A View from the City: Shanghai

11 July, 2014

Vance Yeang, owner, Yuan Wine & Cocktail Lounge, Shanghai, gives us a guide to Shanghai's nightlife

Tell us about Shanghai’s drinking history

Drinking has played a big role in Chinese society throughout its 3,000 year old history.  Whether it’s a casual dinner among friends, a ceremonial marriage celebration or sealing a business deal, alcohol is the ubiquitous companion for any social occasion. 

While the Shanghainese consume their fair share of China-specific alcohol such as huangjiu (fermented rice wine) or baijiu (distilled rice wine) that can be traced back to the first century BC, it was the first city in China to be exposed to western influences after the first Opium War in 1842. This victory allowed the British, American and French to set up concessions in Shanghai and these “foreign devils” brought not only their opiates but also their spirits, opening many western-style bars, nightclubs and cabarets in the city. 

This lasted till after World War II, when the China Communist Party took over in 1949 and shut down China’s borders to foreigners. In 1978, it was reopened under Chairman Deng Xiaoping who welcomed foreign trade, reigniting the influx of western spirits in the 90s. Shanghai was again the first point of entry and today is the most cosmopolitan city in China. What this means for Shanghai is that it’s become the city in China with the widest variety of bars and clubs catering to both western and local palates. 

When did Shanghai get into cocktails? 

The cocktail culture in Shanghai started with the arrival of five-star international hotel chains in the late ’80s and early ’90s. While the clientele then was only foreigners due to restrictions on locals entering these properties, there was an awareness of cocktails. Then came the expats who opened bars to all in the late ’90s and early ’00s and this sparked a cocktail trend with bars and nightclubs sprouting all over the former French Concession. 

Initially flairing, as opposed to mixology, was the mainstay, which explains why China has its share of flair champions regionally and globally. But gradually, with training from spirits companies showcasing the unique characteristics of different types of alcohols coupled with education from veteran expat bartenders and consultants, the locals started paying more attention to what went into their drinks. The market was ripe for cocktails with Shanghai’s robust economy producing well-travelled and well-heeled consumers willing to pay a premium for a well crafted tipple.   

Who are the key players now?

In the past couple of years there have been significant openings, such El Coctel, a twist on a classic Japanese bar with electronic music as opposed to typical jazz. Then there’s Lost Heaven, a Yunnan restaurant with a bar that infuses ingredients typical of the Yunnan province, such as tamarind and cilantro, into classic cocktails.   

Personality-wise, Kin-san, who trained in Japan, is one of the pioneers of the scene. Under his tutelage, a number of his staff at Bar Constellation went on to open their own bars. He now owns four outlets in Shanghai and continues to educate aspiring bartenders. Another great bar personality is Cross Yu, formerly of the Muse group. The 2013
Diageo World Class (DWC) China Champion, Yu is also the creator of the Kung Fu shake, breaking out of the typical methods of shaking passed down from western or Japanese bartenders. 

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