in July. “World Class is relatively new to Hong Kong, but it is famous around the world. I decided to move back to Hong Kong because of my performance at a World Class contest in the early days of my career,” he says.
Looking back at his short yet prosperous career, Liau attributes his success to two great teachers.
After dropping out of design school, Liau spent time in a family restaurant and at a hotel bar to learn the basics of bartending. He then got a job at the Golden Monkey, a legendary bar in Melbourne, Australia. “My previous bar manager thought I should not be working for him anymore because he believed I could achieve much more elsewhere. He fired me so that I could go to the Golden Monkey,” Liau says.
He was offered the most junior position in the bar – the bar back. “I had no problem washing all the glasses, like a new guy. Golden Monkey was a great experience; it was where my career took off,” he says. “I had the chance to learn from Misty Hoeta, the head bartender, who I call the mother of my career. Her creativity with flavours is amazing. Can you believe she put peanut butter in a cocktail? She made it work beautifully.”
When Hoeta left the Golden Monkey, Liau met a new teacher, Chris Stock, who challenged him to take his craft to a new level. “Chris has OCD [obsessive–compulsive disorder]. He needs everything to be perfect – from the angle to place a bottle to the taste of the drink, he has his unique standard. He once spent three months developing a raspberry syrup because he thought the one from the supplier was not good enough. His dedication to work is unbelievable. He pushed me to do my best and is my role model,” Liau says.
His days at the Golden Monkey proved rewarding. “I learned a lot. I worked seven days a week, from the afternoon to five in the morning. It sounds tough but all the staff were close,” he says.
Liau’s career took another step forwards when he won a regional World Class competition and caught the attention of bar owners in Hong Kong. “After the competition I got lots of calls from bars asking me to work for them, and finally I decided to accept an offer,” from Hong Kong,” he says.
As Liau had been away from Hong Kong since he was 10, the first place he visited after getting off the plane was Lan Kwai Fong to check out the local drinking culture. “I was very disappointed. There was no cocktail culture. I wanted to order an old-fashioned drink – one of the first ones every bartender learns to make – but I could not find it on any menu,” he says.
Establishing a cocktail culture in Hong Kong was his first mission. In training bartenders, writing menus and setting up bar operations he put his practical knowledge to use on the local drinking scene.
“I was surprised how quickly the culture developed,” he says. “When I started three years ago, the bars didn’t even have bitters, the key ingredient in making cocktails. Now, all kinds of bitters are available. Hong Kong has gone from having no premium cocktail bar to having more than 10 in Central. The pace at which cocktails have grown in popularity is remarkable.”
Although Liau enjoys bartending, he is not much of a drinker. “I don’t drink a lot, but I do taste a lot of drinks,” he says. “As a bartender it is my job to taste and smell everything. I will chew a bar of soap or a wire so I know how they taste. Having a sensitive sense of smell and taste is important. I remember walking into a perfume store once and getting dizzy because the huge amount of strong scent confused my brain,” he says.
Liau’s passion for bartending leads on to a discussion of his second passion: ice. “I run a small studio with a few friends that makes ice sculptures. It adds a lot of glamour to serve a drink in an ice glass or decorate it with a sophisticated ice sculpture. Ice sculpting has become a hobby for me,” he says.
For young people wanting a career in bartending, Liau stresses the importance of proactive learning. “Bartending is a huge topic,” he says. “You need to know about history, geography and chemistry. After I became a bartender I started going on the internet daily to look for the latest drinking trends. There are always new things to learn and you must keep up to date. It is demanding.”
LIAU’S 10-YEAR BUCKET LIST
GO GLOBAL Win the World Class Global Final next month against bartenders from more than 50 countries
BAR CRAWL Open his own bar
STAY COOL Expand his ice-sculpture business
DOMESTIC FRONT Start a family and have two children
RIGHT MIX Greater contribute to Hong Kong’s drinks industry by training more high-quality bartenders