The Spirit Level Of Pote Lee Has Never Been Higher
Despite a strong presence in Bangkok’s food and beverage industry, Pote Lee, founder of the restaurant group that includes Water Library, the Hong Bao chain and his own Hainanese chicken rice outlet, only entered the business 13 years ago. He was 57 years old at the time. Now in his seventh decade, the Myanmar-Thai dual national came to Thailand when he was 21 to take up a scholarship at the Asian Institute of Technology and graduated in 1974 with a master’s degree in water resource engineering. He then spent eight years as a research associate at the institute before taking up an opportunity to open a bookshop and nascent publishing operation. These he astutely transitioned to the world of digital publishing and library information/automation services in the late 1980s, building a multi-million dollar business group in the process.
But how did he become a restaurateur? “It’s all the fault of water and wine,” the jovial Lee laughs. “Believe it or not, I had never consumed alcohol before 2003 but then I tried red wine—really good red wine that is—and I was hooked. I was 53, I had the money and so I started collecting, particularly top Californian wines. I’d already opened a small business importing and distributing rare mineral waters, so I had the channels and model. Then I figured I needed my own restaurant in which to enjoy them and that led to Water Library at Chamchuri Square, which opened in 2008. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since—both in opening and growing the subsequent restaurants and in developing my own appreciation of good food, wine and now whisky.”
A self-confessed late starter, Lee first tried refined spirits four years ago and while it wasn’t love at first sip, he says he has come to love the complexity of a rare whisky and delights in being able to pick out the tasting notes in a top tipple. And with son Noppadon and daughter Chidpim taking on more responsibility for the various information technology and food-related companies in the family’s diverse business group, their father is dedicating more time to his favourite tipple—“in a wholesome way or course!”
“When you talk about whisky, everyone thinks of the top single malts, particularly those from Scotland and their provenance, but great whiskies are being made all over the world. Just look at Japan,” he says. “Even a quaffing brand like Johnny Walker has a tale to tell. Few people, for example, are aware that it is a blend of grain whisky and single malt. I like discovering details like this and have been thinking of implementing a whisky appreciation course for others to enjoy the drink.”
Dynamic when it comes to growing ideas into reality, Lee is serious about the endeavour and says he has been preparing for a time in the near future when life allows for normal international interaction and discourse. In the meantime he has been applying himself to studying up on his latest passion. “Well, I’ve been drinking a lot!” he chuckles. “Seriously, meticulous research is a must.” So much so that he has been buying casks from Japan and Scotland, also studying bottling there as well as experimenting with ageing. “That’s the key really. It’s all about the age and the casks, the wood of the barrels. We’ll be starting the whisky appreciation courses as soon as we can at Water Library for friends to begin with. You are invited of course,” he grins.
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