Suraj Gurung: A good cocktail is about balance in flavourI create the cocktail menu and train staff on how to execute and run the bar.
Hong Kong is home to some of the world’s best innovative bars, led by innovative mixologists who hail from across the globe. At the award-winning Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s premier bars which sits at number 11 on Asia's Top 50 bars, mixologist Suraj Gurung spins bottles and lights up cocktails. His signature mix of old world spirits with modern techniques has consistently landed him on The Bar Awards’ list of Asia’s best bartenders—in 2016, he was ranked among the top 10 bartenders in Asia; and among the top 25 bartenders of Asia in 2014, 2015, and 2016 according to Drinks World Asia. Originally from Kathmandu, Gurung moved to Hong Kong at the end of 2007 and has been working as a mixologist at Maximal Concepts, a company that operates a number of bars around Hong Kong since 2011. Many of Gurung’s signature cocktails make clever references to literary icons like Edgar Allan Poe, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and even involve a bit of his Nepali roots.
In this interview, Pranaya SJB Rana speaks to Gurung about the art of bartending, the inspirations behind his cocktails and his journey to the top of Hong Kong’s bartending scene.
How did you end up bartending? Was it always a passion of yours?
I moved to Hong Kong 10 years ago at the end of 2007. I initially started as a food runner in a restaurant. At first, it was just to make ends meet.
When did you start working for Maximal Concepts and how did you get there?
I started in 2011. After working in restaurants for a few years, I wanted to experience night clubs. Back then Maximal Concepts had a nightclub called PLAY. I started there as a bar back and then gradually grew alongside the company.
I’ve read that you originally wanted to be a chef. What made you move into mixing drinks?
Back in Nepal, I lived in a joint family. While my aunts would be prepping for dinner, I’d assist peeling onions, garlic and such. I always liked it. When I moved to Hong Kong in 2007 and started working as a food runner in the restaurant, I approached the chef and said I wanted to work in the kitchen. He told me that being on the floor was the best place for me at that time. The restaurant had a bar where I would jump in to assist when it got busy. It was mostly making coffee and smoothies, not many cocktails back then. But I liked the vibe. Once I started to learn about spirits, liquors and flavour profiles, I got more drawn into it.
You’re head of mixology for Maximal Concepts, a group of restaurants. What does your work actually entail?
I create the cocktail menu and train staff on how to execute and run the bar.
Your drinks are innovative but what I want to know is how much of Nepal is in your cocktails? Do you use any Nepali herbs and spices? Are any of your drinks inspired by Nepal?
The Beverage Programme that we create is tailored to the core DNA of the respective restaurant and bar—the cocktail and ingredients have a story and a connection to the concept of the venue. At one of our restaurants, Fish & Meat, I used timmur in a drink as the DNA of that restaurant was farm-to-table. [Fish & Meat is no longer open].
What’s it like being a Nepali mixologist in Hong Kong? Are there many Nepalis in your field of work?
It’s the best thing that has happened to me. Before it was just considered work, but now, it has evolved into a career. The Nepali presence in the food and beverage industry here keeps getting bigger and bigger. In fact, Maximal Concepts has always made an effort to hire from within Hong Kong’s Nepali community as much as possible.
What makes a good cocktail?
Balance in flavour.
What’s your favourite spirit and your favourite cocktail?
Mezcal, and a Mezcal margarita. A well-balanced Mezcal margarita is smoky, earthy and floral.
I’ve been told to ask you about the story behind one of your most popular cocktails, the Big Dick, which is inspired by Ernest Hemingway. So spill the beans, what’s the story?
This drink is a twist on a daiquiri. As Hemingway was well-known for drinking a lot of these, there’s a classic drink called the Hemingway daiquiri. So for this drink, we made a malted banana syrup with some citrus and house rum blend with chocolate bitters and cane syrup. The story of the drink was an assurance to fellow writer F Scott Fitzgerald. One day, Fitzgerald had a fight with his wife Zelda who yelled at him and told him his penis was small. Fitzgerald later went to Hemmingway and asked him to take a peek and see if the size was normal. Hemming way in return looked at it and said in fact the opposite was true. Hence, the name.
Do you have any plans of opening up a bar of your own, in Hong Kong or in Nepal?
I would love to have something in Nepal. Keeping my fingers crossed.
For those of us who love to pretend to know what we’re doing when we’re mixing drinks, what’s a simple, easy cocktail that will impress?
A good old fashioned is very easy to make. Any brown spirit—preferably whisky—with sugar, bitters and orange peel.
Apparently you’re a rum connoisseur. How does our Khukuri Rum compare? And what’s the best I can do with it?
I really like Khukuri rum and its bold oaky notes. It’s really great for winter.
Finally, can you give a recipe for one of your favourite cocktails, one that Nepalis in Kathmandu won’t have trouble making?
This is one of our best-selling rum drinks at Stockton, one of our bars. It’s called the Ribston apple. The ingredients are 30ml spiced rum (Khukuri spiced rum), 75ml apple cider, 30ml amaretto, a pinch of cinnamon powder and a teaspoon of honey. Mix all the ingredients and serve with ice. It tastes like Christmas.