Dispatch: Where to Drink in Shanghai

6 spots to go for a top-notch cocktail

By Fiona Reilly

Published on August 12, 2015

The Union Trading Company, Shanghai
The Union Trading Company, Shanghai

Shanghai is one of the world’s most exciting cocktail cities, a humming metropolis of glittering high-rise bars and intimate speakeasies filled with a savvy, cosmopolitan crowd. You are as likely to rub shoulders with a Chinese eco-entrepreneur as an American designer or French photographer on location. Shanghai’s cocktail scene has long sought inspiration from abroad, notably New York, Tokyo, Taipei, and London. But the city’s own cocktail culture has now come of age. A new wave of homegrown Chinese bartenders is emerging, using unique local ingredients to make creations with a sophisticated Chinese accent.

Aromatics used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries—zesty green Sichuan pepper, honey-sweet osmanthus blossoms, cassia bark, and Chinese cardamom—are now finding their way into complex, layered cocktails along with fruits like mulberry-purple yang mei, goji berries, and lychee. Chinese wines and spirits have found a place in the cocktail maker's lexicon, too, with grain liquor baijiu and smooth amber haungjiu rice wine adding intriguing new flavor to cocktail classics. Shanghai bartender and cocktail competition judge Yao Lu has noticed the trend, too, saying of recent national cocktail bartending championships, "just like in Chinese cuisine there were huge regional variations in the cocktails—spices and mala (the numbing spice of Sichuan pepper) in Chengdu, tropical fruits in southern Guangzhou, classic elegant ingredients in Shanghai and heavy syrups and liqueurs from the colder northern climate in Beijing."

Here’s where to meet the next generation of cocktail makers and try a taste of something new, in six Shanghai bars of note.

The Tailor Bar
Upstairs from a traditional Chinese medicine shop, the scent of ginseng and dried herbs wafts through this tiny bar with a spectacular view over the glittering golden pagodas of Jing'an Temple. Owner Eddy Yang, considered by many as the godfather of the Shanghai cocktail scene, is a perfectionist who considers every aspect of a cocktail, down to the water his ice is made from and the exquisitely cut crystal glassware. (When Yang became dissatisfied with locally available tonic water, he distilled his own quinine syrup for a more authentic tasting gin and tonic.) When you sit down for a drink, he might ask, "How are you feeling? Energetic? Relaxed? Mellow?" His question is less to determine the state of your well-being and more to tailor a cocktail to your mood and the exact moment. There's no menu, just a delightful conversation.

4th Floor, 2 Huashan Rd, Jing'an, Shanghai, China
+86 183 0197 7360

Taste Buds Cocktail Palace, Shanghai
Taste Buds Cocktail Palace, Shanghai

Taste Buds Cocktail Palace
Inside his intimate, jewel-like bar in the former French Concession, owner-bartender Daniel An is exploring Chinese ingredients not usually seen in cocktails—Yunnan rose powder, osmanthus blossom honey, and oolong tea infusions. Try the Taste of Mulata, inspired by spiced chocolate cake and the classic Cuban Mulata cocktail with aged rum and creme de cacao. It's made with Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva 12 year old rum infused with chile and Sichuan pepper, dark chocolate syrup, lime, basil, and a dash of chocolate bitters. The initial sharp sour lime and basil yields to a long mellow finish of chocolate and chile.

2nd Floor, 368 Wukang Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai
+86 13 8180 21597
Open nightly from 6pm

The Union Trading Company
Chinese-Americans Austin Hu and Yao Lu front The Union Trading Company, a narrow two-story space in the heart of the former French Concession. Hu serves up classic bar food with a twist, such as blue cheese-stuffed fried olives and Scotch quail eggs, while Yao presides over the inspired cocktail list. "At the end of the day, my job is to make people walk out of here happier than when they walked in," says Yao.

Try Yao's Bad Poet, with osmanthus blossom wine, Old Tom gin, pressed lemon, rose petal syrup, orange bitters, and rose water. The rose and osmanthus combine to give a floral bouquet and sweet finish, and yes, you'll walk out happy.

Building 2, 64 Fenyang Lu (entrance on Fuxing Zhong Lu), Xuhui district, Shanghai
+86 21 6418 3077
Open Mon-Sat from 6pm. Closed Sundays

Speak Low, Shanghai
Speak Low, Shanghai

Speak Low
Shanghai's best speakeasy is found behind a secret bookshelf inside a cocktail supply store. The shelf slides open to reveal a hidden passage leading to a cozy wood-paneled room with pressed tin ceilings, a jazz vibe, and an impeccably dressed cocktail bartender. Head bartender Atsushi Suzuki, formerly of Japanese-influenced Angel's Share in New York, brings with him an exemplary cocktail pedigree. "Bartending culture in Japan comes from the precision and elegance of the traditional tea ceremony, and Chinese tea and cocktail culture is very similar." Their top summer cocktail is the Serenity Royal, with lychee-cello (lychee infused citrus vodka), raspberry sorbet, pink grapefruit juice, and Perrier-Jouet champagne.

579 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu, Huangpu district
+86 21 6416 0133
Open daily from 6pm

Enter through a London red telephone booth into this bar mixing classics and unique new blends for a local Chinese crowd. Barules has a deft touch for incorporating Chinese wines and spirits in their cocktails. The much-maligned baijiu, or clear sorghum liquor, normally drunk as shots, has a strong taste that can be difficult to harness in a cocktail. But at Barules they know good quality baijiu has a refined side, with a floral aroma that pairs well with citrus and fruit, or a savory aroma that blends well with herbs and chile.

51 Fenyang Lu, Xuhui District, Shanghai
+86 138 1713 1574
Open nightly from 8pm

"In Shanghai you have to connect with a global audience," says Epic's bartender and owner Cross Yu. He sees cocktails in China progressing in the same way as food, with an emphasis not only on taste but also quality and freshness of ingredients, presentation, provenance, and texture.

In Epic's industrial loft-style space Cross is using shiso-infused gin. "Most people think of shiso as Japanese, but it's native to China and very Chinese—zi su leaves are used in tea and Chinese medicine." Cross effortlessly crosses cultures to combine these Japanese and Chinese references into his Umeko cocktail, inspired by the memory of a salty plum candy from Japan. Dry gin, sloe gin, lime juice, grenadine and violet liqueur are topped with the salty crunch of a fried shiso leaf crisp.

17 Gaoyou Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu, Xuhui district
+86 21 5411 1189
Open nightly from 6pm

Epic, Shanghai
Epic, Shanghai

Fiona Reilly is a food and travel writer specializing in China. She divides her time between Shanghai and Australia, trawling the streets for good eats and great stories.

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