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Author of Cocktails of Asia, Holly Graham, on Her Love for Asia's Drinking Scene
by: Rubin Verebes
June 07, 2022
With an Asia set for a night-time revival and bars and clubs finally seeing life in Hong Kong in the new year, a passion has returned for drinking and the cocktail for many who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in the past two years.
One figure in the F&B space who is set to catalyse the resurgence of drinking in Asia is Holly Graham, managing editor of the continent’s leading bar industry platform, DRiNK Magazine, and author of “Cocktails of Asia: Regional Recipes and the Spirited Stories Behind Them,” a living memoir to the region’s iconic, beloved, and definitive cocktails.
Inside the 256-page love letter to cocktails birthed in Asia, Holly shares the precise recipes, funny tales, and storied history behind the cocktails, bars and people that comprise the boozy region.
The Beat Asia chatted with the veteran bartender, drinks writer, and cocktail lover in late May to discuss cocktails, drinking in Asia, what drives her passion for fruity alcohol, and Cocktails of Asia.
London-born-and-bred Holly has lived in the continent for 11 years and is eagerly counting, losing her accent and connection with her hometown of Leytonstone in east London. Graduating with a media degree in 2008, it was the global financial crash that forced her to her first pitstop in Asia, Thailand, to teach English.
As a native English speaker, Holly found teaching as an easy option to enter. Having never moved to Asia before and travelling to Thailand alone, Asia fit for her. After the mango state, she travelled to Seoul, Korea for two years to teach, before visiting Hong Kong during a travel break, which forced her to scour a position teaching here.
Holly was only able to locate a job teaching English in a kindergarten but had other plans for growing a career. “It was at that point that I realised I f*cking hate children.”
With blogging experience previously in Thailand, writing food, travel, and booze, she began freelancing for various publications building a portfolio. The “combination of talent and luck,” Holly described, brought her to the team at Time Out HK, writing pieces for the seasonal magazine.
At Time Out, she took over an editor’s role writing drink feature articles and bar reviews, meeting friendly bartenders, people in the space, and eventually her best friend, Beckaly Franks of Pontiac.
“[Beckaly] was my gateway drug into the industry, because we became really good friends. I saw how passionate she was and then a couple years later, I met my husband, who's also a bartender, so it was just around me all the time. I just found that they were my people, bartenders, we spoke the same language, we like the same stuff, and all have a love for getting sh*tfaced.”
Holly’s coveted position as the international managing editor of DRiNK Magazine came to conception during a 2016 trip with Beckaly to Shanghai, where the former was guest bartending at Union Trading Company. “That trip changed the course of my life.”
At 2 AM, Holly, on her birthday, and with an added level of hubris from the alcohol, met Theo Watt, the founder of DRiNK Magazine, introducing herself as a fangirl of the magazine and pitching her availability. “He said, ‘we're looking for people in Hong Kong,” and put me in touch with the editor in chief and started writing for them."
After leaving Time Out magazine, Holly began bartending at Old Man in a bid to locate her next writing gig. A position became available on the staff team at DRiNK Magazine as digital editor for a three-month maternity leave period and Holly moved in. “I knew they wouldn't get rid of me and [the editor] didn't come back. The editor in chief eventually moved back to the U.K., so it ended up just me [running it].”
Today, Holly covers the editorial of all reporting in Asia and beyond, journaling the industry’s innovative angle and community-led battle to produce great drinks and drum up hospitality. With a passion for travel and talking, Holly quickly became a name in the world drinking space, appointed as an Academy Chair for The World’s 50 Best Bars and Asia’s 50 Best Bars in late 2019 and sitting on the Education and Spirited Awards committees for Tales of the Cocktail.
It is Holly’s undying love for cocktails, for Asia, and for the F&B scene in Hong Kong that motivated her pursuit to guide her thoughts and research of the continental scene in penning her first book, Cocktails of Asia.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book is the perception of Europe and Americas as ahead of us [in Asia] with cocktails. When I travel [abroad from Hong Kong], I'm usually disappointed. I come back [to Asia] and I'm wowed by flavour innovation, combinations, and the industry. Everyone wants everyone to achieve the best. There’s barely any competitiveness, everyone is so happy for each other [to win awards and grow].”
“Whether that's our produce or the people, I always just think Asia kicks ass. That's exactly why I wrote the book because I wanted to be like, hey, everyone, look how dope we are.”
Her verifiable ode to the cocktail scene in Asia comes in clear timing during Hong Kong and Asia’s post-pandemic recovery, where strict COVID-19 rules and border lockdowns are vanishing.
At its core, it’s a recipe book that Holly has curated to detail the classic cocktail history of tipples found across the hot and varied continent. Her in-depth research and thoughts are poured into the cocktail recipes, with a focus on Asian products, most importantly, gin, sake, and tequila. Stories of her experiences at Asia’s best bars and with bartenders who run the industry are included, heightening the emotion of each recipe.
“It's my love letter to Asia and me wanting to showcase to the rest of the world. As much as I know that I'll get support from Asia, I really hope that the book does well internationally.”
Treating Hong Kong as a semi-permanent permeable home, Holly is off in mid-July, as soon as she landed from a visit to the seven countries in spring. In two months, Holly is planning to attend the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, U.S., and a cocktail festival held in Argentina.
A classic F&B gall, whose favourite cocktail is a Gibson martini and favourite bar a considered selection of Pontiac, Penicillin, COA, or Quality Goods Club, Holly is passionate about her home in Hong Kong and where drinks in Asia are shaping the culture of drinking. She preaches wherever she travels.
“I'm really happy where I am at my job at DRiNK [Magazine]. Being away from Hong Kong for a while and then coming back, no matter how tough things are, you have this renewed sense of love for [the city]. You always think, this is why I love it. I'm falling in love with Hong Kong all over again.”
On her future plans, Holly remains busy promoting Cocktails of Asia, but cautious to involve herself in a new project in order to slow down. “I have to pump the brakes. At some point, I've got my finger in too many pies at the moment.”
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