Kaan Gilmour is bar manager at Melody in Sai Ying Pun, which opened in October 2023. He spills the tea on the bar programme he’s created for the venue, current cocktail trends and his industry idols.
Kaan was born and raised in Holburn, Cental London where he lived for the first 10 years of his life, before moving to Scotland and then Turkey with his family.
At 16 he returned to England to finish his education. When he was 18, he moved to Brighton on England’s south coast to work at a music club run by his aunt, who’d previously been a brand ambassador for Johnny Walker Black. She gifted him a professional cocktail course that reinforced his passion for hospitality.
After six years working in a variety of bars and freelancing for cocktail events in the UK, Kaan headed to Cologne, Germany, in 2020. There, he worked at renowned rooftop bar Monkey Bar and later joined Two-Michelin star chef Daniel Gottlich at his restobar PVL as Chef de Bar.
Kaan landed in Hong Kong in July 2023.
What inspired you to get into bartending?
In hindsight, I think hospitality chose me instead of me choosing hospitality. When I lived in Edinburgh, from when I was 10 to 13, my parents owned a Middle Eastern restaurant called Eastern Chill Out. Every day after school me and my sister would be in the restaurant or kitchen; we basically grew up in it. As a kid, I hated it. I always thought I’d never be a part of F&B. So I think it was a little bit of being a product of the environment.
How did you come to be the bar manager at Melody?
It was a bit random but through recruitment. I’d just left Germany and was on LinkedIn sending out a few CVs. Then I got introduced to a recruitment agency and things just escalated from there.
I actually got recruited for a different project in Hong Kong with Johnny Hiller [music director at Melody] and someone else but that fell through. Then I was referred to Giammarco [Giammarco Sai, Founder and General Manager of Melody]. So, I basically became Melody’s bar manager through referral.
Tell us about the bar programme you’ve curated for Melody…
We have a signature seasonal selection where you have drinks like the Yellow Pepper Margarita. Then we have a small section called R&D – research and development – where we’ll be trying out new cocktails. This will be a little bit more on the higher-technique aspect of things where we’ll do cool little foams – although we don’t have any rotovaps [rotary evaporators] or anything like that in this bar. It’s about bringing it back to the classics, bringing it back to the origins of bartending. Everything’s fresh, everything’s freshly made, freshly batched, freshly sourced.
How often are you going to switch up the seasonal cocktails?
Every four months. We’ll do a different cocktail menu and that might even introduce different concepts into the menu.
Are you using locally sourced ingredients; do you work with any local farms?
Yes, that is in the works. Myself and head chef Jamie Draper have planned to go and check out a bunch of farmers. And I’m using some of his contacts that he’s worked with for years. Some of the ingredients are local and some stuff is imported, so a bit of a mix at the moment. But it’s something that we’re definitely working on.
In this modern age of hospitality, importing stuff is a little bit redundant. But I’m still figuring out the full flavour profile of Hong Kong. Obviously being new here, that’s going to come with time.
Do you offer any non-alcoholic cocktails?
Yes. We have non-alcoholic and low AVB cocktails – and they should be as good as and as thought about as your alcoholic cocktails. I’m massively into the non-alcoholic trend. It’s definitely one that’s here to stay.
Where do you find fresh ideas for new concoctions?
I read a lot of chef and flavour pairing books. There are three go-tos I have. For example, if I have a classic cocktail recipe in my head and I’m thinking about what flavour would work with the base ingredient, then I would go to a cookbook like the Flavour Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity and the Flavour Thesaurus. That’s where I’ll get my reference to pair flavours.
I feel that having this knowledge really helps to design cocktails. If you understand what botanical structure your gin is made out of, then you’ll know which flavours will bring out certain elements of the botanicals.
And then in terms of conceptual inspiration, it’s more from the industry legends: the Alex Kratenas of the world, the Beckaly Franks, the Ezra Stars, Simone Caporale whose bar, Sips in Barcelona, won World’s Best Bar this year. Those are my idols.
It’s great to hear that you actually read books!
I don’t stop, to be honest. I think it’s important. Especially when reading old recipes and stuff like that because we’re in a day and age where everyone thinks they have these very individual, once-in-a- lifetime ideas. But the idea is already there and you’re just adding your own personal touch, your own expression to it.
Are there any current cocktail trends on your radar at the moment?
Definitely fig leaf. It’s a culinary trend, just in general. I think they’re infusing it with ice cream. We’ve got a fig leaf expression on our cocktail menu.
I think the current trend or trend over the next couple of years is going to be going back to basics.
What I’m seeing a lot of at the moment is two different sides: people using rotovaps, making crazy concoctions that need to be served at very specific temperatures; and distillates using high-end equipment where they’re extracting flavour. And all that’s amazing.
But I think people miss watching bartenders touch bottles when they’re making a cocktail, not just having some bottle with red liquid in it and then having that as a batch cocktail. We are slowly going to go back to basics and everything’s going be to be a little fresher and easier for the guests to understand.
What are some of the most important skills for a bartender to have?
A couple of things: you have to be quite a social person, which sounds counterintuitive because a lot of bartenders I’ve met are quite introverted people who end up being extroverts behind the bar. But as long as you’re able to be a little bit of an extrovert and enjoy people’s presence and their company, that’s an important thing for me.
And the other thing is being OK with the monotony of the job sometimes. You know, a week can turn into a month and you’re doing the same menu, the same drinks, maybe having similar conversations with guests. So you really have to be passionate about it.
And you have to be up for a lot of hard work, being on your feet for 12 hours a day.
So, I’d say passion, patience and hard work.
Have you visited any bars in Hong Kong that have blown you away?
Yes, Bar Leone by Lorenzo Antinori.
Why was it so special?
Conceptually it’s just really well executed. The first thing I’m going to notice is the quality of the drinks, and they were exceptional. I had a white negroni. We also had a rum Old Fashioned that was made with some Pedro Ximénez, a really raisiny sherry, and it was just fantastic; perfectly executed, perfectly balanced. They also had great snacks. The ambience was all low-lit and I felt like I was in a tiny, little cafe in Italy.
And then there’s Lorenzo himself. You can just tell immediately with being in his presence that he’s a master of hospitality. He just sits next to you and touches you on the shoulder like, ‘I figured you out already and this is what you want to drink’. And it IS what you want to drink!
It was an amazing experience and really cool.