Whether he’s a Kung Fu Cocktail Master or a practitioner of Zen and the Art of Cocktail Creation, everyone agrees that Chino Lee is one hell of a good bartender.
When he popped up behind the bar at the recent Woodford Reserve Bourbon Manhattan Experience competition, he commanded the space effortlessly, driving the crowd’s interest up a notch with his high energy and beaming smile as he prepared to execute his Manhattan variation.
And quite a variation it was too. While many competitors decided to stay within the general frame of the classic Manhattan—the simplicity of three key ingredients of whiskey, vermouth and bitters—with an additional element that personalized the cocktail, Chino decided to use the classic as a launching pad for the creation of a fantastical concoction he dubbed 100 Years of Health.
The result was somewhat controversial with the judges, because the cocktail bore very little resemblance to the classic, but was nonetheless a dazzling creation, a quantum creative leap transforming the drink into an Asian-themed sensorial delight.
Since Chino’s home bar is the Departure Lounge, overlooking Pioneer Square and the downtown Portland skyline from the penthouse level atop the historic Meier & Frank department-store building, which is now home to both a Macy’s and, on its upper floors, The Nines Hotel., the Asian theme is understandable, and Chino applied it consistently.
Chino’s inspiration was to exchange out the sweet vermouth of the classic and replace it with a brooding, rich, assertive, smoky Lapsang Souchong black tea, then to lavish it with spices from an atomizer containing a seven-spice syrup he created.
The first impression was a powerful—a bit too powerful for some?—and dominating miasma of the seven spices in the apothecary mist: Sichuan Peppercorn, Coriander Seed, Clove, Juniper, Long Pepper, Ginseng, and Monk Fruit. As the mist began to clear, the Woodford Reserve Bourbon asserted itself briefly, but was overwhelmed by the dense, smoky character and umami of the Lapsang Souchong, closely followed by the tang of bitters.
Chino’s cocktail was a tour de force of sensory excitement in a glass, with profound, exotic aromas and flavors constantly emerging to tease and tantalize the palate. They were so powerful, each in its own right, the cocktail had three strong and dominant phases: the mélange of exotic spice, the brief whisper of bourbon, and the total dominance of the smoky black tea. Trouble is, they continued to stand separately without reaching a harmonious balance, and the whiskey got lost somewhere in the midst of all the sensuous spice and smoke.
A top-flight Portland bartender, a competition winner himself, was observing Chino admiringly, and said in an aside, “Chino does fantastic things behind the bar. He’s great; when he gets better at dialing in his elements and balancing them in the drink, he’s going to be unbeatable.”
Imaginative in composition, creative in execution, Chino’s 100 Years of Health is a tour de force of big, bold, Asian aromas, spices and flavors. For more creative explorations of cocktail exotica, go to the Departure Lounge (cocktail menu here). Chino is there most nights, and he’ll be happy (literally) to take you on a journey of discovery with his cocktail chemistry.