For Bryson Rivera, the art of a great cocktail is the art of great storytelling. It might be the reason that he consistently appears at the top of Hong Kong’s best bartender lists. Rivera practices both arts expertly as the bar operations manager at the JW Marriott Hong Kong’s Flint Grill & Bar and Bar Q88.
He also practices his craft with impeccable style. Dressed in a fitted sport coat with a perfectly placed pocket square, Rivera was excited to tell Marriott TRAVELER the story behind his Hollywood-inspired cocktails, and as he mixed a few of his creations named for icons like Brigitte Bardot and Dean Martin, he revealed that he is as much showman as he is storyteller, with a preternatural appreciation for old school glitz and glam.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
How do you think you’ve reached the top of Hong Kong’s best bartender lists? What is it about the way that you bartend that the people are recognizing?
I think, behind the bar, being behind the bar, it’s not just about creating drinks and creating menus, but actually getting out there. … At the end of the day, it’s all about personality, right? So it’s not just you make a drink. I mean, anyone can make a drink, but it’s getting out there, showing your personality and doing what you love to do and showing passion. Definitely, I think that’s part of being part of [the] Top 25 in Hong Kong, right?
How does that manifest itself here at Bar Q88? When you’re behind the bar, what are you looking to impart to guests?
Well, there’s a lot of aspects. The major one is all about engagement. That’s part of our core values, and a lot of our drinks have interesting stories behind them. For us to engage with our guests, it’s not just about the flavors anymore; it’s not how it’s made. It’s more like how you produce these drinks. How did you come up with a name? What inspires you to make these cocktails? I think this is very intriguing to guests — fascinating stories, ingredients used, inspirations. Again, at the end of the day, we’re creating drinks not for ourselves; we’re creating drinks for our guests.
Tell me a story about one of your drinks. What’s one that you make that has a great story that people love to hear.
So the inspiration of my latest menu is 1950s/1960s pinup girls and poster boys. I figured that we, as an American company, have to incorporate a little bit of fun with crossover between Hollywood and celebrity drinking. For example, I have a drink called James Dean. So the name already rings a lot of bells. …
The demand right now is drinks like Negronis, drinks like Old-Fashioneds. So this drink, James Dean, is a take on an Old-Fashioned, right? It’s got Bakers seven-year-old bourbon; you’ve got a little bit of gingerbread syrup in there. Now the exciting ingredient used here is what we call The Homemade Hellfire Bitters.
Now, hellfire bitters are known throughout the world in Mexican dishes. So we’ve incorporated Peychaud’s bitters, which was really popular in New Orleans during the 1920s, with added cayenne-pepper powder in it, so you’ve got that kick of spice. The color of these hellfire bitters is red. Now that red color represents James Dean’s jacket, which he was wearing in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
You’ve really thought about that.
Every single detail is very important, right? I think the beverage industry has come to the point where it’s not about what ingredients you use anymore because people are creating a lot of different flavors and complicated ingredients. What’s important, again, at the end of the day, is the story of how these ingredients come through. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it has to be simple. How you deliver the story is what makes it important.
You’ve talked about people becoming more sophisticated and discovering different cocktail flavors. What are the Hong Kong bar trends that you’re seeing right now?
At the moment, it’s not just about creating a new twist on a cocktail. There are a lot of bars opening specifically that say it’s a rum bar, or it’s a gin bar, or it’s a beer bar, or it’s a pure Japanese bar. There are different bar styles and concepts. … There are a lot of trends, as well, coming from franchising. A lot of bars from New York or Singapore have come to Hong Kong to open up.
Another cocktail trend is the bartending exchange, or what we call “bartending shifts” or “guest bartenders,” that go to other countries or come to Hong Kong to represent a bar to represent themselves.
I mean, anyone can make a drink, but it's getting out there, showing your personality and doing what you love to do and showing passion.
When you’re drinking and not here, where do you like to go out?
I like beers, really. What I do is, if I’m not around, it’s either that I’m hanging out with my girlfriend or walking my dog. I go past a pit stop — what I call the pit stop is the 7-Eleven — I grab my beer can, and I just walk my dog. Other than that, I like discovering new bars. I think discovering new bars is very important for inspiration.
Have you been anywhere recently that impressed you?
When I went to Singapore, I went to a place called Employees Only. They’re known in New York . … They are cool guys who wear chef jackets. If they get promoted, they get a name like Bartender General. That’s where I’ve been lately, and I’ve been hanging out in a gin bar called Doctor Fern’s.
What do you want to share about Hong Kong? What do you want a first-timer to Hong Kong to know?
Transportation’s easy. People are nice. Sometimes you think that people are rude because they’re screaming at you, but they’re actually not screaming at you — it’s just the tone and the action, right?
What’s your favorite drink to make?
I like making drinks that involve a lot of techniques. For example, caramelization. Basically, it’s what we call Angostura Mist. It’s Angostura bitters, which are highly potent and alcoholic. It’s got about 62.5 percent alcohol by volume. It started in the 1800’s, where it also was a cure.
If you have hiccups, you add it to soda water and it cures hiccups. It’s also a stomach remedy. It’s highly flammable, so I like to use it as part of caramelization. The orange peel, as well. The orange peel, the zest, is also a part of a skill. Then there’s double stirring. You use two hands to stir, two mixing glasses and double stirrings.
There’s double shaking, two hand shakes, or the Japanese hard shake, where you form three points in a corner. It’s not just about shaking a drink back and forth but actually creating that cycle in there. … There are a lot of skills involved. It’s fun. I just mentioned, two stir. In competitions, I’d get one of the bartenders behind me with another set of spoons, and we’d stir with left and right arms.
Like an octopus?
Like an octopus or like cocktail gods.