Where can you drink the world's best cocktails?
Standing before the judges at the Diageo Reserve World Class Final bartending competition in Rio de Janeiro, Taiwanese bartender Kae Yin’s hands trembled slightly as presented his cocktail.
With his index finger, he carefully etched a flower into the layer of powdered green tea that he’d sprinkled over a plate of rice flour.
“The rice powder represents our soil, which is the source of all things that grow from the ground and give sustenance to the Taiwanese people,” he explains, speaking through a translator.
“It symbolizes growth and prosperity.”
The audience watched with curiosity as Yin added homemade bitters and violet liqueur to a bamboo cup containing an infusion of Tanqueray 10 gin, Chinese chamomile tea, oolong tea and honey.
He covered the rim of the vessel with an inverted teacup, and then swiftly flipped it over before placing the cocktail on the plate, in the center of the rice-flower.
I’d seen this technique before in Chinese tea ceremony, but I’d never imagined it could be applied to mixology.
“This cocktail is called Trinitea,” he says, spelling out the last three letters for effect.
He served the drink on a slatted bamboo box, enveloped in a cloud of vapor that emanated from a dish of dry ice beneath the lid.
The cocktail tasted pleasantly bitter and earthy, with soft herbal notes that balanced the zing of the gin.
It came as no surprise to me when Yin was named Asia-Pacific Bartender of the Year.
Cocktail culture is on the rise in Asia, and bartenders like Yin are leading the trend with innovative techniques and a style all their own.
“We have influences from Japan but also look to Europe or America for creative ideas,” he tells me.
“This is just the beginning. Bartenders in Asia will go a lot farther.”
Of the 16 contestants who made it through to the semifinal rounds at the World Class competition, six were from the Asia-Pacific region, and three went on to earn top honors in four categories.
Last year’s global winner, Manabu Ohtake, hails from Japan, and this year, the award went to Tim Philips of Australia.
At the bar, Marsalis, where Yin works in Taipei, the 26-year-old bartender specializes in making classic cocktails with a Taiwanese twist.
He started out as a cook, and the confidence with which he combines unusual ingredients -- like Taiwanese lily flower and Oriental Beauty tea with vodka, rum and plum liqueur -- suggests that he knows his way around a kitchen.
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Japanese bartenders have had a profound impact on the development of the profession in Asia.
Renowned for their precise technique and fastidious attention to detail, established Ginza legends such as Hisashi Kishi of Star Bar and Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five are attracting attention from the international media and helping raise the standard of bartending in countries like China and Korea.
Shigeki Yoshida, who represented Japan at the contest and ranked first in the “Cocktails Against the Clock” category, says that, while the emphasis has always been on exactitude of execution over personal charisma, some Japanese bartenders are starting to show more individual personality.
“In Japanese bartending culture, things like erect posture and perfectly straight form are considered good things, but people abroad may see this as a little unnatural or robotic,” he explains.
“If we can skillfully incorporate a little bit of Western-style bartending into the basic Japanese style, I think it would be something great to show the world.”
Yoshida oversees the bar Bellovisto, perched on the 40th floor of the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya.
When I visited him there, he treated me to the kind of impeccable hospitality that defines the Japanese bar experience.
He pulled out my chair for me and presented the menu with a flourish.
After inquiring about my drink preferences, he suggested a Caipirinha made with Don Julio Reposado tequila instead of the usual cachaca.
The jade-colored drink was simple but beautifully balanced, and Yoshida served it with a small metal instrument that resembled a miniature potato masher.
“You can use this to muddle the lime to taste,” he explains, before giving a slight bow and leaving me to enjoy the panoramic view of western Tokyo.
As I sipped my Caipirinha, Yoshida described the new drink he had developed especially for the World Class competition.
Called Fantasia, the Brazilian-inspired cocktail -- a blend of blood orange juice and tequila spiced with flambéed pineapple, cardamom and coriander -- will make its debut at Bellovisto later this summer.
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Leave it to the pros
Although major differences exist between the bar scenes in Australia and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, Global Bartender of the Year Tim Philips notes that the number of discerning drinkers is growing.
“People are taking bartending seriously as a profession,” he observes. “Pop culture has also had an influence.”
Sydney is fast becoming one of the most exciting cities for cocktails in Australia. Hemmesphere, the swanky bar where Philips made his name, is known for its extensive drinks list and plush interior.
At the moment, the 28-year-old bartender is busy preparing to open his own bar in a couple of months.
His new joint, called Bulletin Place, will feature a daily changing menu of five cocktails based on fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“We’ll take the selection process out of the customer’s hands, and they’ll have to trust that the drinks we’re serving are great,” he tells me.
It’s a daring idea, but Philips has a penchant for the unconventional.
His signature cocktail, the Reincarnation Flip, is a surprising mix of rum, Scotch and fig jam, finished with raw quail’s egg.
For the World Class competition, he devised a “drinking game of chance,” where drinkers were asked to spin a wheel to determine the ingredients (which included an array of homemade flavored syrups and ice cubes) that would go into a Scotch-based Old Fashioned.
“Drinking should be fun,” he says with a chuckle.
I couldn’t agree more. For cocktail lovers in Asia, the fun is just beginning.
Marsalis, Home Hotel 3/F, 90 SongRen Road, XinYi District, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0) 2 8789 0111; www.homehotel.com.tw
Bellovisto, Cerulean Tower Tokyo Hotel 40/F, 26-1 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan; + 81 (0) 3 3476 3000; www.ceruleantower-hotel.com
Hemmesphere, Establishment Hotel 4/F, 252 George St., Sydney, Australia; + 61 (0) 2 9240 3000; merivale.com.au
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