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Interviews

Confession Time With Holly Graham, BFF of Asia’s Cocktail Scene


It's hard to neatly sum up Holly Graham and her impact on the Asian cocktail scene. A multi-hyphenate with an infectious energy, Holly balances roles as the managing editor of DRiNK Magazine, an author of recipe book Cocktails of Asia, and now, bar owner of her very own bar, Tokyo Confidential. She's also previously served as a judge and educator for numerous cocktail and spirits competitions. Her many pursuits in the bar scene, unsurprisingly, adds up to her recently being recognised as #9 on Bar World's 100 Most Influential Figures of 2023. 

Putting aside her impressive accolades and resume however, what Holly is also widely known for in the bar scene is being someone who is genuine, authentic and a whole lot of fun to have a drink with! Additionally, she's often sought to use her platform to advocate for the industry and the people who work in it, having started the Asia Women in Booze to create a supportive network for female bar professionals across the region.

Today, we're excited to sit down with Holly to talk about her journey in Asia's bar scene thus far. We dive into some of the inspiration behind her new bar Tokyo Confidential, picked up some tequila and champagne recommendations, chatted about music and cocktail pairings, and finally, got Holly's take on some must-visit bars in the Asia region. Let's get to it! 


 

88B: First of, a huge congratulations on the recent opening of Tokyo Confidential! As someone who’s been a key figure in the Asian bar scene, news of you opening your very own bar was naturally met with a huge amount of excitement and anticipation.

To undertake this new project, you’ve even recently relocated to Tokyo after spending ten years in Hong Kong. What was it about Tokyo that got you excited and tuned you into the insight that this was the right city to be opening your bar in?

Holly: Well to be honest, Tokyo chose me. But I said yes to her because it seemed like the right place to do something different. I love Hong Kong with all my heart – it truly feels like home more than anywhere else I’ve lived – but I saw all my incredible peers doing awesome things and didn’t know how I could fill a niche.

Tokyo on the other hand has an incredible bar scene that’s so uniquely Japanese, so I wanted to bring something a little more different to the scene that I hope can really stand out here. It also felt like the next logical step after Hong Kong, as the pandemic had me thinking about where life after HK might be, and Japan was always at the forefront. Manifestation, you could say! 

 "Our cocktails try not to use super esoteric ingredients but they’re different enough to invite questions and conversations." - Holly on Tokyo Confidential's cocktail program.

88B: You’ve shared that Tokyo Confidential is a bar that offers “high contrasts”, combining a come-as-you-are laid-back vibe with high-brow, high-quality drinks that are worthy of being taken seriously. What are some ways in which you and your team sought to design the bar and the drinks programme in order to incorporate some of those high contrasts? 

Holly: Our cocktails try not to use super esoteric ingredients but they’re different enough to invite questions and conversations. Waka and I both have the same vision but different palates, and it comes together beautifully. I tend to lean more towards savoury, umami and spirit forward cocktails while her palate is a little more botanical driven and her creations more refreshing, creating a menu that is coherent but contrasting.

Holly and Wakana Murata, Tokyo Confidential's head bartender (Image source: Millie Tang)

88B: You and Wakana, Tokyo Confidential’s head bartender, bonded over your love for agave and champagne when you first met up to discuss the possibility of opening Tokyo Confidential. This has perhaps given rise to some of the coolest features of Tokyo Confidential - a champagne fridge on its rooftop (alongside Asia’s first Fernet Branca tap) and a selection of agave spirits that can be ordered by the bottle/glass! 

What are some tequila or champagne bottles in the bar’s collection now that you’re pretty excited about, and recommend that guests coming to Tokyo Confidential should try?

(Image source: Cascahuin, Ruinart, Premiumgrandscrus)

Holly: One of my personal favourites on offer which I hand carried in is Cascahuin 11 Brix. It’s an incredible limited bottling sipping tequila and has a beautiful label.

Champagne-wise, we just have a bunch of our favourites, including Ruinart Blanc De Blanc or Jaquesson Cuvee 746 which a dear friend got me hooked on and it’s really well priced too.

88B: Throughout your career, you’ve been a passionate advocate for other women in the industry, and often sought to use your platform as managing editor at DRiNK to spotlight other female talent. Now as a bar owner of Tokyo Confidential, you’ve expressed your commitment to ensuring proper female representation in your team. Your own success in the industry, and your commitment to the cause, has no doubt been a great source of inspiration for other women. 

Is there any advice that you would offer to any young women out there who are just now starting out their careers in Asia’s alcohol industry? 

As managing editor of Drink Magazine, Holly established and has been maintaining an online list of Asia's women in bartending since 2019, helping to grow a collective of female bar industry professionals in the region. (Image source: Drink Magazine)

Holly: Be humble and support your fellow woman. High tides raise all ships.

88B: Having lived and worked in Hong Kong for an extensive amount of time, could you share more about what the Hong Kong bar culture is like? What are some of your fondest memories of the place and the people there? 

 

 Holly: I may be very biased but I think it’s the best bar city in the world, especially community-wise. Everyone is so close and wants each other to succeed and will go above and beyond to collaborate and assist one another. There’s such a great variety of bars, most of which are super lively and full of life. All my memories of Hong Kong are fond.

"I love Hong Kong with all my heart – it truly feels like home more than anywhere else I’ve lived – but I saw all my incredible peers doing awesome things and didn’t know how I could fill a niche. Tokyo on the other hand has an incredible bar scene that’s so uniquely Japanese, so I wanted to bring something a little more different to the scene that I hope can really stand out here." - Holly on pursuing a new adventure in Tokyo.

88B: Last year, you wrote and published a book called Cocktails in Asia, which you’ve described as your “love letter to Asia”. Unlike most recipe-style books, what really does stand out about Cocktails in Asia is the extensive anecdotical storytelling and the spotlighting of the local bartenders behind the cocktails, as well as explainers on oft overlooked local spirits like Arrack, Makgeolli and Baijiu.

The book does, in fact, read like a labour of love to the region, with what we can only assume was an extensive amount of research put into it. We’re curious to know - what were some of the unexpected revelations and discoveries that you had about the world of spirits and cocktails while doing research for the book? Were there some topics you’d have loved to cover but weren’t able to due to certain editorial considerations? 

Holly: While this is by no means a brag, writing the book was of course a challenge with deadlines etc but it really was easy. But I think combining my loves – writing and the bar industry – was always going to be a pleasure. I cannot wait to get book two out there and have already begun brainstorming. Watch this space…

88B: As someone who’s no stranger to jet setting to different bars across different countries, it’s safe to say that you’re very in tune with the best of what each local drinks scene has to offer. What are some cocktail bars in Asia that you recommend bargoers in the region to pay a visit to at least once in their life?

Holly:

Clockwise from top-left: Coa, The SG Club, Sago House, Tropic City, Argo and Zest.

COA – THE spot for agave.

The SG Club – a top notch experience from the moment you enter to the moment you leave.

Sago House – the rebellious outlier of Singapore.

Tropic City – you never quite know where a night here may go.

Argo – one of the best, most innovative hotel bars in Asia.

Zest – a real taste of Korea and fantastic hospitality.

Clockwise from top-left: Southside Parlor, Sidecar, Penicillin, The Pontiac, JungleBird, and Penrose.

Southside Parlor – a Seoul OG with a Southern heart.

Sidecar – putting India on the cocktail map.

Penicillin – innovative and playful.

The Pontiac – rock and roll baby!

JungleBird – fun, fab food and rum galore.

Penrose – some of my favourite cocktails of 2023.

88B: We hear that music is a huge part of your life, and you personally put together most of the playlists that guests to Tokyo Confidential hear on the speakers. So, what are three of your favourite cocktails or drinks, and which three songs would you use to represent these cocktails? 

Holly: Music IS life. Most of the cocktails actually take their names from song lyrics so: 

Good Luck – Good Luck by Broken Bells

Funky Town – Funkytown by Lipps Inc

Destroy All Monsters – Simon Says by Pharoahe Monch


88 Bamboo would like to thank Holly Graham for taking the time to speak with us, and for sharing with us her journey thus far, her insights into the new Tokyo Confidential bar, her recommendations on the best of Asia's cocktail scene! 

Follow Holly Graham: @hollygrahamdrinks on Instagram

If you're in Tokyo, be sure to visit Holly's own Tokyo Confidential - a cocktail bar celebrating high contrasts and delightful chaos. Tokyo Confidential is open Wednesday through Sunday from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am at 9F, THE V-CITY AZABU-JUBAN PLACE 1-chome, 6-1 Azabujuban, Minato City, Tokyo 106-0045, Japan. No reservations, just Pull Up!

Follow Tokyo Confidential: @tokyoconfidentialbar on Instagram 

 

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