Thought by many as the perfect cocktail, the Martini is probably be the last drink most bartenders or distillers would think to innovate. But most aren’t ARGO or Never Never Distilling.
Hong Kong’s newest, and highly antisipated, cocktail bar, ARGO, and Australia’s most highly-awarded gin producer, Never Never Distilling Co. have come together to create a gin that they belive will turn the martini in its head.
“I mean, all we had to do was just make the perfect martini gin for Asia’s most anticipated bar opening, innovating the process and creating a spirit that redefines the idea of the world’s most famous cocktail, sure, no worries, piece of cake,” said Never Never Distilling Co. Brand Director Sean Baxter, tongue firmly in cheek.
Four years in the making, ARGO, which opened in the Four Seasons last week, is described as “a cocktail bar driven by innovation and shaped by the modern world, featuring a collection of the world’s most innovative spirits”.
With views over Victoria Harbour, the bar is a light and airy space, designed to foster creativity, or as as the hotel’s Beverage Manager Lorenzo Antinori puts it, “space for inspiration”.
And creating an inspirational gin is the type of challenge that Never Never doesn’t shy away from. The distillery’s aim was to provide an innovative take on gin that would integrate traditional distillation methodology and modern technique. The liquid had to not only elevate the martini but also ARGO’s aim to showcase the future of drinking.
“When Lorenzo first approached us about innovating the martini, it was both exciting and a little terrifying,” continued Baxter. “To enhance something that is already considered the perfect cocktail when made well, was a huge challenge and it speaks to who we are as a business.”
Knowing that the creation of this gin was going to be a monumental task, the distillery began conversations with Antinori and the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong in-house tea sommelier.
“First we needed inspiration,” continued Baxter, “what were the flavours we were going to highlight in the gin, what would set the tone?”
Tea proved to be the ingredient that not only proved to be the most diverse in flavour and profile but also deeply connected to Chinese way of life.
“We chose tea as a key botanical because the rituals associated with tea-brewing and service are similarly revered as the martini,” said Baxter. “These flavours have been a part of Chinese history for thousands of years, what better flavour to communicate a modern twist on such a revered classic.”
It was then Never Never Head Distiller Tim Boast’s job to source the appropriate flavours and layer them into a cohesive, balanced composition.
“Several different styles of Chinese tea were chosen as key botanical components of the ARGO gin,” Boast says. “These included Shou Mei, Oolong and Fu Ding, which were steeped and each individually distilled capturing the unique character of each variation,” he says.
As if the task wasn’t challenging enough, the borders of both Australia and Hong Kong were closed due to COVID, so the collaborative process needed happen digitally over many months of back and forth spirit sampling.
Using their Triple Juniper Process to amplify base notes of juniper and coriander seed, the resulting gin was first matured in a locally sourced ex-Chardonnay barrel that was rapidly seasoned with Mancino Secco vermouth under vacuum. This process ensured penetration into the wood that would usually take years and removed the usually oxidised components that would overpower the subtle character of the distilled teas in the final blend.
The gin base was matured only for a short period, with several fills being used in the final composition. This ensured that the aromatics of the gin were not dominated by oak character.
The individual distilled tea components were then blended into the matured spirit, their various flavour profiles working well with the soft vanilla and subtle tannin.
White tea was also used as a dilutive element, capturing a brewed component of the tea. This tea was first filtered to remove colour and tannin and used to bring down the gin to the correct alcoholic strength adding further unique flavour.
“It is without doubt the most complex and innovative gin that we have made to date,” says Boast. “It truly embodies our focus on creating gins with flavour front of mind. I think from very early on in the process we knew we were building something very special.”
And it was a sentiment shared by competition judges. Cleaning up on the 2021 international award circuit, the ginwon a prestigious 95 points and a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Awards, as well as a gold medal at the Spirit Business Awards in London. All that before the first martini was served over ARGO’s marble bar top.
The magic of the serve was put together by Lorenzo Antinori, who has helmed some of the world’s most prestigious and influential cocktail bars.
Keeping the bottle well below freezing point, ARGO gin arrives at the table at -14 degrees and is served directly into a chilled glass tableside. The accompanying selection of two chilled seasonal hydrosols brings the martini up to temperature and gives guests a choice of a savoury or citrus direction.
“We wanted to innovate a classic martini and took inspiration from some of the greatest martini bars in the world,” says Lorenzo. “We decided to keep the spirit of ARGO gin untouched and transformed how we diluted the cocktail instead, something that hasn’t been done before in this format.”
“Seasonal hydrosols create a theatre and sense of adventure for the guest when they order the drink,” Lorenzo explains, “while creating a consistent flavour experience every single time.”
Never Never Distillery’s Dark Series ARGO Gin can be experience in Martini-form at ARGO now. The gin will also be released as a limited-edition later in the year. For more information go to neverneverdistilling.com.au