Award-winning bartender Agung Prabowo started out in the kitchen. Now, he’s one of the founders behind Hong Kong speakeasy The Old Man, with three hotspots under his belt and counting.
How did a busboy from Jakarta end up opening one of Hong Kong’s most loved speakeasies, instantly winning a spot on the World’s Best 50 Bars List? This is the story of Indonesian native Agung Prabowo, one of the brains behind internationally lauded Hong Kong cocktail bar The Old Man. Inspired by the Ernest Hemingway novel ‘The Old Man and The Sea,” this tiny, tucked away speakeasy in Soho has quickly won a global reputation as the place to go for standout cocktails, winning multiple awards along the way. Now, with a second branch in Singapore, and a new Hong Kong location, The Sea by The Old Man, just opening its doors, Agung sat down with Hive Life to tell us how hard graft won international success.
Back in 1999, Agung was a busboy in Jakarta. Starstruck by what he saw as the glamour of the bartenders who worked around him, he became determined to land himself a spot behind the counter. Working his way up from barback, he made his name in competitions, winning ‘Flairtending’ contests with his dazzling tricks, and representing Hong Kong in 2008 World Flairtending Competition – coming 8th out of 87. “Everyone in Jakarta was so amazed. ‘How come this rookie’s name is suddenly known?!’” Agung recalls.
The next phase of his career owed more to graft than it did to fancy tricks as he worked his way around some of Asia’s most legendary bars, from the Mandarin Oriental in Jakarta to the chain’s MO Bar at the Landmark, Hong Kong, followed by The Lobster Bar and Grill at the Island Shangri-La. Under his guidance, it became Hong Kong’s highest-ranking bar in the World’s 50 Best Bar Awards 2015. “A lot of hotel bars in Asia were looking at how we achieved it,” says Agung. “After we got 18th, there were a lot of companies trying to poach me, and a lot of wealthy guests asked me to open a bar with their money. But, back then, I knew I wasn’t ready. Winning competitions didn’t mean I could suddenly open a bar. It takes time.” To work out that time, he took a job as Beverage Manager at Mandarin Oriental, gaining the operational and management experience he felt he needed.
In 2016, Agung teamed up with former colleagues Roman Ghale and James Tamang to strike out on his own. Also two men with backgrounds in some of Asia’s best bars, their first, self-funded venture The Old Man opened its doors in 2017. “A lot of my friends said opening a bar is kind of glamorous, but it’s actually a hell of a job. This is your own money. You can’t fail. You have to put in 200%,” says Agung. Their approach was to hone in on a concept with heart – in this case, a bar with its roots in the literary and booze-loving legend that was Hemingway – and deliver something with soul. “We wanted to show everyone that even the bartenders who don’t have financial backing can still pursue their career with their hearts, hard work, and experience. Our mission was to build something unique and different in the market,” he explains.
What that was was a glamorous, underground drinking den where guests could sample delicious concoctions all inspired by the author, mixing some of his favourite ingredients with Asian flavours for their own menu of cocktails, many of which are inspired by Hemingway’s writing. “I read the books, understand the story, and then I create the drink with an Asian twist. In Hong Kong, there are so many different kinds of fruits, herbs and Chinese medicines that can be used in cocktails,” Agung explains of the process. “I don’t really follow the trends, I’d rather be the trendsetter. At The Old Man, we have our own style, and that’s why we’re different from everyone else.”
Thanks to all this uniqueness – and their instant success debuting at number five on Asia’s Best Bars list before making their way onto the global rankings, the trio was inundated with requests for franchises. Until 2018, they held off, eventually opening their first foreign establishment in Singapore’s Chinatown. “Singapore is the capital city of the cocktail industry in Asia, so we just wanted to put our foot in there,” explains Agung. Just this week, they have focused on expansion closer to home with the opening of The Sea by The Old Man. Housed on the slopes of Po Yan Street in Sheung Wan, it brings a more casual approach. “The Sea is not a concept, it’s just a casual bar that people can understand. People can also relax in it with a glass of wine, a nice martini, a bottle of beer or something like that. So, it’s easier to approach.”
With no plans to slow down anytime soon, Agung says, “Bartending will be my way of life, regardless of how old I am. I become a completely different person once I step into the bar. It’s my passion. I think that’s the only bad part about being a bartender – that you just might love it too much!”