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How Two 30-Year-Olds Bootstrapped Their Way To China’s No.1 Cocktail Bar: Words With Andrew Ho of Hope & Sesame Guangzhou, Bar SanYou

The funny thing is that in the initial space, we wanted to do a restaurant. We did all the drawings, but the kitchen didn't fit. Then we're like “Okay, maybe we’ll do a bar.”

– Andrew Ho, co-founder of Hope & Sesame, Guangzhou’s first speakeasy and Mainland China’s Best Bar in 2023

 
Andrew and his co-founder, Bastien.

 

Tucked away with the quaint old villas of Guangzhou's West Temple Front Street (庙前西街), an area known for its blend of retro charm and trendy chic, lies Hope & Sesame (庙前冰室). Amidst fashion outlets and old historical houses, this speakeasy bar is hidden behind a traditional Cantonese cafe that on the surface would sooner excite an Asian grandma than Millennials or Zoomers. Yet it stands as Guangzhou's first speakeasy that quickly became a beacon of cocktail innovation and top-notch hospitality.

Founded by two 30-something-year-olds in 2016, when the speakeasy concept was virtually unknown in Guangzhou, Hope & Sesame introduced a new era in the city's and the wider Chinese cocktails scene. Under Andrew Ho and Bastian Ciocca who both have stellar hotelier pedigrees, the bar consistently clinched top accolades in China and quickly garnered international acclaim. It was recently ranked by Asia's 50 Best as 2023's Best Bar in Mainland China.

The duo pushed on and later opened two Bar SanYou venues in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. SanYou prides itself on being baijiu-focused, only using 100% locally-sourced ingredients often focusing on a specific province or even district. Such is the renown of their team that they have become sought-after bar concept consultants for leading hotels across China.

 

Andrew during his guest shift at Underdog Inn, Singapore (Source: David Yeung, @davejony)

 

I first met Andrew during his guest bartending shift at Underdog Inn in Singapore. In person, the Hong Konger is the epitome of a new breed of entrepreneurs: bold, unfiltered, full of energy. He bursts with ideas, speaking with passion about recipe creation and eclectic Asian ingredients. Alongside this energy is a grounding sense of realism. When I probed him about the mark that he hopes to eventually leave, he says he's just focused on enduring the test of time: "We don't want to leave a mark *Laughs*. We want to be around for 30-40 years to come." Most of all, I like his super authentic persona that doesn't care for the trappings of formalities; it is very refreshing indeed.

 

 

In this interview, we delve into the early days of Hope & Sesame, uncovering the secrets behind this self-funded success that didn't rely on big investors and "rich parents." We'll explore Andrew's formative years, the easiest-to-make baijiu cocktail that anyone would love, explore Cantonese dish-inspired cocktails, and gather his incisive insights on the bar scenes in Europe and Asia.

Let's hear it from Andrew!

Follow their socials: Hope & Sesame |  Bar SanYou | DSK Cocktail Club | Official Website

Follow Andrew: Instagram

[Momofuku’s] David Chang was my absolute idol. He's doing something that's taking very high end techniques and experience, and doing it in a very casual environment. I think it sets the tone for so many, so many F&B establishments now, so even till this day.

[88 Bamboo]: You have a very strong background in hotel management, you graduated from one of the top hotels schools and you have worked in Grand Hyatt before your transition into the bar industry.

Could you just share with us about your first memory of being exposed to great hospitality concepts?

[Andrew Ho]: My first exposure was actually quite late. I think it was just when I was in University and Hotel School. I think that's where I started to be a little bit more interested in F&B.

I’ve no idea before. Barely been to proper five star hotels. So it was very random why I chose hospitality because I just thought it sounded kind of fun and cool. I think something that opened my mind was definitely during my first internship when I was at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. I did a six months étudier at Amber - now a two Michelin-starred restaurant - back then it was just open for a couple months and not even a year.

 

Two-Michelin starred Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel offers very inventive French-Japanese cuisine with an exceptional wine list, and is ranked amongst the world's top restaurants (Source: Amber)

 

That was really the first encounter I had with top concepts and hospitality. Quite lucky because that's my first exposure, it's already a top establishment. The quality of the service, the knowledge of the team, the passion of the chefs. Everything was just the right thing for me to see as the first step. Because everything from then on, I already had a standard. I know what is required, what do people expect from you as a hospitality professional.

I think that was super important. That was incredibly eye-opening. The only F&B experience I had before that was in school. So it's a lot of theory, a little bit practical, but essentially, that was my first experience. The level of detail they go into and to make each dish, you have to learn where this butter is from, why it’s famous, which part of France it’s from. How much salt content is in the saltwater? Why is it so famous? Everything, down to the cutlery. Why is this cutlery of a certain brand better than the other ones? Why is this stillwater the best stillwater in the world? All this stuff, what we were asked to remember, what standards we were asked. It was just at the highest, highest level. So that really set a great foundation for everything that I do in hospitality from then on.

 

(Source: EHL Hospitality Business School)

We've always had this mentality at the back of our mind that hospitality and service is everything. It's like the very minute details that separate the different bars from each other. What do we expect from our team, the knowledge, the work ethic, the attention to detail and most importantly, how do we treat our guests and our colleagues? That’s something that's kind of ingrained in our DNA from the very beginning.

[88B]: So your first brush with high end hospitality was in the restaurant scene. How does it translate to great hospitality in the bar scene? My understanding is that when you're just starting out, the bar scene in China wasn't as developed as it is currently.

[Andrew]: Yeah, correct. Look, if you have these standards at the very, very beginning of your career, it kind of sets the tone for everything else. Obviously, when I first opened a bar it wasn't at that level of hospitality for sure, because we're talking about a 2-Michelin starred restaurant in Hong Kong, compared to a neighborhood speakeasy bar. But we've always had this mentality at the back of our mind that hospitality and service is everything. It's like very minute detail that separates the different bars from each other. What do we expect from our team, the knowledge, the work ethic, the attention to details and most importantly, how do we treat all our guests and our colleagues. That’s something that's kind of ingrained in our DNA from the very beginning.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

Obviously the venue we started off with is a small speakeasy bar in Guangzhou, not even in the main CBD, just in the old part of town. But we always kept all these things in mind. Naturally you're gonna grow into something, you're gonna start making money, you're gonna open more venues, but this DNA is super important for everything. It lays a foundation of what we do in the future, including our consultancy work as well.

 

Hope & Sesame Guangzhou's nondescript front entrance (Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

We have a strong focus on working with five star hotels. It's because of our background. We also know what their expectations are, how to communicate in an organization like that. Usually bartenders barely had much education, let alone speaking to a five star international hotel GM who’s so experienced. Or speaking to the VP of the Food & Beverage of a hotel brand. You have to have these kinds of similar backgrounds in order for them to have resonance, to understand you're not just a bartender who rose through the ranks. You’re a hospitality person, have gone through the right education, you have the right background, the right exposure, you understand how they work internally and what expectations they have.

My first internship was when I was 18, so that's 18 years ago. Everything that I've touched, I've learned from it and it builds towards what we are today and what we do today as well.

I'm mostly about work. I don't have too much other stuff going on. I have a family with a kid. That's probably my hidden talent, I’m a decent Dad I think… These two things don’t usually go together *Laughs*. But I do my part in both.

[88B]: Compared to most bartenders, you and Bastien have a different sort of pedigree. You guys went to hospitality school, you guys have been involved with all of these top-notch professionals that set the standard for you guys. 

[Andrew]: That's what I think is great about this industry, because it's so diverse. You have people like us who come from different backgrounds. You also have bartenders rising the ranks working in many venues for 15 years and reaching the same level. I think there's no one way or better way, just different paths.

[88B]: Talking about the places that have set a high standard for you, are there any individuals or mentors, or are there any personalities that you look to in admiration, people who inspire you?

[Andrew]: You definitely have influences throughout your career. I don't think there's a specific one that I was very much attached to. I think when I first started, when I'm still in hotels, it was one of my Directors of Food & Beverages. He was a huge influence on how I run the team, how I treat them, how I respond in difficult situations. It was my superior at the Grand Hyatt. To this day, he's my boss. He’s just such a huge influence on my management side.

 

Andrew quickly rose the ranks to become an Assistant Director of Food & Beverage at Grand Hyatt by the age of 24 (Source: Andrew Ho)

 

I think the most eye-opening trip for me was when I did a little trip to New York to visit all the bars and I was just 21, while I was in school. That was when Momofuku was just beginning. David Chang was my absolute idol. He's doing something that's taking very high end techniques and experience, and doing it in a very casual environment. I think it sets the tone for so many, so many F&B establishments now, so even till this day. You have your bistros whose chefs used to work in a French laundry. You have cocktail bartenders who have worked in hotels or a very nice establishment, and now they open their own place. So I think David Chang for sure, for me, was one of the most eye-opening personalities in this industry.

 

Korean-American restauranteur David Chang established himself as one of New York's hottest chefs with his reimagined Modern Asian cuisine (Source: Neil Wilder)

 

Bar-wise, honestly I don't think there's many. We kind of blaze our own way, but we always take inspiration from everywhere. From every bar that we go to, everything that we see on Instagram or recipe books. I think there's a lot of influence you can take from, but I wouldn't pinpoint a specific person for that.

[88B]: David Chang is a great example because there’s a lot we can unpack about what he's done for the high end F&B scene in the States.

Outside of the realm of F&B, could you share with us one of your own hobbies, talents or skills that few people know about?

[Andrew]: I'm mostly about work. I don't have too much other stuff going on. I have a family with a kid. That's probably my hidden talent, I’m a decent Dad I think *Laughs*.

[88B]: Yeah, you’re a high performing bar owner and you're also a decent Dad.

[Andrew]: These two things don’t usually go together. But I do my part in both.

 

(Source: Andrew Ho)

 

It's quite a consuming job as well right? It's not 9 to 5. You don't get Saturday, Sundays off. You’re essentially always on call – not physically, but mentally you have to have the capacity to respond in any situation anytime of the day.

I think multitasking is definitely one of my strong skills. And compartmentalizing different projects, making sure of priorities, organization, being able to be someone for a lot of people. I think that's also really important. All the bars, managers, they need me. Bartenders, they ask for me. Our Consultancy team, our Finance and HR team. You just have to be there for a lot of people.

 

(Source: Andrew Ho)

 

I think that's not easy. And also, a lot of clients, a lot of medias. So yeah, I think I juggle pretty well.

We spent all of our last dime on opening the bar. So we are really true entrepreneurs that have no fall-back plan if the bar closes… If it’s a big group [giving advice on surviving COVID], people would be like ‘What the fuck man. You guys have 20 investors, banks, VCs backing you, rich parents.’ We have all the credibility because we come from absolutely nothing.

– Andrew reflecting on F&B business during the pandemic, and the support given to other small businesses.

[88B]: Do you have any tips or tricks that you have developed over the years, things that help you with this?

[Andrew]: Absolutely. You have to write everything down. Nobody can remember everything. We use an office application system where basically you can put notes down. In China, we us this one called Ding Ding (钉钉). It's kinda like workday, something like that.

When someone asks for you to have a quick call at 5:30, immediately I put it in my calendar because I would definitely forget. There is just no chance I would remember. I would be on my way home or somewhere else if I didn't put it down.

A team will ask me if I can come for a tasting or something or I ask the team to do something, I give them a deadline. I would always send a reminder as well so I can always remind them. So they always think that the boss remembers, so I have to remember. I think that's an important thing since you juggle so many things, it’s important for you to do so.

 

An olive oil-infused Italian G&T (Source: Andrew Ho)

 

Creative-wise, I have an app where I just jot down all these ideas. Flavor combinations that I can think of. Whenever I eat or drink something I think that's interesting, I put it down. Sometimes it's a coffee in the morning that gives you inspiration. I was just in Korea and I had tea which gave me some ideas for drinks.

The important thing is not about how much you can remember because you never remember everything. We just have to jot it down and bring it back and be reliable to a lot of people.

[88B]: That reminds me of the director David Lynch who said he has to write down every idea, or else he would feel like killing himself after.

[Andrew]: Yeah, it’s gonna slip away! Eventually, you're gonna get overwhelmed. You have too many projects or you start to get a bit tired, hungover and then you just forget things. You just need a constant reminder. If you become that person who just keeps forgetting things, who misses deadlines and meetings with people, then you're gonna have a bad reputation.

[88B]: At the beginning, it wasn't clear to you that you would have taken this path. You went to hospitality school and it wasn't obvious that you would eventually get into bartending.

What gave you the confidence to say, “Yes, this is something that I could do”, and operate at such a high level? Was there a moment that gave you the confidence?

[Andrew]: I think the confidence comes from passion as well. It’s something I really enjoy, food and beverage. I think we're incredibly lucky to be doing something that we enjoy so much because if I weren't working or anything, I would be going to bars or going to restaurants with dinners and going to new restaurants to try this and that. So it's already ingrained, it’s a hobby and passion already. To make a living out of that, we're incredibly lucky. Also that's what motivates us as well because it’s not always that it feels like work.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

My wife, sometimes she sees me out drinking, going with friends, going to suppers. Going to Korea, Japan, Australia or the States, all these places like that. It's not working, but it is! Even hosting people and going out for nice dinners, that's all part of it. That's why we feel that it can become a career.

I think I also have a pretty good sense of flavor combination. I think that's talent that can’t be taught. Getting the combinations, I think it's something that you either have or you don’t. You can read as many books or try as many drinks as you can, but if you don’t have it, you don't have it. You can still make decent drinks, but it's a talent. So I’m quite lucky to have that in terms of food. We're quite multi-talented I’d say. I’ll get in the kitchen, I like being in the bar making recipes and stuff. So I think having that is quite important, not everyone has that. You don't have to have that to succeed, but it also helps.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame) 

 

Realizing all that, first the passion and how much I enjoy it, second, having that palette, and third, all those organizational skills, made me realize that look, I can make a career out of this. Doing creative, good quality stuff, good service, interesting concepts… the rest would take care of itself.

Basically everything we touch in China Chinese cuisine has MSG in it. So I think it's just a good way to do savory – we have a MSG Gimlet that’s on the current menu.

[88B]: You’re supremely confident about the bar business now, though I'm looking at you at the peak of your career. So when did that confidence develop? Did you already have the confidence when you rented that lot for the speakeasy?

[Andrew]: Actually it’s quite before that. I had a pretty decent career in hospitality and hotels as well. We did a hotel school and I was Assistant Director of Food & Beverage for Grand Hyatt Hong Kong which is a great establishment, they have the best hotels in the portfolio, and I was like 24, 25. At that time, I was like, “Okay, I'm pretty good at this.” I can always fall back into this career path and just become a GM. So I think an affirmation from an organization, being promoted at such a young age. Obviously, it's a humbling experience as well, because you are working with people who are double your age and you have to match them, or they'll give you shit. Affirmation from such an organization just gave me the confidence to do whatever I want to. That's why I quit and started my own business, knowing that if all things don’t work out, I can always fall back into that. I think that that gave me a lot of confidence.

 

The Hope & Sesame team receiving their China Bar of the Year award at the DMBA 2018 (Source: DMBA)

 

In terms of being more entrepreneurial, doing your own concepts… It's called the DMBA Awards here in China, which is the drinks award for cocktail bars in China. I think it's the first time when we won Bar of the Year where we know that okay, we're on to something. We have a good team going on, we're getting recognized domestically. And then obviously, the following year we got on Asia’s 50 Best Bars as well. So I think that is where we really feel like okay, the international recognition, being an entrepreneur kind of worked out a little bit, that gave us the confidence to open more venues.

So two stages: when I was in hotels and also when we won the first award for the company.

[88B]: It's also interesting because you were thrown into the deep end if I understand you correctly. You were only 24 and you're working with people twice your age. And of course that's an environment where…

[Andrew]: You sink or swim right?

[88B]: Exactly. So just taking it slightly earlier from when you started Hope & Sesame back in 2016. Guangzhou was quite new to cocktail culture. How did you and your co-founder Bastian decide that you would like to open Guangzhou's first speakeasy? And how did you conceive of that concept? I'm looking at one of the earlier Instagram photos that you have taken of the place and it's just full of live wires.

[Andrew]: Me and Bastian went to school together in University. We knew of each other back then already. He also got transferred to a Guangzhou hotel. I was in Guangzhou at the same time. So we were like, let’s just open a bar.

I think it's a little bit less complicated than it sounds. It's just one day when we’re like “Let’s open a bar” and then we did! And then we started looking for space and then we found a space that's not too expensive and kind of has a little bit of room for failure - we always have something to fall back on. So we're like “Fuck it, let's open a bar.” The funny thing is that in the initial space, we wanted to do a restaurant. We did all the drawings, but the kitchen didn't fit. Then we're like “Okay, maybe we’ll do a bar.”

 

The scouted venue before Hope & Sesame was opened (Source: Andrew Ho) 

 

Since the location isn't the most central location we might as well make a speakeasy since we're not gonna get a lot of traffic flow anyway. Might as well do something fun because a good speakeasy wasn't a thing back then. So we just want to attract people to come, and it did. And then pretty much after the first week we were full until today. Yeah, quite lucky about that.

People are quite open-minded here in Guangzhou. If we tried to do this in Singapore, people will see through you, say you’re not a real bartender, why would I come to your bar? We're lucky we started off here where people were a bit more forgiving…

[88B]: What’s the facade of your speakeasy?

[Andrew]: It's like an old Cantonese cafe. So basically people would come in every morning every day to get a lemon tea or milk tea. It's really part of the neighborhood. It was a proper speakeasy, I would say. Not in the middle of Hong Kong and Central with a Cantonese cafe. For us, it didn't stick out at all. Had so many people come in and just ask for a drink.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

[88B]: The speakeasy concept was something relatively new back then. So how did people react to the secret door behind this Cantonese cafe?

[Andrew]: They didn’t know about speakeasies. They just thought it was very interesting. There weren’t even a lot of cocktail drinkers back then. There were a couple bars doing pretty serious cocktails, so they had some kind of following. Though in industry there were not too many. Maybe 30 regulars that always go to bars and stuff but obviously can't rely just on them.

That's why the speakeasy was so popular. It's just kind of a gimmick to get people through the door and to experience what's inside. It was a chance to come in, experience our service, creativity. Then we started to evolve, get more people to come in. Everything was super organic. We didn't have a budget, we're just like me and Bastien, two of us, and we had one staff member.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

Basically for two, three years, we're there every single night, just paying our dues I would say, especially since we weren't from the industry previously. But I think people are quite open-minded here in Guangzhou. If we tried to do this in Singapore, people will see through you, say you’re not a real bartender, why would I come to your bar? We're lucky we started off here where people were a bit more forgiving, people were not as knowledgeable or advanced in the cocktail experiences.

[88B]: So you guys had your day jobs too?

[Andrew]: No, no, we quit everything, we were full-time from the very beginning.

[88B]: Within your first few weeks, first month, could you remember what were the main challenges you have to grapple with?

[Andrew]: I remember having gone to the fresh fruit market, the wet market, to get ingredients every single day, because there weren’t people delivering. Back then, nobody delivered limes, mints, basils and oranges and stuff like that we had to go to the market to buy every single day. Afterwards we've got to open the bar, clean the bar and do prep, and receive the guests. If there’s something wrong with the toilet we had to fix it. Afterwards we close the bar. It was just super long nights. It just sounds a bit spoiled for us to say this now, but back then there wasn’t a lot of support. Now you can easily order everything that you need, all the ingredients and send them to your doorstep. Back then there wasn't such a thing. We had to do it the old school way.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

I think to get comfortable to recognize yourself that people are coming to your bar… even seasoned drinkers would come to your bar. I think that was a bit hard for me to accept at first because I wasn't very confident behind a bar then. Obviously, I've done some bartending at the hotel before but not professionally. So I think at first I was just a bit nervous. A thing of confidence. But that was very quickly gone because we have 30, 40 dockets in front of you that you just fuckin’ do it. You don't even think twice.

 

(Source: Andrew Ho)

 

Opening a business in China isn't the easiest thing. To deal with the authorities, to get the licensing, all the finance, tech side, everything is completely new, especially coming from an organization where you have different departments for that, you never have to deal with it. That's why I still think the hotel industry is a very sheltered bubble. As a F&B director, you're never involved in recipes, purchasing, finance. Basically, you just run whatever it's been set up. You can't fuck up anything up because everything is in place. The transition from that to being an entrepreneur where you have to run everything yourself, that’s one of the main challenges – it still is, we still learn.

The Asian bartending scene is miles ahead… In terms of the creativity, in terms of cocktails, in terms of concepts, miles ahead… Because there isn't such a huge drinking culture or cocktail culture for Asian communities, people are more open-minded on what they want to try.

[88B]: Moving to the menu that you have at Hope & Sesame. Many of your drinks are food inspired. French Fries Distilled Martini, Olive Oil Gin & Tonic. You have the ability to incorporate local Cantonese flavors into your drinks. You have the Cantonese Chicken Rice & Trinidad Sour.

Could you just speak about three iconic Cantonese or Asian dishes that have been represented as cocktails at Hope & Sesame?

[Andrew]: Sure, we've done this for a long time - food and spice. We started doing this seven, eight years ago. It wasn't really a thing back then, but it was fun and a bit more different from other drinks. Back then I remember most things were still kind of like classic twists, a lot of fruit juices. It's a bit boring. Representing Cantonese dishes, there's one called the Ango. That's our most signature cocktail in a bar. It's a twist on the Trinidad Sour. 

 

  

But it also tastes like a Cantonese dish called jyū geuk gēung in Cantonese (豬腳薑). So it's usually a dish where when you have a newborn and then they will do the stew and then you make a big batch and send to your friends. It's basic, essentially a lot of vinegar and ginger for flavor. It's quite dark and vinegary and sweet at the same time.

 

Vinegared pork knuckles and ginger stew is a nourishing traditional Cantonese dish often eaten by new mothers in Guangzhou (Source: SBS)

 

So we have the Ango which it's like a dark rum based cocktail with a thousand vinegar reduction, beet juice, and then shit-ton of Angostura Bitters, like 20 mls. That's why it’s the Trinidad Sour twist, and then lime, shaking it up. It tastes like that dish. Because it's a cocktail that's quite easily replicable and the flavor is just so complex because of the balsamic and the amount of Angostura in there, but it's sweet, sour, bitter, it's refreshing and it's also strong. It's got everything. That's why I think it's been on the menu for so long because if you’re a first time drinker, you find it interesting. Bartenders like the Angostura, the twist on the Trinidad Sour because it's not always done. So it's a drink for everyone and that's one drink that is locally inspired.

We have an MSG gimlet called Nordic Gimlet. That's pretty cool. Basically everything we touch in China Chinese cuisine has MSG in it. So I think it's just a good way to do savory. The MSG Gimlet is on the current menu. It's a little aquavit, with vodka, rhubarb, juniper, fennels, to make a Nordic-style aquavit. The savory part is the MSG solution. I think there’s sandalwood. It’s like a stirred gimlet kind of thing. So that's using the inspiration of MSG.

 

The Nordic Gimlet on the current menu is made with a base of aquavit, gin with a touch of MSG (Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

There’s a lot because it's not just Hope & Sesame. There’s also SanYou Bar, a hundred percent Chinese spirits and produce bar. So basically everything is inspired locally. It's very specific as well. The one in Guangzhou, the menu is only inspired by specific areas in Guangzhou - we even do separate districts. So super specific.

 

(Source: SanYou)

 

Now the menu is called Pan Yu, which is a district south of Guangzhou. It has a lot of history and it used to be a capital of the city. So basically the entire menu’s based on one district, so it's crazy specific. We have distilleries that's only from there. We'll have buffalo milk that we use from Pan Yu, oysters that we find there as well.

 

(Source: SanYou)

 

And then we have one SanYou Bar in Shenzhen. Because Shenzhen is a city of immigrants, most people are actually from Chaozhou and Shankou. We're doing a Chaozhou-Shankou menu and then we visit the tea plantations, Shacha factories, fish sauce factories. We go for local liquors, local olive, Buddha’s Hand liqueurs, local rice wine. It goes super local. I could go on for days if we talk about that.

 

(Source: SanYou)

[88B]: That just reminds me of the diversity of culture in China, with so much to explore there…

Speaking of all these flavors, what's your approach to using various flavor combinations in a drink and making unusual flavors complement each other? Does it come from a lot of experimentation or something that you imagine in theory would work?

[Andrew]: The way I do it is in theory. I put everything, all the ingredients down, and then I put the ratio that I feel like it could be, and I send it to my team and they make it happen. Then I come in and I try the drinks, make adjustments and then we launch it. That's my approach.

Obviously, I don't make all the drinks, I focus mainly on Hope & Sesame and DSK Cocktail Club and some of the consultancy projects. But we have to do a lot of the recipes now – we've got two full-time bartenders in our consultancy team just to come up with recipes, do trainings and project management stuff. And then in Sanyo, which is the Chinese 100% made in China bar, we have bartenders who come up with recipes there because it requires a lot of research.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

Especially for the Chinese-specific concept. Because they need to look for everything that is China-made. It's easy for example, if I'm going to do a Negroni twist, I'll use Campari and vermouth. But they can't because there's no Campari - it’s not Chinese. So they have to find something else. They could do a white Negroni using a bitter like a Chinese medicine or spirit to replace that but maybe the ABV is not strong enough to fortify it or so. There's a huge amount of research that they have to do. Obviously I trust their palate but they first have to do the research on all the ingredients, and then they will come up with the structure of the drinks, they'll send it over to me and I'll look. If I think it's okay, they go ahead and start experimenting or trying the recipes and the cocktails.

 

(Source: SanYou)

 

So there’re two approaches. One is just kind of like, I know exactly what I want, I put it down and then I let the team do it. Second is like they do all the research, they do all the directions, if I’m okay, they deep dive into the recipes and adjustments.

[88B]: That’s really methodical. We're looking at so many flavors here. It must be hard to keep track of them.

[Andrew]: We're doing like three-four hundred new cocktails a year easily every year. So you can't do it yourself. Your inspiration will run dry. That's why we have the team, they do a lot of research. You have to have a certain amount of talent obviously, but then it's the research. Otherwise, you're gonna have the same bloody drinks at all the venues.

We have so many consultants who are our partners and projects that require us to turn out recipes every week.

[88B]: From the perspective of home bartenders, are there any underrated secret ingredients that could always make a drink taste better?

[Andrew]: Absolutely. I have one that I use a lot and I carry it to all my guest shifts in case I want to fortify and make my drink tastier, which is Pocari Sweat powder. Yes, because it's got a bit of salt, a bit of electrolytes in there. So it's a little bit salty, it’s sweet, and it tastes a bit like grapefruit. And it's in powder form, so for me it's like a cocktail MSG. And I've been bringing to guest shifts for the last seven, eight years. Everywhere I go, I always bring some in my suitcase in case a drink needs a bit more oomph and it needs to taste a bit better.

 

[88B]: Wow, that's super creative. I've never quite heard of anything like that from a bartender.

[Andrew]: Because for me I grew up drinking it right. It's something that has always been in my house since I was kid. It's a huge thing in Hong Kong, So I always thought about how it tastes so good. Sometimes I just eat the power by itself instead of putting in the water. And I just noticed the flavor. It’s got a lot of minerals in there, it’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s got umami. It's everything you need to enhance a cocktail.

[88B]: I didn’t realize that the Pocari powder is really popular in Hong Kong.

[Andrew]: They’ve got a bottled Pocari Sweat, but it’s more expensive. So if you want to drink that, they'll tell you to just make it yourself at home. Don't spend money on the bottled version. It's like Ribena. A huge bottle of syrup that you can add water to and you can make a liter of it. So it’s all about saving money.

[88B]: You mentioned your work with consultancy clients and you have developed recipes for them. You have built a pretty impressive reputation in bars, and from there on you have a springboard for a thriving consultancy called Spirits Architects.

[Andrew]: So Spirit Architects, it's more like a 360 approach. We do everything, from when you have an idea of opening a bar until being the operator. Interior design we outsource for sure, but other than interior design, we do everything in-house. So BI designs, marketing plans for events. Bar station designs, trainings, recipes. We’re the operator for the Ralph's Bar in Chengdu, which is the equivalent to The Polo Bar in New York and Chicago.

 

On top of a prolific set of bars, Andrew and Bastien's consultancy team is also appointed by American high street brand Ralph Lauren to run its flagship Ralph's Bar in Chengdu city - the first of its kind in Asia. (Source: Ralph Lauren)

 

We did the consultancy, we built the kitchen, we designed the bar and then till then we're now the operators and it’s all our staff working there. So pretty huge spectrum. We do restaurants, coffee shops, bars. So pretty much everything that's involved in F&B we do. We do brand strategies, we create brand events. We're an agency as well for them.

 

 

Yeah, I mean just everything that's related to the industry we do. And we have a strong focus on hotels because that's our background. And as previous hoteliers, we have an instant connection with a lot of them. When a hotel GM speaks to a normal bartender who’s become a consultant they have less in common. Especially in China, a lot of bartenders don't have that English skill set to pitch themselves or pitch a concept to a hotel. Sometimes we pitch to the corporate. These are big potatoes, right? We can't just have a regular bartender pitch them right? We know that's our advantage, so that's why we focus on a lot of that. Once we've done one or two really good projects, the word spreads and then we’re getting a lot more from referrals.

[88B]: Both you and your cofounder’s background in hotels definitely became an asset and is still so much later on in your career.

Could you walk us through your approach to creating a bar or F&B program for your clients. What are the parameters that you tend to look at? What challenges do you often have to work with?

[Andrew]: You have to assess what is their current situation. Whether it's a pre-opening or is it a venue that's been operating for 10 years and coming to save it. It's very different. If it's a pre-opening then we have more flexibility. But the thing is we are never involved early enough to come up with the concept and design completely.

Usually the hotels already have the place designed, and almost built already and then they say “Shit, we don't have an actual concept for the bar.” And then we come in and put a concept in. But we're very highly adaptable. It really depends what kind of stage the client is at. We have projects where hotel bars have been running for 10 years and we come in and put in a concept. Some places have more budget to spend on new equipment, hiring a new head bartender. Some pay us and then basically say, “Work with what we have so far and do your magic.”

  
(Source: Tian Bar at Four Seasons Guangzhou)

 

So every case is different, nothing's the same. Some have a really good team and full support from owners, GM to F&B directors, bar managers, Finance, Purchasing while some absolutely have no support. It's just so many different variables in it. Yeah, but first of all, we definitely have to assess their current situation, what do they really need.

We have to be realistic with their expectations as well. Every consultancy client comes in and say “Let's be 50 Best, let's go for it.” I’ll say hold on a second – you don't want to do that because there's no guarantee and you can spend millions just to maybe have a chance. We never promise anything like that. So expectation is a huge thing. We can make sure that the bar would be packed and a good concept, one that you’d be happy to invest in.

 

The recognition received by Hope & Sesame, including consistent rankings on Asia's 50 Best Bars led the team to become sought-after bar concept consultants in China (Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

I think it's a long process, from pitching to actually finding a contract and executing. Usually we try to do a project that's over a year, so it's not going to be a couple months’ projects. Bars need time to build. If some people just come in with a concept and say in three months you guys can finish the contract, we'll run ourselves now. But it's not that simple - you have to do constant training. If the head bartender leaves, then you're left with nothing. We have the resources to introduce and find new people. You have to keep on doing events. You have to have a good relationship with media. So there's a ton of things that require our experience and our resources to do.

[88B]: Do different clients - hotel bars and stand alone bars - have different motivations, or different degrees of flexibility in terms of concepts to explore?

[Andrew]: In every project, the common denominator is to make money, everyone wants to make money. Nobody opens to not make money. Even if they tell you so, it's not true. So I think that's a common denominator. Every project is the same, it’s a return on your investment. So we have to be quite aggressive on that side as well.

But other than that, there are hotel bars that want to focus on awards. Some local establishments want to be focused on local reputations - doesn't have to be global or regional, just local. Everyone has different agendas for sure, hotel bars and standalones. But I don't think there’s a huge difference to be honest.

There are a lot more hoops to jump through in hotels, because you're not just working with the bar team. You're working with entire hotels essentially from HR to purchasing, to see whether they can find this specific spirit you want or ingredients that you want. Hygiene standards. So for example, one of the clients we work with has very strict hygiene standards and they do audits every two months on the bar. So the requirement is very, very different compared to other bars. So a lot of foods we can’t do. A lot of preparation methods we can’t have.

And then you work with Finance, the payment method is different. Hotels have a longer payment term, whereas for standalone bars, you can ask for money upfront. So I think there’re very different challenges.

Within five days of lockdown, we’re already selling canned cocktails.

[88B]: There's this interesting piece on Difford's Guide that Hope & Sesame wrote in early 2020, when many countries were beginning to grapple with COVID-19, and bars were getting shut down in Asia and Europe.

You gave 65 pieces of advice based on your experience weathering the many lockdowns in Guangzhou. We learnt what Hope & Sesame did to protect your staff’s safety, your resourceful ways to generate revenue, your focus on maintaining healthy cash flows, and even social media marketing strategies.

How did your background in hospitality, in going to hotel school give you the tools to lead the company through this pandemic?

[Andrew]: Every single experience that I've had for the last 18 years has contributed to any of my decisions right now. Everything matters, not just the hospitality education. Every meal has an effect.

But China's the first place that COVID hit the hardest. So I started with Instagram stories just saying that “Guys, we’re in the shits right now.” “Guys, be careful.” And then I started to write a lot more serious stories. I needed somewhere where I could document this and put it together, because those were just stories that disappear in 24 hours.

It's mostly about sharing realistically what we're going through. Everything we wrote there was exactly what we've gone through. There's nothing to hide. Because a lot of places haven’t gone through it yet. Nobody would have thought there would be a lockdown for three years. So we just want to share as much as we can.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

We are really the epitome of small business owners. We have no investors. We spent all of our last dime on opening the bar. So we are really true entrepreneurs that have no fall-back plan if the bar closes. We could ask for investment but nobody would invest during that time. So I think it's important for us to share.

If it’s a big group sharing, people would be like “What the fuck man. You guys have 20 investors, banks, VCs backing you, rich parents.” We have all the credibility because we come from absolutely nothing. That’s why it resonated with so many people. I think there's a lot of good content obviously, but people relate more to us. They all know that we do everything ourselves.

 
Translation: "Hope & Sesame is temporarily closed due to the pandemic lockdown. See you later!" (Source: Hope & Sesame) 

[88B]: It's almost like a business case study.

[Andrew]: That’s exactly what it was. But yeah, it was interesting and then they helped a lot of people reach out to us for some advice. Back then I remember there were so many Zoom calls between bars. It was great because we met a lot of people through COVID. We shared our best practices, how we did canned cocktails. Basically on the second day of the lockdown, we decided to do something about it, and on the third day we bought the canning machine.

 

(Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

Within five days of lockdown, we’re already selling canned cocktails. Super quick. And it was as you said, a case study on how to survive a pandemic or an emergency situation.

[88B]: Were there any moments of creativity or community support that inspired you guys during the pandemic?

[Andrew]: To be honest it’s just try not to get bankrupt, just try to keep everyone employed and paying everyone. That was the sole motivation. As you can ask any business owner. It’s to stay alive. There wasn't so much inspirational stuff. It's just like “Guys, let’s weather and figure it out.”

[88B]: Your SanYou Bars are one of the best baijiu cocktail bars we have around. We don't have many of that even in Asia. Could you just give us home bartenders some advice? Baijiu is still a spirit that is…

[Andrew]: Rarefied?

[88B]: Yes. Many of us are still learning about it. It’s still a bit rarefied and unusual. So could you give us a simple recipe for a baijiu cocktail that we could try to make at home?

[Andrew]: Well first of all, we are not just a baijiu bar. We emphasize that we are a hundred percent Made-in-China bar. So all the produce, it's Chinese whisky, Chinese gin, yellow wine, Chinese rum, vermouth. Anything made in China we can use. Obviously we have a strong focus on baijiu because that is the national spirit.

I think the first tip is to find the right baijiu to use. There are 12 different aromas of baijiu, and each baijiu could be very different in terms of flavor profile. The ones that you usually know are the Strong Aroma (nong xiang) or Sauce Aroma (jiang xiang) baijiu. These two are the ones that usually people are afraid of.

 

(Source: SanYou)

 

Then there are flavors like Soy Aroma (chi xiang), which is similar to soy, Light Aroma (qing xiang), and Sesame Aroma (zhima xiang). These are all a lot more approachable. So, pick the right baijiu for your cocktail. Don't always just go for Moutai first of all, it’s bloody expensive and it's so hard to do it.

I think a good tip is, if you do like the baijiu flavor, but you don't like that kind of intensity, do a double-based cocktail. Use a Strong Aroma or Sauce Aroma baijiu and then pair it with gin. So you can do half-half, or 20 ml of baijiu plus 40 ml of gin. You can do a sour cocktail, which you can never go wrong. So at least, you balance it out a little bit. Another very good way to use baijiu is in clarified milk punch. Because it takes the edge off the baijiu, but you have all the aromas of it, all the best qualities of the baijiu but none of that sharpness and the quirkiness of it.

 

SanYou's signature Moutai Milk Punch which uses a Sauce Aroma Baijiu, and Moli-Tini which uses a Light Aroma Baijiu. (Source: SanYou)

 

So one of our signature cocktails is a Moutai Milk Punch. Using Moutai baijiu and then we do a clarified milk punch with dark cherries with chocolate with something equivalent to a sweet vermouth, cream, then we clarify it. So the drink is with Moutai and chocolate, a perfect pairing. The clarified cream makes it a lot more smooth. You want a little bit of cherry because cherries and chocolate all go together. It creates a very harmonious cocktail.

When people first try it, they can see the potential of baijiu cocktails because it's not super overpowering. It's a balanced drink with the majority spirit being baijiu

[88B]: Yeah. I feel that’s really impressive because baijiu is something even many Chinese people are not familiar with. It’s something of an acquired taste.

[Andrew]: Our mission is to kind of bridge the gap between baijiu and the younger generation of drinkers, to get them through the door first in SanYou Bar. You’ll see a lot of drinks that are presentation-wise a lot more complicated. A lot more “Instagrammable”. It's a lot more ceremonial as well. There's a lot more customer touch points. We have a menu box that comes in and you open it up and there're a lot of things to try. Every guest gets that, so they find it very ceremonial, very fun. Even if they don't like baijiu, they'll see photos of it. But once they do try it, they like it, they’ll come again. It changes their perception of baijiu.

 

(Source: Jack Wing)

 

Going back to your initial question, how to make a decent baijiu cocktail – easy, a milk punch. Some people think it's complicated but it really isn't. Just find a baijiu you like the aromas of, and then find something, fruity and then a milk, clarify it, a sweetener. Just a very classic kind of milk punch kind of thing. You'll be surprised how tasty it is. Just keep it in the fridge, pour over ice, stir it down, easy. Use oat milk, soy milk, use cream, coconut milk - all works!

In Asia, most cities have lower labor costs than in Europe, the rent is lower and ingredient cost is lower, so we can be a bit more forward and creative in terms of drinks and concepts.

[88B]: I first met you in Singapore when you were running a guest shift at Jay Gray’s Underdog Inn. You’ve also been doing guest shift tours at many other great cities in Asia, Europe and in Australia.

How would you compare the bartending and F&B scenes across different countries?

[Andrew]: The only thing I can say about this is that Asia is miles ahead of anyone in the world. The Asian bartending scene is miles ahead. Without trying to step on anyone's toes, I think that's my main takeaway. In terms of the creativity, in terms of cocktails, in terms of concepts, miles ahead.

 

Vijay Mudaliar, head bartender of Singapore's Native bar, preparing a Mango Lassi cocktail, using Indian mangoes, Amrut rum, beetroot jelly, pomegranate molasses and pistachios. (Source: The Straits Times)

[88B]: Is there something to do with the cuisine, the ingredients, the flavors Asians are used to?

[Andrew]: Yeah, and also, because there isn't such a huge drinking culture or cocktail culture for Asian communities, people are more open-minded on what they want to try. Drinking culture isn't huge, or a part of everyone's daily life.

If you go to Europe, everyone drinks beer, everyone has their own drink. They go to pubs after work, they know they're just gonna have beer. They're not gonna go to a pub and order a signature cocktail from the bar. They like drinking Martinis, they stick with the Martini. If they like Negronis, they will not drink anything else besides Negroni. Like Australians – they love Espresso Martinis, so they’re always with Espresso Martinis and the Vodka Soda.

Asians are a little bit more reserved in that sense. Asians will go to bars for an experience. They'll have certain expectations when they go to bars. They will want creativity, they will want very well balanced cocktails. Maybe I'm generalizing but maybe they don't always want spirit-forward cocktails. So that gives a lot more room for creativity in drinks.

 

Andrew is grateful for the open-mindedness of Guangzhou patrons back in the early days of Hope & Sesame (Source: Hope & Sesame)

 

In Asia, most cities have lower labor costs than in Europe, the rent is lower and ingredient cost is lower, so we can be a bit more forward and creative in terms of drinks and concepts. Whereas in Europe, London your rent is crazy high. The labor cost is so high. Establishment owners focus on making money, doing whatever works. If clients like doing beers and there are good margins, it’s something safe. So I'd say in general that’s why Asia is ahead.

We want to be around for 30-40 years to come *Laughs*… A cocktail bar shouldn't be something that you run for a couple years and that's it. In Asia, apart from Japan, there aren’t a lot of bars that have opened past 10 years. For us, it's not about already leaving a mark. It's about being there [for the long term].

[88B]: As you look to the future, how do you envision Hope & Sesame expanding or diversifying your offerings? Are there any new concepts or themes that you are thinking of exploring?

[Andrew]: We’ll focus on doing more SanYou Bars because I think that's a really cool concept. I'm not trying to say that we’re the first one in the world, because China is so massive and there're so many products. But being a hundred percent Chinese and local to one country, I can't think of any other bars doing that. I can’t think of any in the States that only uses exclusively American products. I don't think I've heard of anything in Europe doing the same things either.

So I think we're on to something, because China is so massive. There're so many things, so many ingredients that we can use. Everywhere we open a SanYou Bar, we will focus on true localization of that region. So when people visit any SanYou Bar, they instantly know that they can learn about local spirits. They’ll know about local culture and they can also have a good time drinking as well. I think this is a brand that we're gonna focus a lot on.

 

(Source: SanYou)

 

Again, being a very small group, me and Bastien essentially own everything and run everything. We do have that flexibility of doing whatever the fuck we want to. In a sense, we don't have responsibilities to investors or have to open 10 concepts a year. We aren’t forced to open this and that, but we do whatever makes sense for us. Whatever makes sense for the Group. But at this moment, I think, SanYou is a focus for us. Consultancy is a focus for us because it's something that we can scale. For physical brick and mortar bars, we’re a bit more cautious at expanding. We have to do something that is actually proven to work. Because the economy in China isn’t booming or anything, but quite the contrary anyway. So just being one year from COVID, it takes a bit of time to recover. We just have to be cautious.

[88B]: You currently have two outlets of SanYou. And you’re thinking of opening more across China?

[Andrew]: Yeah, China. But if this concept works, I think anywhere. So eventually there's a plan of going overseas. We’re doing a pop-up for SanYou in Singapore in January at Sentosa. It'll be a pop-up for SanYou during Chinese New Year. So that’ll be the first taste of what Singaporeans think about this concept. Eventually maybe we'll see if we can expand it overseas.

[88B]: That's really exciting!

During the Covid period you guys had some innovative canned cocktails that look like sardine cans. You guys had a canned Michter’s Bourbon Highball. Do you have any more F&B-related off trade products that you're thinking of going into?

[Andrew]: Bastien’s wife, Marcia, who’s one of our partners - she has a kombucha brand that's been selling out across China. That's doing very well at bars and cafes across the country. That's probably closest to what we will do.

(Source: Moming Kombucha)

 

In terms of canned cocktails, I think there is a market because China is just massive but it also takes a lot of investment and a lot of focus. It has to be its own kind of company, its own team running it. So at this moment, I don't think we have the mental capacity to do it. Maybe sometime in the future, but at this moment we're just gonna focus on what we have.

We just want to make sure we keep providing what we're known for. The hospitality that we’re known for, the quality of the drinks. It's a business that we want to leave to our kids for many years to come.

[88B]: It's safe to say that since you’ve started Guangzhou’s first speakeasy, you’ve raised the bar and contributed profoundly to the cocktail culture and spirits scene of Guangzhou and China.

When you reflect on your work done for the cocktail industry, and the future of Hope Group, what is the enduring mark or legacy that you hope to leave on this scene?

[Andrew]: We don't want to leave a mark or message. We want to be around for 30-40 years to come *Laughs*. I think it's just about running it as a proper business.

A cocktail bar shouldn't be something that you run for a couple years and that's it. In Asia, apart from Japan, there aren’t a lot of bars that have opened past 10 years. For us, it's not about already leaving a mark. It's about being there, and just keep opening. It could be a Chinese restaurant that opens for 50-60 years. I think same for cocktail bars- it’s something that’s here to stay. We just want to make sure we keep providing what we're known for. The hospitality that we’re known for, the quality of the drinks. It's a business that we want to leave to our kids for many years to come. That’s maybe the message.

[88B]: Would there be a certain brand message or focus? Like Chinese stories, made-in-China or Asian-related focus on the type of drinks?

[Andrew]: Not necessarily. It depends on the concept. Hope & Sesame doesn't mean that it's about locality and focus on local ingredients. We use anything from around the world. SanYou is focused on 100% Chinese, but we also have a lot of different concepts. Our partners and consultancy partners have stuff that's completely different. There's not one specific style that we would stick with.

[88B]: Moving on to your personal background, as a Hong Kong native, could you share with us some of your favorite places in Hong Kong.

[Andrew]: For drinks, Bar Leone is the bar to go right now. I think it's a very good combination of good food, good hospitality, easy and understandable drinks. It also helps because my best friend was one of the owners there. I'm a bit biased.

 

Opened by the former head bartender at the award-winning Argo, Bar Leone is an homage to traditional Italian bars found in his homecity of Rome. (Source: Harold De Puymorin)

 

Argo is very good – I like Argo a lot. These are all very famous 50 Best Bars. They're there for a reason because there's so much competition in Hong Kong. The service is great. I know that everyone who goes there will have the same experience. Even if a regular guest goes in there, we'll still have an awesome time. I can't say about that for many other bars.

  
Ranked amongst Hong Kong's top bars, Argo celebrates the city's vibrant food culture in a stunning but relaxed atmosphere. (Source: Asia's 50 Best Bars) 

 

Something of a combination of bar and restaurant is Ronin. Part of the Yardbird Group, Ronin is one of my favorite places on Earth – the food is so good. The drinks are just so on point. That's such a cute little space as well.

 

Ronin is a trendy 14-seat seafood bar opened by respected restauranteurs Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang (Source: Time Out)

 

Yardbird again, being a drinking and eating place as well. Vibe is so important. The team, Matt and Lindsay, they’re just fucking geniuses in the industry.

 

Michelin-starred Yardbird is one of the most popular dining and drinking spots in Hong Kong, also opened by chef Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang (Source: New York Times)

 

For local cha chaan teng, I have one that I have been going to since I was a kid called Golden Phoenix in Wan Chai. It's the place I've been since I was like a little kid for over 30 years.

 

Golden Phoenix Restaurant has several branches across Hong Kong. It serves up rustic Western dishes like beef steak along with simple gravies, bread and soups. (Source: Time Out)

[88B]: You’ve also spent a lot of time living in Guangzhou. What are your itinerary recommendations for someone visiting Guangzhou? What are the favorite things you like to do?

[Andrew]: Hope & Sesame, SanYou Bar, DSK Cocktail Club - those are our bars.

 

Newly-opened DSK Cocktail Club in Guangzhou's DongShanKou serves up classic cocktails in a setting inspired by luxury hotels of London and New York (Source: DSK)

 

We host so many people and we have so many places we’d recommend them to eat. We bring them there anyway. There's a place for dim sum. There's a place for dimsum, there’s a place for sashimi – Cantonese-style sashimi that's so fucking good. 

 

Shunde sashimi is a popular dish in Guangzhou where raw river fish is sliced thinly and eaten with green onions, ginger, peanut oil and salt. (Source: Radii)

 

There’s really good chicken hot pot for midnight supper at 3-4 am. There’s good Cantonese food, Sichuan food, Hunan cuisine as well fine dining. I can send you an itinerary, or you can come and I’ll take you there! 

 

Old Hen Hotpot Restaurant in Guangzhou (Source: Zha Shu Ai Jiu)

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@CharsiuCharlie