Thursday, May 2, 2013

Japanese Whisky Hot-Spots Worldwide (2): “Ronin”, Hong Kong

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Despite the high tax on spirits (a staggering 100%), there is a flourishing whisky culture in Hong Kong and even though only a handful of Japanese whiskies are officially imported, we are happy to be able to include not one but two “Japanese whisky hot-spots” there in our ongoing series of must-visit drinking establishments outside Japan. Today, we’re thrilled to introduce the first, Ronin, and the man behind the beverage program, Elliot Faber.
Elliot is originally from Canada but has been in Hong Kong for a while now. He’s always had an affinity for drinks, food, travel and all things Japanese. After university, he studied to become a sommelier; then, after wine, he fell in love with sake and started exploring that field. “It was only a matter of time,” he says, “before I started to appreciate the nuance and history of Japanese whisky.” In 2011, he helped set up the restaurant Yardbird – which has since become one of the hippest places in town – and it was then that his studies of Japanese whisky really began: “When we opened Yardbird, we decided to have only Japanese whisky and to use Japanese whisky for everything – so for our Old Fashioned we use Taketsuru 12 to highlight the bourbony sweetness and vanilla; for our Rob Roy we use Nikka From The Barrel, and so on.”

Sourcing the whiskies was a bit tricky, given the market situation there. More often than not, it involved traveling to Japan, a few suitcases, and a friend left or right, but for Elliot this was just part of the learning curve: “As the restaurant continued to grow, so did my passion for and knowledge of Japanese whisky. I got to know the Suntory team, Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu distillery, the people from Eigashima distillery, and many others.” These direct relationships with distilleries made it possible to expand the range of available whiskies in a relatively short time. Two months ago, he opened a second bar, Ronin, again with Japanese whisky as the focal point. At the time of writing, they have close to 100 Japanese whiskies. The two places are sort of complementary: “Yardbird is the loud and fun neighbourhood izakaya and Ronin is somewhat of a maturity. Both the food and the beverages are more refined.”

Elliot was brought in to take care of the beverage program at both establishments by chef/owner Matt Abergel, who trained with Masa Takayama in New York and was executive chef at Zuma in Hong Kong before he created the culinary identity of Yardbird. “It was Matt, my friend of over twenty years, who wanted this whisky selection and it was up to me to put it together. Matt has an incredibly clear vision and palate for the freshest, most artistic sashimi – both in terms of flavour and presentation – and he also applies a whole spectrum of traditional Japanese preparation methods to local seafood. We try to pair his creations with the right Japanese whisky, and it’s always fun: everything from capturing the freshness and texture of Hakushu 12 paired with the omega-rich saba sashimi with persimmon to the dried fruit, malty and slightly salty Mars Komagatake 10yo with the fried quail with the orange zest sancho. Sometimes we prefer to explore contrast, for example by pairing the slightly lean but quite nutty and cereal driven Chichibu Golden Horse 8yo with our unagi chirashi and wild kinome. Our general manager, Raphael Holzer, has a great affinity for spirits, too, so it’s a real team effort.”

Ronin also has a special “bottle keep” system: “We have the equivalent of a ‘library card’ for guests to date-stamp and sign in and out. Once a bottle is purchased, it can only go to that guest.” Elliot’s favourite Japanese whisky? “I don’t have a favourite. Every distillery has merit and a story. At Ronin, we gather the stories and do as much research on the history and flavour profiles of everything right from the distillery down to the individual bottlings, and share it with our guests.” Their motto really says it all: “sharing is caring”.

Address: 8 On Wo Lane Central Hong Kong
Hours: 6pm-midnight, Mon-Sat
Address: 33-35 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan Hong Kong
Hours: 6pm-midnight, Mon-Sat

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