Some would consider him one of Indonesia’s greatest exports, Agung Prabowo, the mastermind behind the exquisite cocktails of The Old Man in Hong Kong, has made a name for himself on the world’s stage.
Behind every great bar is a great bartender, this rings true for the best bar in Hong Kong. Known for his experimental and daring concoctions, Agung Prabowo has become one of Asia’s most well regarded bartenders of recent years. A veteran of the industry, it is no surprise that his Ernest Hemingway-inspired bar, The Old Man, has debuted on the No. 5 slot in this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars. A bartender of legendary status in his home country of Indonesia, Agung has become an inspiration for many local budding bartenders. His story of success abroad is one that many dream to fulfil in their careers, hoping to follow in his footsteps. However, it is because of his generosity and humility amongst his peers and customers that he is held in high regard.
Born and raised in South Jakarta, Agung dropped out of university to pursue his passion for bartending at a very early age. Beginning his career as a junior bartender in Cafe Kencana in 2000, he built his reputation from the ground up. Inspired by the theatrics of Tom Cruise in the 1988 film Cocktail, he very quickly rose to prominence as one of the best flair bartenders in the city, winning several competitions. Building off his early success, Agung soon was recruited by several hotel bars, eventually landing a position as head bartender and within three months was promoted to bar manager of the Mandarin Oriental hotel bar in Jakarta. At the age of 22, Agung became the youngest bar manager in Jakarta at the time.
A 2005 visit to Hong Kong marked the beginning of an illustrious career in the “Pearl of the Orient.” What initially was a short term stint to set up the bar at the new The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, became a stepping stone for Agung to build his reputation outside of Indonesia. After a few months he was offered a fulltime position. It was throughout his 4 years at the Lobster Bar & Grill at the Shangri-La, that he gained recognition in Hong Kong. He solidified his status when he became the first Indonesian bar manager to be placed in the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2015. His achievements with the Lobster Bar & Grill didn’t go unnoticed and he soon was hired as the beverage director of the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.
“I realised after becoming a beverage director, I didn’t want to become a food and beverage director or general manager. It wasn’t my passion to be in that position. That was the highest point at a hotel bar, that I wanted to have… So I decided that I wanted to open my own bar”
It was during his time at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong where his dreams of opening his own bar soon became a reality. Agung recounts that it was on a night out drinking, that he and his two friends drunkenly decided they’d quit their jobs to open their own bar. Coincidentally fitting a famous quote by Ernest Hemingway “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.” Agung and his two partners James Tamang and Roman Ghale bought a small bar on Aberdeen street in Soho and turned it into the highly successful The Old Man.
Created as a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, the author famously known for his relationship with alcohol, the bar is named after Agung’s favourite novel The Old Man and the Sea. Absolutely unique by design, The Old Man was his dream bar. Working with a designer and inspired by his vision of a perfect bar, Agung sought out to create the most amazing drinking experience for his customers. From the design of a bar station that is on eye level as the customer, to the communal table that forces customers to interact with strangers, to the copper strip across the bar top to keep drinks cool at every sip, the attention to detail ensured that The Old Man would be a bar like no other.
“We are enhancing the classic cocktail to a different level… For most of our drinks, it is about the experience, the smell is different, the taste is different, the aftertaste is different. This is what I’m trying to achieve” However, it is Agung’s ingenuity in his cocktail menu that has put his bar on the map. Branding his concept of cocktails as experimental, he employs culinary techniques to enhance classic recipes. Daring to be different, it was his desire to create cocktails that would match the brilliance of Hemingway’s works. Agung goes through extensive research and development with the latest techniques and tech to create new flavors, infusions, and cocktail experiences for his customer. His innovative style of cocktails has brought attention from the world, attracting customers from all around the globe to the tiny alleyway outside his bar.
Like a lighthouse attracting ships to the bay, the small lit up sign of The Old Man acts as a beacon to other bartenders. Sometimes known as a bartenders’ bar, Agung’s generosity and personality brings in fellow bartenders from neighboring bars to indulge in a night-cap after they close. He even has opened his own fully equipped mixology lab, located not more than 50 meters from his bar, to his fellow industry-men. Sharing his state of the art equipment and his resources, his reputation and camaraderie is well known across the world of bartending.
“I was doing a seminar earlier, we had about 70 people inside the room. They were very curious about the cocktail concept of The Old Man. So I told them about it. I don’t want to hide it from them. Why should I hide it? I need to share it instead.”
Beloved and well respected in Hong Kong, Agung does speak fondly of his hometown of Jakarta. Often retuning home to conduct bar takeovers, seminars, and workshops, he takes as many opportunities to share his craft and his knowledge with his fellow Indonesian bartenders. Now, he’s currently working on new project, which he then hopes to eventually work his way to opening a The Old Man in his own hometown.
Find the original article in Foodies Magazine Issue 02 August/September 2018