Until 2020, award-winning Hong Kong bartender Agung Prabowo had never fully appreciated how many uses there are for bones. At Penicillin, his latest cocktail bar, they start their journey in the kitchen, with preparations for koji fried chicken nibbles. But instead of being discarded, the bones are picked clean, soaked in vinegar then roasted, blended and reborn as a powder. Their lifecycle continues as the powder is mixed with carbonated water to create a flavoursome soda that goes into Penicillin’s whisky highballs. These bones are also ground into recycled bottle labels made with kitchen leftovers. Sometimes they’re eked out into fermentations and tinctures. Vegetarians, look away.
This process of recycling and up-cycling ingredients is central to Prabowo’s newest venture, a head-first dive into experimental sustainability. Originally from Jakarta, Prabowo has been a formidable force on the Hong Kong bar scene for over a decade, most recently as co-founder of The Old Man, which ranked number one on Asia’s Best Bars list 2019 within 18 months of opening. His cocktails are known for being unique and occasionally challenging.
When I meet Prabowo and his business partner Roman Ghale in their new Hollywood Road bar over Zoom, I quickly realise this is not a duo that does things by halves. I find them in the ‘lab area’ at Penicillin’s entranceway. Behind it, the public bar feels like a clinical concrete box. There are tree-trunk tables made out of fallen debris from the 2018 Mangkhut tropical storm, and vintage neon strip-lighting recycled from Hong Kong streets. The kitchen is stocked with designer crockery made with recycled materials, the bathrooms have bamboo towels, and the menus are made of paper crafted from coffee grounds and lemon skins.
Penicillin soft launched in November, championing what Prabowo and Ghale describe as a ‘closed-loop’ production model. Like its namesake antibiotic, the bar has all the potential to be groundbreaking. The concept is ‘farm-to-bar’ – and a little bit beyond. Sourcing locally is key, but Prabowo and Ghale are also obsessed with experimental reuse. Their goal this year is to reduce waste by 80%.
Cocktail photo courtesy of Penicillin.
“Being in the industry for 20 years, we’ve wasted a lot of things, especially in the hotel bars. There’s an insane amount of waste,” says Prabowo. The pandemic was a turning point for he and Ghale, as they watched the natural environment around them thrive while the urban one keeled over. “We’d never seen Hong Kong with such clear skies,” says Prabowo. “Everyone’s mindset changed and we thought, hey, we need to do something.” And so the idea of Penicillin was born.
Prabowo and Ghale sold their stakes in The Old Man so that they could throw themselves behind their new calling. They arrive at the lab early and leave the bar late. “There’s a lot of crazy ideas. It is time and energy, trial and error,” admits Prabowo. “Your head and your heart have to be in it,” he says, drumming his fingers on both to emphasise the point.
Experimentation at Penicillin might mean turning three-day old wine into wine sorbet, or fermenting rotting passion fruit so that it can be revived on the ‘Organic Ferment’ section of the cocktail menu as a vinegar mixed with seven-day fermented red cabbage and apple. These oddities are a signature, but Prabowo admits it can be confronting at times. “Fermenting things is very subjective – people love it or hate it.” He and Ghale have both trained in the technique, and the bar has one staff member dedicated to producing ferments, who spends his days toiling in what Prabowo jokingly refers to as “the stinky room”.
The menus are also fiercely seasonal, dictated by the fruitfulness of a patchwork of mom-and-pop farms in Hong Kong’s sub-tropical New Territories. With the help of Ghale’s wife Katy, a native Hong Konger, they have spent months cultivating supplier relationships with small landowners around Yuen Long and Sha Tin.
Photo by 1kmStudio KevinMak
Although seasonality and low food miles have been two of the biggest restaurant trends of the last decade, these environmentally friendly principles still go against the grain in Hong Kong. This is partly to do with the scarcity of land, which makes it difficult and expensive to develop local farming on any scale. But Prabowo believes the city also still suffers from an attitude of ‘I want, I get’. “Hong Kong people are spoilt,” he says. “The one thing you can’t find in the world, suddenly after three days you have it in front of you. That’s the culture right now in Hong Kong.”
At Penicillin, the policy is to buy local and if they can’t get it in Hong Kong, they try to ship regionally from elsewhere in Asia. That’s no easy mandate when it comes to spirits: Hong Kong only has two local distilleries and they’re both gin. So Prabowo and Ghale have partnered with a Singapore-based company called ecoSPIRITS that buys liquors such as Scottish whisky in vast quantities and then distributes it from its warehouse in Hong Kong in 4.5L reusable canisters, thus saving both air miles and glass bottles. Cocktails made with these own-label spirits are estimated to save an average of 150g in CO2 emissions per drink and are marked on the menu with an ‘eS’.
Prabowo and Ghale are also partnering with ecoSPIRITS on a reforestation project in Kalimantan, Borneo. For every drink purchased, Penicillin donates US$1.5, which is matched by ecoSPIRITS, to plant a tree. “I think we’re going to be the first industry in the world doing this,” says Prabowo. And as you sit at the bar sipping your whisky highball made with bone soda, you can scan a QR code that will show you the real-live reforestation area on your phone. You can find out what type of tree is being planted on your behalf. You can even name it.
“What we’re doing right now, we’re doing it for my son and Roman’s son and his daughter – for the next generation,” says Prabowo. And he hopes that others in the Hong Kong bar industry will come round to his way of thinking. The challenge, he says, is simple: "Are you ready or not?"