If the essence of Hong Kong could be distilled into a gin, what would it taste like? Steven Newton thinks it would start with the earthy bitterness of ginseng, followed by a lively spark of bitter orange and the herbal tinge of Chinese angelica before finally settling into the sweet, mellow spice of Chinese cinnamon.
This isn’t just a thought exercise. Those are some of the botanicals Newton put into Handover Gin, along with fennel seed, cloves, nutmeg, orris root, coriander, fresh ginger, horny goat weed and—of course—juniper berries, the final and most crucial ingredients, since a gin cannot be a gin without juniper. Released earlier this year, Handover Gin is Hong Kong’s only locally produced gin, and it may well be the only commercial distilled gin that has ever been made in the territory. “I was looking for something very refreshing,” says the soft-spoken New Zealander, who has been distilling since he was 18 years old. But that understates his ambitions. “We’re the first to have a distillery licence since 1978,” he says. He is already making vodka, rum and whisky, including a single malt that is ageing quickly in Hong Kong’s hot climate. Soon enough, your next trip to the bar could reward you with spirits made just down the road.
That’s an almost unprecedented situation. Although Chinese distilleries flourished in the first half of the 20th century, producing wine rice and medicinal spirits, they have all but disappeared due to redevelopment and changing customer habits. And the history of Western-style distilling in Hong Kong is patchy. Although there are vague reports of a “large rum distillery” that made spirits out of locally-refined sugar, it’s not clear what brands of rum this factory produced or exactly how much rum it was making. Many attempts at opening distilleries were abandoned before they could even get started, as was the case with Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers, which stuck to brewing beer after it opened in 1930.
Somehow, Newton succeeded where others failed. Standing in a Tsuen Wan industrial unit on a muggy October morning, he pulls an unlabelled bottle of clear liquid from a box stacked near a gleaming copper pot still. “How about we start with a gin and tonic?” he asks. He pours a healthy dose into a metal mug and explains how he and his still managed to get here.
It started when he was still a teenager in New Zealand, where he picked up distilling as a hobby. “I really enjoyed making stuff and that’s where the passion came from,” he says. When he eventually moved to Hong Kong to work for a construction company, he noticed the surge in craft breweries and found it odd that there were no distilleries to match. So he decided to start one of his own.
That was five years ago. With so few operating distilleries, and none opening in the past 40 years, Newton had to jump through one legal hoop after another in order to get all of the certification he needed to open a distillery. “I had to go back to New Zealand to get three licences, which could be transferred here,” he says. All told, he needs seven difference licences and permits to operate. “We’re classed as a dangerous goods manufacturer,” he notes – an unusual distinction for a distillery, but one that Hong Kong’s safety-conscious bureaucracy insisted upon.
Now the distillery is finally up and running, capable of making 100-litre batches, though Newton says it can be easily scaled up to 600 litres. Gin is essentially a kind of flavoured vodka, and to make the vodka base, Newton uses New Zealand milk. It’s not as outlandish as it sounds, since milk is full of natural sugars that can be fermented into alcohol, and Newton says it produces a particularly smooth and well-rounded vodka.
Newton ferments the milk at a second facility, since brewing is not allowed in his dangerous-goods unit. That produces a beer that he then feeds into his still, creating vodka, which he then re-distills and infuses with a giant tea bag full of botanicals. “The still can strip everything out,” he says; the distiller’s job is to control this process in order to maintain a balance of flavours.
Newton had his still custom made in order to meet Hong Kong’s stringent safety requirements. He added some creative flourishes, like eight windows on the distillation tower—for good luck—and a dragon’s head through which the still dispenses its fiery liquid. “When it comes off the still it’s very rough – it tastes like medicine,” he says. He tames it through chill filtering and then adds water to cut it down to 42 percent alcohol by volume.
Handover Gin has been well received, earning a silver medal at this year’s Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition. It’s riding a wave of popularity that has made gin the spirit of the moment; a report from International Wine and Spirits Research found that global gin sales grew by 8.3 percent in 2018, faster than any other spirit.
In recent months, at least two other companies have released gins claiming some connection to Hong Kong, but Newton is quick to point out that they are all distilled overseas. “They’re marketing people, not distillers,” he says. If he sounds annoyed, it’s for good reason. At one point, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department knocked on his door, suspecting him of passing off imported spirits as locally-made, a situation he blames on the deliberately misleading approach taken by other gin brands that claim Hong Kong roots.
Newton’s ambitions don’t stop with gin. His single malt whisky has already been ageing in cherry oak barrels for a year and he has released a coconut rum, named in honour of famed pirate Cheung Po Tsai, that won a bronze medal at the Cathay Pacific competition. Across from his still are racks of jars containing experimental test batches, such as vodka aged on lychees, which gives it a plummy, earthy flavour rather than the sweetness you would expect.
Newton eventually plans to do contract distilling for other companies, perhaps even working with local breweries to distill their beer into spirits. For now, Newton is using a distributor to sell his gin, and it should be hitting the shelves of CitySuper later this month. That allows Newton to focus on distilling, which he still balances with his day job. “I’m normally here at 6:30, right after work,” he says. There’s always more gin to be made.