German mixologist Steffen Willauschus has arrived in Hong Kong to create inspiring drinks at Woolly Pig’s acclaimed restaurants. He talks to Nick Walton about his favourite cocktails from around the world, discovering local inspiration, and the development of his newest creations.
What first drew you to bartending and at what stage did you decide you wanted a career behind the mahogany?
It was in 2010, when I was still doing my education program in Berlin to be a “restaurant expert”. Attending a hospitality school and working in a restaurant is a must in Germany and I worked in a big cafe in Central Berlin calls Opernpalais, one of the group’s three cafes and one bar.
The bar was called Billy Wilder’s and was located at Potsdamer Platz, an area known for its high-class casinos, cinemas, and hotels. Every year in Berlin we celebrate Berlinale, an international film festival, and Billy Wilder’s was located very close to the festival venue. I was given the chance to back the bar team up during the film festival thanks to my positive energy and hard-working attitude and I was quickly impressed by the bar team, the vibe, and the creations they came up with – it was love at first sight. I was soon transferred to Billy Wilder’s permanently and even after I passed my final exams, I stayed for another six months just to get more experience.
You’ve worked in speakeasies like London’s Discount Suit Company, hotel bars like those at The Amano Hotel in Berlin, and in restaurants like Duck & Waffle; how does the setting change the drinks you’re making and the inspiration behind them?
The location and the style of the bar are always unique, and so are the drinks. The Discount Suit Company was located in the basement and guests didn’t always know what to expect. What they got was a great ambiance, knowledgable staff, great recommendations, and drinks – both classics and signatures – that were always on point.
In contrast, the bar at The Amano Hotel was a bit different; we were famous for our long opening hours, as well as our gin and tonics and signature drinks. The vibe was a bit more easy-going, and while the drinks were always high-quality, it was more of a volume play. Duck & Waffle was a completely different world again, as it’s on the 42nd floor of the Heron Tower in London, and was refined and elegant. Guests came for the awesome signature drinks, created by Richard Woods, as well as the stunning city views.
How much of your native Germany will we find in your drinks?
Haha, that is a good question. As I’ve already called Ibiza, Sydney, and London home and worked behind the bar in all of those destinations, I think I have a more international mindset, one that drives me to always research and maintain current global trends. The German influences will probably be most evident in the way I work, the way I like to stay very precise and organised, and the service I offer my guests.
In Hong Kong, you’ve created drinks programs at Woolly Pig concepts HUE and District 8. How do the cocktail menus at these two venues different and what were you trying to deliver?
For the bar at HUE, I created drinks with a very experimental, modern art focus as it’s a modern Australian restaurant located at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. At HUE I am using high mixology techniques to create drinks that give guests a unique cocktail experience they will not forget. As we’re also open for lunch, and for some that might be too early to enjoy some alcohol, I came up with eight non-alcoholic cocktails with names like Opaque and Burnt by Modern Art. It’s all about getting some art into each drink.
District Eight is a completely different world, where the focus is more on the restaurant’s French bistro and wine and steak concepts. In all the drinks at District 8, I use commonly found ingredients – from fruit to herbs and spices – from France. I’ve also made efforts to incorporate elements of wine and steak into the menu. For example, Vin de France is a reverse martini-styled drink in which I combine Dopff au Moulin Riesling with Mirabelle Eau-de-Vie, orange bitters, and citric acid. This is a low ABV cocktail and one of my favourites.
Another is the French Breakfast Martini. Where did the inspiration for this drink come from?
When I was initially working on the cocktail menu for District 8, owner Chris Woodyard and head chef Anthony Hammel were chatting and I picked up the mention of “breakfast” which got me thinking about how I could combine the elements of France, cocktails, and breakfast into a drink.
Of course, the first things that came to mind were the basic elements of the French breakfast – croissants, butter and strawberry jam. The tricky part was getting the flavour and texture of a croissant into the drink. I decided to ‘wash’ the croissant in good French FAIR vodka by sous-viding butter croissants and the vodka in a hot water bath, freezing the mixture to intensify the flavour, and straining the results through cheesecloth. Voila, you have a butter croissant-infused vodka.
To make the drink we combine the vodka with strawberry jam, lemon, a bit of sugar, and for a better texture, some egg white. We garnish the drink with a baguette crisp with reduced strawberry jam dots.
Another interesting drink is the Beef It. What was the idea behind this drink and what was it like to make jerky for the first time?
Next to District 8’s focus on French food and wine is great steaks and I was determined to incorporate this element into a drink. I had already experimented with the ‘fat wash’ approach before and spoke to Anthony about getting some fat trims, which I fried until golden brown and then added to bourbon to be slow-cooked in the sous-vide water bath. After freezing the liquid and straining out the fat you’re left with a very smooth and creamy texture. To give the drink a bit more depth I decided to burn some honey syrup in a pan to deliver caramelised flavours, and added a touch of smokey whiskey that rounded out the drink really well.
Making jerky was very cool as I’ve never done this before. I completely freestyled and marinated the Wagyu with more than 18 different spices, herbs, and seasonings. After the marinating, I air-dried the strips in the kitchen fridge, and after seven days slow roasted the beef in the oven. The result is a super tasty Wagyu beef jerky garnish.
What’s your favourite drink on the District 8 menu?
My favorite drink is the French Milk Punch. I’m a big fan of milk punches anyway, and for this drink I again used common French products, including cognac, French vodka, Earl Grey tea, pear juice, apple juice, thyme, and lemon juice. I combined these ingredients with soy milk and used a process called milk clarification to use the acidity of the lemon juice separate the punch from the milk, leaving a crystal clear drink that’s finally strained through cheesecloth to create the French Milk Punch.
This drink is served in a very sexy water glass, on the rocks, with fresh mint and thyme as a garnish. The drink also has an ‘absolutely no straw’ policy as I really want guests to smell the fresh herbs on the nose while enjoying the fruitiness and creaminess on the palate.
What are your impressions of the Hong Kong mixology scene and where do you think it’s going?
As I’m a relatively new arrival in Hong Kong, I’ve seen the industry suffering from protests and COVID-19. However, I can see and hear from bar owners and bartender friends that business is picking up. Where it’s going is hard to say but I think the move towards low and non-alcoholic drinks will continue to be a big hit.
What local ingredients have you incorporated into your recent cocktails?
AT HUE we’re incorporating local fruit such as pomelos and lychees, and tea, including a persimmon peach blend.
In your bartending and ambassador roles, you’ve travelled the world; which city cocktail scenes get you the most excited?
I have visited so many cities and visited so many bars in my life, I wouldn’t be able to decide which one I like the most. Definitely I’d like to go back to Moscow where there’s one bar called Insider where the guys behind the bar are doing great things from a creativity and hospitality perspective. I’d also like to return to Singapore as soon as possible. The hospitality scene over there is so awesome; in every bar I went I got a very warm welcome and every drink was always on point. Having a martini at Atlas was one of my all-time bar highlights.
Even Germany has some awesome bars. In Stuttgart I really like Jigger & Spoon; it’s a gorgeous bar set in an old bank vault. In Berlin, I like the Booze Bar, which serves only personalized drinks, meaning no menus. I’m always excited about travelling to a new city and exploring the bar scene over there and to meet new bartenders.
It’s happy hour in your favourite city – where are you headed and what are you ordering?
Berlin is and will always be my favorite city in the world! I would definitely be heading to Goldfisch Bar in Friedrichshain, the district I lived in for many years. I know they definitely do not do any happy hour and never will, but I would head there anytime and order a daiquiri or tom collins and probably some Fernet- Branca shots.
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