The Beat Asia caught Jay Khan, co-founder of COA bar in Hong Kong for a chat about agave and tequila, being Asia’s Best Bar 2022, and why he loves mixing.
All Mixed Up: Devender Sehgal, Beverage Manager of Mandarin Oriental
December 02, 2022
Our continent loves a good drink. To cool off from our temperate weather and hot food, you can find us huddled in an airconned bar sipping on something cool, sexy, and clean. To celebrate our boozing culture, All Mixed Up explores the stories behind Asia’s famed mixologists, bartenders, and cupbearers that make our tipples and what makes them tick.
New Delhi by birth and now home in Hong Kong, India’s former top flair mixologist Devender Sehgal traded life as a mechanic for mixology, first in his home country before finding footing as a top Hong Kong’s bar scene.
Arriving in Hong Kong at first to serve customers at Three-Michelin-Star 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana as head mixologist in 2014, Devender later joined The Aubrey in February 2021 to dedicate a beverage program exclusively to the Japanese liquor of shochu at the bar, “a first in Asia,” the mixologist states.
In April 2022, Devender celebrated with staff at Bangkok’s Asia 50 Best ceremony, where The Aubrey was crowned 38th in the region’s cocktail sphere. In a year that has seen the Japanese Izakaya located at the Mandarin Oriental reach new heights regionally, we caught Devender for a recap of his storied career, and a look into his future with The Aubrey.
Hi Devender, thanks for sitting with us. Let’s start with an introduction. Who is Devender Sehgal?
Afternoon Rubin, let me start from the beginning! I was born and raised in New Delhi. At school, I wasn’t the most disciplined kid and shunned away from studying but wanted to pursue something with hand skill. I left schooling at the age of 14 and started work as a mechanic in my village, earning HK$200 a month. My mother pushed me to learn something and get out of the house, pursuing a job in assembling computers.
After she lost hope with me, she convinced me to join my cousin’s private catering company called True Master. After catering for a wedding reception at 15-years-old, I met people speaking English for the first time and bartenders mixing cocktails. It was eye opening!
Did that inspire you to learn English and study the cocktail-making, alcohol and mixology?
Yes! I began to study English and dedicated myself to learn flair [bartending]. I became that good at the art that I represented India in the Bacardi Martini Grand Prix, an international flair competition in Italy in 2009, placing fifth in the world. The institute I was working at in the late 2000s approached me for a job to teach graduates of hotel management schools in flair. I forced everyone in the class to speak English so I could improve too [laughs]!
In 2010, I told myself I was done with flair but wanted to learn more, studying mixology and cocktail making. I horrible at [mixing] back in the days, hopefully not now. I moved to work at the Taj Hotel in New Delhi for two years before manning one of India’s first cocktail [bars], Ellipsis, as head bartender.
During my time at Taj Hotel, I was awarded India’s World Class Bartender and attended in the global World Class cocktail mixing finals in Rio, Brazil.
Why come to Hong Kong after your career in India?
I came back from Rio and realised I wanted to look for a different career and passion. I realised that if I leave Mumbai and I go to Calcutta or Hyderabad, then it may change a little bit, but it will not push me drastically in a new direction. I wanted to leave completely and get involved in a space where you don't know anybody.
A position came up at Hong Kong’s 8 1⁄2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana as Head Mixologist in 2014. At that point in time, I didn't know even know what three Michelin-Star's stood for [chuckles]!
Life in Hong Kong was difficult in the beginning. I didn’t know anybody in the city, couldn’t grasp the rating of the restaurant before arriving, and slowly came to terms with exploring more food and drink options in the city. I quickly learnt that what you did in India, remains in India. If you’re not creating good cocktails in Hong Kong, you will not exist here.
After seven years at Otto, what influenced you to join the Mandarin Oriental and open The Aubrey in early 2021?
What attracted me to work with Mandarin Oriental and is I wanted to work in a larger organisation, to learn the corporate structure and use my tenure at Otto, where the who’s who of Hong Kong’s locals and tourists dine, for customer experience at The Aubrey.
I joined Mandarin Oriental as Beverage Manager for the hotel in 2019 and Assistant General Manager for The Aubrey in February 2021 when we opened.
What began your appreciation for the Japanese liquors of shochu and mori in line with the creation of The Aubrey’s cocktail programme?
In a trip I made in 2019, I spent time with a team of international bartenders travelling to Japan to study shochu and visit nine distilleries, understanding the production, procurement of ingredients, and appreciation for the drink in Japan. However, shochu has never existed outside of Japan.
When I was working with our team on the beverage program at The Aubrey, we didn’t want to create drinks with whiskey, for example, as 5,000 people are doing that better in Hong Kong. I proposed the idea to create a program exclusively mixing shochu liquor to Mandarin Oriental. We wanted to highlight this very niche product that hasn't gotten the love that it deserves outside Japan.
We are the first bar in APAC to create a beverage programme of the whole establishment based around shochu and mori, and one of the first to host omakase [drinking] experiences for customers.
How did The Aubrey’s journey in 2021 shape out in its initial growth in Hong Kong?
We wanted to take the low-key form of the Japanese izakaya and make it high-end for the venue and client base in Mandarin Oriental. We are special with an interior design inspired by 19th century Japanism art movement and coming with three different bar experiences.
When we started here, with the cocktail offering with shochu, it was difficult as people didn’t understand the drinks, they never experienced that [liquor] in the form of cocktails. You know Korean soju but may not know Japanese shochu.
We wanted to educate people. At first it was a bumpy road, now it’s much smoother.
What is the most important thing that goes into running a bar in Hong Kong?
Customer service. You need to be relatable to your customer and understand what they need. I am making a cocktail for them and know what they like and don’t like.
You have to also understand that the people are not coming only for cocktails, they come to be comfortable, to read, to chat. As long as you make [them] feel good and relaxed, that’s the aim. The cocktails may be great, but the bottom line is how the bartender makes you feel.
What’s next for The Aubrey and Mandarin Oriental in 2023?
We will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong with a host of events to mark the year. We will be inviting [the] London team of The Aubrey at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park to join in collaborations too. And of course, we’re looking forward to welcoming back our international guests!
Thanks for the invitation to The Aubrey, and the chat, Devender!
Anytime, and thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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