An Incomplete Guide to Shanghai Cocktails (narrated by a local)
I was delighted to be at DMBA last Sunday - to witness and celebrate Chinese "Cocktail Oscar", and to reunite with many of my "long lost" friends, namely the men and women tending bars across the city. Despite my limited cocktail bar visits in the past few months (as I've been spliting my alcohol quota between wine and cocktails), I'm proud to admit that I've probably defeated 99% of the people in Shanghai on one things, total Bar Visits in the past two years...
Returning from one of the world's cocktail capitals, a.k.a. New York, I once considered my coming home as the end of my glorious drinking life. But soon, I figured that ingredient is far less a limiting factor in mixology compared to, say, food. Rather, finding a right bardender is the key, and the toughest of all.
I've met those old-school trained bartenders with hundreds of recipes memorized. They talk to you, care about you in the way an old friend does, only hoping to serve you the right choice; I've also known reputable award winners practice relentelessly, cudgel their brains for ideas day and night; those who keep a notebook in pockets wherever they go, so they can keep track of any instincts that hit their mind...
Here we are
Some of the bar stories I could remember
To the drinks and the people I love
1. Sober Company 2. El Ocho 3. Bar XYZ 4. Southern Cross 5. Union Trading Co. 6. Barules 7. E.P.I.C. 8. The Cannery 9. Second Moment 10. JZ Club 11. Portman Ritz Calrton 12. Long Bar at Waldorf Astoria
1. Sober Company
Address：2F, No 99/105 Yandang Rd (Nanchang Rd)
Honestly speaking, I like Sober Company a lot more than its sought-after sister bar Speak Low. I mean, it's all personal. Being THE SPOT in Shanghai that reminds me of New York so readily, Sober Company, in my eyes, is probably a loveletter to NYC from Shingo.
My personal favorite is the Sober Society on second floor. Modeled after Angel's Share in NYC, this area compacts into a cozy rectangular space, tin ceilings reflect dim lights throughout the chamber, soft jazz music penetrates the crowds' whispers... It's a small zone where you can be comfortably seated at the bar, empty minded, while quietly sipping from your glass, all by yourself.
Skipping introduction to the acquainted Atsushi, behind the bar is Kazuhisa Arai from Japan, now one of my favorite bartenders in Shanghai. During peak hours, you can enjoy his sleek performance art through hundreds of cocktails. I'll put it this way, if you close your eyes, the meer sound of him shaking the mixer, is a luxury show on its own. Battle-hardened like a composed veteran, each and every drink from Kazu showcases consistent expertise.
I hit it off with Kazu right away. Then it occurred to me he was the World Champion of Jameson competition 2015, so I proceeded to ask for trying his winning recipe. A bit startled by the request, he paused and said "hold on", quickly disappeared to downstairs. 10 minutes later he came back with a glass in hand, containing some tea leaves, freshly toasted with warm fragrance.
"I'm gonna infuse Jameson with it. I wasn't prepared so I get some toasted just now."
Feel free to consider "Take a Break" a twisted Sour, that magically hits you with some inexplicit savoriness. While left mystified, I was handed by Kazu a small pack of wood sticks - the kind of cypress that Japanese use to build traditional bathtubs. Kazu turned these woodsy, refreshing cypress into syrup, then incorporated it into frothy eggwhite foam which created a sweet, lasting finish. "Take a break" with all the lavendar bitters, and the aroma of tea and forest lingering in your nosetip, enjoy a nerve-soothing bathtime escape.
Good news: you can now take your break, it's off menu!
All other drinks on the list are absolutely great!! Cheesy "Blue in Green " and smokey "God Father" served with Prociutto rolls are two of my frequent hits.
Sober Cafe on the first floor transports you to a street corner in West Village. Relatively simple and classic cocktails (Negroni and etc...) are reasonably priced. For a while I always came in the afternoons, replenishing creative juice with Espresso Martini while working on the next story.
The bartender Roger is as well from Japan, spent two years in Taiwan, who's fluent in both Mandarin (with hint of a Taiwan accent) and English. Roger used to work at Alchemy, solid techniques speak through the drinks.
Another highlight at Sober Cafe is their abundunt choice of Soft Serve ice cream. I would often get a bite after dinner and head upstairs right after.
The restaurant part was inspired by the original Manhattan Chinatown. Replica of the signature Chinatown mosaic station sign (found in the subway station) cuts me off from Shanghai for a moment as I stare down from the window. The menu, used to be Chinese-American style, was recently upgraded (I heard it tastes better now). Drinks are skewed sweet, but each one is named after a place in New York, High Line, Nolita - nostalgia kills.
Oh and the bathroom door says Attaboy (the most famous speakeasy till this date) and Attagirl. I almost burst into tears at first sight.
2. El Ocho
Address：Zhang Plaza, 3/F, 99 Taixing Rd (Near W. Nanjing Rd)
If you know me long enough, you probably remember the Sakura Martini from El Ocho I once wrote about. Fresh off the plane 2 years ago, I ran into this place clueless, looking for some alcohol to please my soul.
Concealed in the third floor of Zhang Plaza, the loft of El Ocho takes up most of the attic space. Leather armchairs, Pop Art posters, Retro hit songs from the 7,8, 90s (David Bowie, The Cure, Depeche Mode, the Human League...), and vintage wooden structure occupy this never dated bar in an overwhelming style. On wooden beams the shelves, you can spot Mario and My Little Pony scattered around, carried back by the boss from Japan, each engraved with signatures and doodles from frequent customers.
Guess what? I have a PONY!!! (and that's a MANHATTAN tatto instead of a Martini)
TK, the man tending the bar with Mario mustache, is probably one of the most underestimated bartenders in town. He would spend hours and hours making tomato water, mix them with Shitake or Sakura Shrimp infused vodka, in seeking of the perfect Bloody Mary formula. And obviously, being his most cooperative custromer, I feel very honored to have been the little lab rat of many TK's creations.
So many stories went on here. TK's Whisky Sour and Espresso Martini were among the best ones in town. But it's been a long time I haven't had them.
El Ocho shares a kitchen with Tomatito downstairs, both being brainchilds of the El Willy Group. Bar snacks here are impressive, and make sure you try fried chicken! Done in Japanese way, served with Western dip, large portion with good price, satisfaction guaranteed!
I've also heard good things from friends about the nextdoor Oji, but I still have never been. Why? I'm having so much fun with Ocho already!
3. Bar XYZ
Address：384 Dagu Rd (Near N. Chengdu Rd)
Just a few street down from El Ocho, Bar XYZ on Dagu Rd is often my second stop after Ocho and final destination of the night.
The name XYZ, taken from the classic cocktail XYZ, is the owner's favorite. Important tips: Stick with the classics at Bar XYZ, DO NOT get creative . The owner Wei Ming, who honed his skills under the lengendary Kin-san from renowned industry instituion Costellation, cultivated a flock of fans here at his own bar. Even till this date, XYZ is the first place to go when I crave a really well made Martini (or Dirty Martini).
Though Wei Ming is my Martini guy, most of the drinks I had here came from the hands of Yang Hua. Precision, seriousness, he interited these characters from his teacher, Japanese mixologist Kobayashi Kiyotaka. For a while I had a mania for Untouchable, the winning piece of Kobayashi in the 90s - a perfect unique balance between Whisky, Rum, Cassis liqueur and grapefruit juice.
The most exciting of all was when two of them having a Dirty Martini battle. One stirring the other shaking...Guess which one I liked better?
Consistency and well-trained staff is another plus. I hopped into XYZ last Chinese New Year with friends and was greeted by an unfamiliar face who looked like he's never made a drink before. I gave it a thought but took a seat anyway.
Got a Whisky Sour, got a Singapore Sling, and the movement of shakers was a testament of hard work. Deeply Impressed by both, then another go-around...I heard that this "doorkeeper" boy Danny has officially become a bartender now. What a great news!
4. Southern Cross
Address：1276 Middle Huai Hai Rd (Near Huating Rd)
Southern Cross has my heart and soul. It was the place that inspired me the most during my early drinking days, and the spot where a group of old friends and I always gathered.
Those who used to drink with me are now living different lives scattered all around the world. Kiefer, who had been at the wheel here for a good 7, 8 years, has recently started his new career in Beijing. While he was here, I never went anywhere else in Shanghai for Perfect Manhattan.
But Luckily we still have Kevin. On countless Sunday evenings knowing Kiefer was not there, I would still walk into this bar, asking Kevin to make me a mix. And, I wonder, if the special Goji Sour that meant so much to me still tastes the same.
A good bar not only stays in your mind, it becomes a part of your life.
5. Union Trading Co.
Address：No. 2, Ln 64, Fenyang Rd (Near Middle Fuxing Rd)
Whenever I have friends who prefer cocktails to wine visiting, it's either Sober or Union Trading Co that come across my mind. Union is the most "American" bar in Shanghai that does not lose quality for vibe.
Yao and I somehow clicked right away like some long-time friends. His cocktails are always right on the spot. Seriously, you are gonna waste yourself with drinks, one after another till the bar closes.
The Union Trading Co. is one of the few bars in Shanghai, where anyone behind the counter excel in their jobs. Excellent standardization that I never pointed at a specific person to make my drink.
But I'd be more delightfully gulping the drinks down if they were made by Lucky!
The bar food here, some high satiety, calorie-loaded American snacks, are customized by the beloved Austin Hu. I would only order the deep-fried chicken fillets now since I'm on a diet and it's mostly protein, less guilty if you forget about the tempting batter coating outside.
Address：51 Fenyang Rd (Near Middle Fuxing Rd)
I'm not a regular visitor at Barules simply because their seating situation is often a bit too crowded. Started by the former bartender of Malt Fun Sam Kuan, this gem is hidden behind a well-camouflaged telephone booth. So Londony.
Londony...in fact another reason why I don't visit often. (Too much time in New York eh! )
An architect friend from Beijing that introduced me Sam's marvelous Dry Martini. Then it was a Monday a few weeks later that I went harsh on an unfamiliar bartender, asking for 2 off-menu classics (one of them being Clover Club). Impeccable, as the first time, that you can even interpret the personality of the maker.
Also, Barules had already been a reknowned Guest Bartending vendor hub in Shanghai, long before some hotel bars in Shanghai started their Guest Bartending Sessions. Sam works his arse off to provide you with an array of world mixology without throwing you on a plane.
Also, in a week's time, Barules is releasing its fall/winter menu serving double digit number of new cocktails...here's a sneak peak, care for a drink or two?
Address：17 Gaoyou Rd (Near W. Fuxing Rd)
The very last well-known, long-standing cocktail bar I visited in Shanghai.
I totally admire Cross, a true drama king! Devoured Four cocktails on my first trip, I was blown away by this guy's improvised creativity. Plus, he's definitely solid on the classics side. Cross was the first person that ever shakened my stubborn antipathy towards shakened Dirty Martini.
Somehow we started talking about "the first drinks", and it seemed like everyone started their cocktail journeys from nightclubs or liveshows. When I told him that "I've never had a good Cosmopolitan", this character blew my mind again with a glass of supposedly generic classic cocktail nicely executed.
Considering the hustle of this place, plus its popular location (Former French Concession), book your seats ahead of time!
8. The Cannery
Address：1107 Yuyuan Rd
The Cannery is the ONLY bar that I've ever covered with an entire piece of review (hit the link!), and my second Homebar since El Ocho.
I'm totally a fan of the bartender boys at the bar. Excellent mixology sold at very friendly prices. And go for the creative ones, why the hell do you get a martini in such creative bar?
The Cannery (and the Nest which I haven't been to many times) has my favorite songlist in town, fitting my taste so well as if it's the straight copy of my Spotify library! A little noisy though, and you have to yell there, but it all evens out with the advantages.
As for food, the indoor campfire for grilled fish is a wonder in the Shanghai F&B scene, and thus never miss the Salmon!
9. Second Moment
Address：71 Wuyuan Rd (Changshu Rd Metro Station)
After the closure of buisness at the beloved Tailor Bar, people had been looking forward to this low-key cocktail bar secretly sitting behind the...restroom of Spicy Moment, a Hunan Restaurant. Second Moment is a no-frills filled with interesting crowd every day, so expect to spend your entire stay here standing. The owner and my friend David used to inebriate me with his delicious Vesper, but...i'll confess, I've never got a chance to visit his other bar, Above the Globe.
Shame on me!
I'd call Second Moment one of my preferred hangouts within walking distance from my house.
10. JZ Club
Address：B1/F, 158 Julu Rd (Near Ruijin Yi Rd)
Are you surprised that a Jazz Club popped up in my bar list?
I would never recommend it if it sucks.
I sort of wore the Taiwanese barternder Yuzu out the last time there. Knowing that he used to apprentice under the reputable Nick Wu, I pushed him all the way from Perfect Mahattan, Ramos Gin Fizz, to Last Word, Hanky Panky and something I dont quite remember...
And? Well the conclusion is that I finally got a decent place to do music and drinking at the same time.
11. The Ritz Bar&Lounge
Address：Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, 2/F, 1376 Nanjing Xi Rd (Near Xikang Rd)
The re-vamped Ritz Bar & Lounge became so far the most eye-catching lobby bar in SH. Hosted numerous Guest Sessions starting from this year, including Black Tail from New York and the latest Erik Lorincz (American Bar, Savoy Hotel), the place far exceeds the Guest Session experience from a next door hotel from years ago.
The signature Dry Martini from American Bar I had a couple days ago truly lived up to its name.
During the breaks of guest sessions, it's always a good place to chat and chill with friends while enjoying Jackel's specialty cocktails.
12. Long Bar at Waldorf Astoria
Address：Waldorf Astoria, Heritage Building, Lobby Level, 2 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (Near Guangdong Rd)
If you have a spur-of-the-moment craving for cocktails after a nice meal on the Bund, Flair in Ritz-Carlton Pudong is probably the best choice to get a good view of the city, but Long Bar at Walforf would be the righteous place to get a sip.
Well from today on, maybe the Nest next time...
I ran into the book promotion by Frank Caiafa, the author of Waldorf Astoria Bar Book & the former New York Waldorf Bar Director. Had a perfect Rum-based Manhattan and, BOOM...I bought two books at a time, one for myself and the other for a young bartender that I adore (guess who?)
An Ideal area frequently perfected by jazz performances. A tough French boy is said to be helming the bar currently, planning to pay another visit soon.
Written by Xiaoyi Liu aka 喜北
Translated to English by Judy