As Asia’s biggest rum festival descends on Hong Kong, we speak to cocktail supremo Max Traverse about the rebranding of the pirates’ favourite.
Get ready to rock and rum-ble because Hong Kong Rum Fest is back – and with over 150 rums being showcased it’s going to be bigger and better than ever. The two-day event will take place from 1st-2nd June on Wellington Street in the very heart of Central, and will feature celebrity master distillers, distillery owners and Rum Ambassadors from around the world. We talk to Max Traverse, bar owner of Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge, cocktail expert and the man behind Hong Kong’s Rum Fest, about why in 2018 it’s all about the rum.
The world’s largest premier rum festival was originally founded in London in 2007 with the simple mission of promoting the spirit as a drink. Since then, it has become a truly global phenomenon, with thousands of aficionados flocking to its various iterations around the world. In 2013, Max Traverse, a veteran of the high-end cocktail scene and Hong Kong’s very own ‘Word on Rum’, brought the festival to Asia. “When I first brought the Rum Fest to Hong Kong there were only five or six festivals in the world. Now, Rum Fest is everywhere”, he says.
With a hospitality career spanning decades and prestigious names like Versaille’s Trianon Palace and London’s Cuckoo Club and Hoxton Pony under his belt, Max knows his way around the bar scene. When he first came to Hong Kong to spearhead the opening of Le Boudoir eight years ago, he was underwhelmed by the city’s rather limited offering. “There really were no proper cocktail bar options, so I opened Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge. I’d had enough of opening bars for other people, and it was the right time. I was ready for the challenge”.
Hong Kong was also ready for the offering, flocking to his Tiki bar complete with a stunning and uniquely designed 4m high back bar fashioned out of Polynesian staples such as dark wood, timber and bamboo. With at least 250-300 different ‘references’ on offer at any given time (that’s rum labels, to you and me), Honi Honi also boasts the largest and most impressive rum selection in all of Asia. Soon Honi Honi (meaning ‘Kiss Kiss’ in Polynesian) had reached 29th place in Asia’s Best 50 Bars 2016, Best Team in the Bar Awards Hong Kong 2016 and been named a ‘Bar to Watch’ by The World’s 50 Best Bars in 2013. “I wanted to create a place that was a bit of an escape from the city, and also celebrate the amazing quality and versatility of rum,” explains Max of his mission. “At the time, people said it wouldn’t work because people weren’t interested in rum, they were only drinking vodka, whiskey, gin. But it was time to change all that”.
It’s true that rum has often taken a backseat to its more popular brethren, such as whiskey. The drink has suffered its fair share of snobbery over the years due to its various naval and piratical associations, and the fact that it’s made from leftover agricultural products. “It’s been called the dirty drink, but it’s not. It’s literally the most versatile spirit in the bar”, exclaims Max. “In the past three to four years we’ve seen a huge upswing in rum’s popularity, and that’s because consumers are finally getting a better understanding of the product. Rum education is important, and that’s definitely part of what we’re trying to do at Honi Honi”.
This urge to grow the local knowledge of rum in Asia led to him introducing Rum Fest to Hong Kong in 2013. Now in its fifth instalment, the two-day festival features world famous international guests like Ian Burrell, the Global Rum Ambassador and instigator of the original Rum Fest (UK) and The Mauritius Rum Festival; Daniele Dalla Pola, one of the world’s leading tropical mixologists; Alexx Mouzouris, the Don’Q Rum Ambassador; Richard Seale, master distiller and blender of Foursquare Distillery and the great-grandson of the original Reginald Leon Seale, and many more. “I want people to come, listen, and learn. The target of Rum Fest this year is not primarily trade, but instead, I want people from all over the world to come and discover rum”, explains Max.
On top of all the educational components, there is, of course, the guarantee of a good time. As part of the ticketed event (HKD 150 per person), participants will have credit to spend towards sampling the most tantalising array of rummified drinks and Hawaiian nibbles. Highlights include the festival’s signature ‘Dark & Stormy’ cocktail, BBQ meat skewers and poke from Hong Kong favourite Pololi, amongst other treasure (arrr!). In the lead-up, Max has also organized various guest bartending shifts at partnering bars like Lily & Bloom, Stockton, and Employees Only. “Go try something new”, advises Max. “Rum is unique, complex and, best of all, fun. Go enjoy a crisp and citrusy Mai Tai, or try an Aged Rum Negroni. 2018 has been called the year of rum, so it’s time to get on board!”