Matt Radalj approaches cocktails with the same amount of care and attention that chefs pay to food. Crave finds out what it takes to become a world-class mixologist.
Text by Johannes Pong
Australian mixologist Matt Radalj has created quite a buzz for himselfin the relatively short period he’sbeen in Hong Kong. As Republik’s gregariousin-house mixologist, he adds another levelof sophistication to our local cocktail scene.He’s now Creative Director for Mingle Bar,an intimate drinking hole that’s makinga name for itself as a bartender hangout.Mingle Bar is also known as home ofthe Mong Kok mule (served in a cupnoodle container, with two lychees andcrushed ice), and is said to have the best Nepalese bar snack menu in town.Radalj is also a Whisky Specialistat Spiriteca, Hong Kong’s newestrare fine and antique whisky andrum purveyors.
Radalj’s style is all about melding flavourswith fresh herbs and strange foodstuffs.Among his intoxicating signatures isa peanut butter-infused Havana Club,purple shiso cress, Vietnamese mint,palm sugar and fresh lime. Growing upin a Croatian family in Perth, he spenta lot of time at five-hour lunches andin the kitchen, and isn’t afraid of playingwith fresh ingredients. “Some peoplecall that a bit old-fashioned,” says Radalj. “Back home it’s all molecular, and in San Fran, it’s about balancing five different spirits in one drink. But there’s nothing wrong with putting a bit of star anise, Fuji apple or toffee in your drink.”
His foray into the cocktail game came after a stint at McDonald’s. “I wish I had a more glamourous answer, but in Australia you go from McDonald’s to cafés to beer bars,” he says. “Then I noticed all the cocktail/ nightclub guys got all the girls, so I thought, I’d better tap into that. It was just a natural progression. At McDonald’s you get a strong foundation in standard operations—you learn how to take orders.”
At 19, he worked at Bar Open, an after-hours institution in Perth, which has that alleywaychic they do so well in Australia (thinkoriginal Pac-Man machines for tables anda grand piano as DJ booth). “They didgreat cocktails.” says Radalj.“Back then,it was espresso martinis, a lot ofabsinthe-driven drinks, and a lot of flare bartending. And even at 5am, you were still getting scrutinised by some of the best bartenders in the country, who’d go there after finishing work.”
It was at Bar 185, as bar managerand mixologist in high-end hotelThe Chifley on the Terrace, that Radalj won a Western Australia Hotel Bartender of the Year award in 2007—that boosted his confidence and ignited his career.
His winning cocktail, Añejo SunshineWhen She’s Gone, was Havana Club Añejo Reserva rum with mango marmalade and Crème de Gingembre, muddled ginger and fresh pineapple, shaken and double-strained into an old-fashioned glass, served over crushed ice.
Soon after, a former boss asked if hewanted to go to Kuala Lumpur. The nextweek he was off to Malaysia, where he soon garnered an Award of Excellence HAPA Chill Out Bar of the Year 2007-2008 for Seven Ate Nine.
Regardless of the accolades, Radalj felthe stepped up as resident mixologistfor the Crown in Macau two years ago,being involved with Michelin-star dinners and all. He recalls the time when Ducasse came with nine of his sous chefs. “Somewhere between the fourth and fifth course, I was asked to make Alain Ducassea cocktail. At that point, it really doesn’tmatter what awards you’ve got—you’vegot to blow Ducasse’s mind in 10 minutes.I made him a Dillinger, with fresh dill,bay leaf and vodka.” The Dillinger is still on the Republik cocktail menu.
Incredibly perceptive, Radalj catchesme eyeing a rip in his purple sweater.“That’s not fashion, that’s just me beinga poor bartender,” he jokes. Goodobservation skills are a must for behindthe bar, where mood lighting is dim,bass is banging, and an intoxicated clientele is screaming at you from every direction.
But being a mixologist is something more than just being a barman.
“You have to be your own harshestcritic when you’re putting togethera menu. It’s all online nowadays—you’re basically putting yourballs out—you can’t just hidebehind the mahogany and makedrinks,” he says. “When you’rethe mixologist, you’re just likea chef, people come in for you,ready to shoot you down orpraise you.”
Commenting on the cocktail culture here, Radalj feels that it’s certainly a lot morepotent than the early days of Feather Boa,but Hong Kong’s not Melbourne yet,where there are 40 bars of Lily’s calibrewithin a 3km radius. “It’s still quitecut-and-paste and not cutting edge,”says Radalj. “People are just copyingwhat they’re doing overseas. I’d loveto elevate everyone around me andthe industry as a whole.”
My Favourite Things with Matt Radalj
1. Favourite bar in Hong Kong?
I like The Upper House. The space is just awesome. I love the style of Lily & Bloom.When they thought about the concept,“Prohibition and whatnot”, they reallythought about that period in time, rightdown to the shakers.
2. Favourite cocktail?
I love a really good Manhattan made with bourbon. I don’t think a lot of the bourbons available in Hong Kong are up to scratch though, so I’d have to say a Harvard—which is when you use cognac. It’s a lotbolder in flavour, with a lot more character.
3. Your hangover cocktail?
A Bloody Maria, which is a Bloody Mary with about 50ml of good añejo aged tequila. It’s more complex in flavour, smoother and a lot lessharsh. It packs a lot of heat. I like it spicybecause after a long night out my sinuses are usually all blocked.
4. Coolest cocktail trend inthe world right now?
Zeta Cryogenic Sorbet & Cocktail Bar at the Hilton Sydney is really cool on weekends.It looks like you’ve gone to an old-school gelato factory or ice cream parlour, but it’s booze: champagne ice blocks and frozen cocktails.The presentation is done very well, with cheeky 50’s uniforms and little ice cream vendor hats.
5. Neatest cocktail in town?
I like what mixologist Antonio Lai hasdone with the Ketel One edible lipstick(soon to debut at FINDS). It’s like a red wineand Cointreau cocktail in gel-like lipstick form,set in a lipstick tube. So, the girls caneither order a drink, or suck on a lipstick.That’s cool.
6. Nastiest drink you’ve had?
Back in Australia, all the bartenders usedto go to a pool hall after work. We usedto come up with the worst concoctionsto down after losing a game. I’ve hadto do a shot of Tabasco and bitters.Then, there’s always the absintheat 5am. Nasty.