It's monsoon weather in St Andrews when our Hong Kong cocktail champion, Rai Amrit, arrives at Eden Mill. This is a season he's familiar with, being from the eastern edge of Nepal. He's wrapped up in a winter coat and when I ask how he is his first comment is “cold”. This does nothing to dampen his spirits; every time I look at him he's grinning from ear to ear.
In 2016 with the support of Eden Mill, Montrose Fine Wines and Bar Talk Magazine, Rai competed against forty mixologists from China and Macau to be crowned grand cocktail champion. Seven finalists were challenged to make an Asian-themed cocktail using one of Eden Mill's gins and Rai's time as a bartender at Hong Kong's Artesian, The Langham, gave him the perfect training. His creation, a 'Spiced Thai Royale', incorporated our Oak Gin, lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass stalks, thinly sliced chilli and his own home made Thai sour mix. Perhaps the most stand out feature of his cocktail was the coconut-crafted cup, made by his carpenter father. He chose this to compliment the woody flavours of the Oak Gin and the effect is truly eye catching.
One of the prizes was a trip to Scotland to visit some of the amazing bars in Edinburgh and Glasgow and spend some time at Eden Mill Distillery. During his time in Scotland, Rai will be distilling his own gin using botanicals brought from his homeland of Nepal.
They're carefully wrapped in plastic bags and when he opens the first one I get a powerful whiff of wood smoke. He takes out a handful of dark brown pods and explains that it's black cardamom, native to Nepal and called aalaichi in Rai's native tongue. It grows in the eastern hills and when Rai splits one open the smoky smell turns to fresh menthol. It's a confusing botanical but easy to see how beautifully the flavours would lend themselves to a juniper-based spirit like gin. The second bag contains oddly familiar dried red flowers. When I bring a handful to my nose I'm immediately transported back to the temples of Kathmandu and the sweet floral aromas that hang in the air. We would recognise the flowers as red rhododendron but Rai identifies them as laliguras, Nepal's national flower.
Rai is of small stature with a young face but he has lived a lot in his twenty five years. He moved to Hong Kong to study hotel management at college and has already completed his level two WSET exams with an eye to tackling level three. He started working in bars in 2015 and had competed in four other cocktail competitions before winning last year. He tells me that craft beers and spirits are popular in Hong Kong and the interest continues to grow. The trend is geared towards new, exciting drinks and Rai is ready to take it on. Ultimately his dream is to work in distilling and brewing and he is blown away by the the size of Eden Mill as he never realised so much work could go on in such small packages. It could be seen as a fitting analogy for his own accomplishments; one thing is for sure, Rai Amrit is one to watch in the future of Hong Kong's cocktail, beer and spirits culture.