Plenty more fish in the sea

07 April, 2014

Hamish Smith was a judge at the China Master Bartender Competition that took place last week at Hotelex Shanghai’s That’s Spirits exhibition

THE TWO TROPICAL FISH that accessorised the blue curacao cocktail that was served to me, may or may not now be dead.

Blinking hard and making sharp circles of the base of their little glass home, they looked despairingly at me as I watched on. I prayed that fish do indeed have the mental capacity for only three seconds of cognition. Any longer and this unfortunate pair might have taken their chances with the carpet.

Perhaps they were just grateful not be the grasshoppers that formed the crushed grasshopper rim of a drink made by the competition’s Mexican bartender, one of a handful of imports to what is now probably China’s biggest independent cocktail contest.

This was not a competition for animal lovers. It was though a competition that told us what we can expect from China when it develops into a force in world cocktail culture. With its unparalleled expertise in food’s weird and wonderful, expect China to bring something quite different to the mix.

It is said China learns quickly - and it is true. Certainly those with ten or so years in China have gleaned a better understanding of the word expeditious. In that period, or less, Shanghai has gone from one classic cocktail bar  - namely Kin San’s Constellation - to a dozen serving drinks of international quality.

During the intervals of judging CMBC, I took time out to ask some onlookers what they thought of China’s cocktail progression. “If you came here five years ago you would have been appalled,” said Magnus of liqueurs brand Primet.  ”But they have had a lot of training by brands and now and they are picking it up quickly.”

Derick Lee, president of IBA, also among the throng watching CMBC, offered some international context. “China’s bartenders are behind because the economy was slow to open up here. But they have lots of potential. In only a few years they will be on a par with international bartenders.”

But as Dario Gentile, bar manager at Shanghai’s 15-15 West Shangri-La told me later that night, Chinese bartenders must make sure they learn their craft and not get too hooked on the idea of celebrity mixology. He urges his staff to build their skills from the bottom up, not the top down.

Generally speaking Chinese bartenders take their influence from Japan. But there is a growing feeling among the country’s international drinks contingent that they should not just imitate the Japanese style – which prioritises skills over service - but create their own.

This thinking is catching. Vance Yeang has recently opened Yuan Oyster and Cocktail Lounge in Shanghai’ s French Concession. He has taken classics and given them locally-inspired embellishments. He has even proved that baijiu can happily exist in cocktails – not an easy task.  His second bar will follow this year.

Cross Yu, Lounge Bar manager of Muse on The Bund in Shanghai is one of China’s better-known 'tenders, and has represented China at Diageo’s World Class. He is also an innovator - more recently with the Kung Fu Shake (which has to be seen to be understood). He is another example of Chinese bartenders, innovating, not imitating and bringing a Chinese flavour to proceedings.

Yu’s best student is Billy Liu, who back at CMBC is taking the crown. Liu was one of five finalists to exhibit a cogent grasp of the classics but also an ability to inject their own style, Chinese or otherwise. Three of the final's five drinks would grace any menu – and by this stage of the competition not a fish or grasshopper was in sight. One can only imagine that there is plenty more talent like this is the ocean of unexplored potential that is China.

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