John Nugent is the latest addition to Lily & Bloom’s fast-growing team, and will be heading the award-winning bar staff as the new Head Mixologist. Hospitality and F&B have always been in Nugent’s blood – his mother ran a coffee shop, and at 16, he got his first job as a busboy at his aunt’s restaurant. He’s bartended in Boston, around Europe, and back in Seattle, where he opened a few restaurants and curated an extolled cocktail list as the beverage manager at Seattle’s Thompson Hotel.
Why did you choose to leave the US and come to Hong Kong?
This is my first time in Asia, I’ve never even visited. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone because I feel like I perform well when I’m out of my comfort zone. I just wanted to be a part of a fun and exciting growing community. Hong Kong has so much to offer and it’s a beautiful city and it has all these esoteric qualities as well. Just not getting rid of its old charms and traditions but still paving the way. I just wanted to be a part of it. It’s been very welcoming.
You didn’t just spin the globe and picked this place.
I’ve been fascinated with Hong Kong and the density of it. I have a few friends who have lived out here and wouldn’t stop raving about it. I was just enamoured with Asia in general and I knew this would be a hub for me to check out different cities around Hong Kong. It’s been speaking to me for quite some time now, so I took the leap.
How would you say the Hong Kong bar scene compares to your hometown?
I’ve been lucky enough to bartend in various different cities, but comparing to America in general, it’s incredible. The bar scene here is — there’s so many different ways to describe it — I’ll say it’s all positive. It’s a community that really knows how to have a good time but is still professional, they’re incredibly knowledgeable, and they have this endearing quality to them. They feel like there’s never enough to learn and you can see that in them.
What’s your favourite ingredient to work into a cocktail?
I like to work with the seasons so I try to pay attention to that. When I started to take bartending seriously I was working with a lot of American whiskies, bourbons and rye, there’s so many different ways to play around with that. I try to go seasonal and make a fun syrup, a fun infusion.
I hear you like to put a twist on classic cocktails.
I like to go on a limb with some cocktails. The base of American bartending, I mean those Prohibition, pre-Prohibition classics, they’re fun to talk about. And taking your own version of it, I feel like that connects the guest to history, but with the contemporary edge to it gives it something to talk about it as well.
Is there a difference between calling someone a bartender or a mixologist?
I’ll be the first to say i”m not a big labels guy. In the States we kind of make fun of the term. In fact, some people might even take it offensively. The difference is how seriously you want to take it. Are you willing to show up to a shift and just make drinks, or do you want to study after and go to seminars and learn about rum and whisky and different types of spirits? Do you want to stay longer to make a cocktail batch? I think the difference is just in workload and how much you care about that part of it.
And you? What do you want to be called?
You can just call me John. I like to make drinks for people. It’s up to you.
At Lily & Bloom, do they have a habit of making infusions? Are you bringing that in?
Lily & Bloom has been here close to seven years, they’ve done different contemporary stuff along the way. The Snickers Old Fashioned, the whisky infused with Snickers, that’s been around for some time and it’s been a fan favourite so we’ve kept that. They’ve done infusions, tinctures, and we’re doing some of that stuff as well.
You’re also bringing in new cocktails.
Yes, the whole menu is new, apart from the Snickers Old Fashioned. And we’ll be adding more as we go.
Downstairs we’re featuring nothing but classic cocktails. We’re like this Americana steakhouse with some contemporary features and Chris Grare is making wonderful dishes, big steaks and fish entrees, a more of a supper club cocktail scene. There are a lot of martinis and manhattan variations, all from the 1900s to a few modern classics. Upstairs, we’re offering really contemporary feature cocktails. It’s a mixed bag for sure.
What is your go to drink?
Sometimes at the end of a shift you just really want a beer. But I tend to lean towards a negroni. It’s such a great cocktail and so easy to make. Sometimes if you want to gage a bartender, it’s a great cocktail to see where their level is at. It’s so easy to make, but it’s also a drink you can easily mess up. I like a negroni as far as cocktails go, but sometimes I just like a beer and a shot of whisky to mellow you out.
What’s an advice you carry with you all the time?
My best friend’s dad was a bartender and he worked at a dive bar. I hold what he says to heart, where he said, “Cocktails are the easy part. It’s the people.” I don’t want to make you a cocktail that I think is delicious, I want to make you a cocktail that you think is delicious.
What’s the best part of your job?
Right now, it’s just meeting incredible people. My staff is some of the most hard-working and endearing people on the planet. All these bartenders work so hard, and watching them work and being a part of that right now, is my favourite part. I love creating stuff and getting into my creative mode, but coming to Hong Kong and watching the bar staff and how committed they are is inspirational.
What is the craziest thing to have happened to you while you’re bartending?
When I bartended in the Greek islands, I bartended in a hospital-themed nightclub called Rehab. And that was basically a summer of absolute debauchery. I’d just leave it at that. It was a backpackers destination so you’ll see people from all walks of life. It was a crazy summer and I think I saw everything.
What is the best way to make a bartender your best friend?
I always find it a huge compliment when someone gets another cocktail from me. Please and thank you always goes a long way.