Fancy Cocktails in Shanghai
There are only so many 50-cent cans of Tsingtao or dusty, green bottles of dirt-cheap baijiu that can be tolerated before one needs to up the ante and start raiding better-stocked liquor cabinets. Doing that can be risky in China’s backpacker-friendly bars, but I was in Shanghai.
Twice I had stayed in a hostel located just outside the city’s French Concession where I heard the same story. “I didn’t mean to have stayed here so long, but I’m stuck because I booked flights ahead of time. It’s just too expensive!” They were frantic and correct: for a thrifty traveler, the cosmopolitan city does not have much to offer. Shanghai is all about sinking cash at trendy restaurants, shopping for high fashion, and drinking a proper cocktail that could easily cost more than a week’s worth of soup dumplings.
But you only live once, right?
For $17 or less—the amount of cash easily spent on a specialty cocktail in New York City—you can walk away with an expertly prepared, elaborately decorated tiki drink. For $12 or less, you can do all of your whiskey-sipping in a room slyly hidden behind a secret door that looks like an old-fashioned Coca Cola machine.
Yet if one is to come all the way to China to drop money on a drink, I suggest trying cocktails you will not be able to find elsewhere, ones that incorporate a glimmer of China itself. That’s why at almost 1 am on a Friday night in April, I found myself not at a club nursing rum and cokes, but at Union Trading Company. There, chef Austin Hu and master mixologist Yao Lu bring not only delectable innovation to a lengthy libation menu, but in several cocktail creations, a Chinese-inspired spin.
When I visited, hawthorn fruit was just one of several ingredients lending the drink list a dose of local flavor. “The Shanghai Breakfast,” which paired rum and Scotch with a black sesame and walnut puree, was a perfect statement of the bar’s philosophy. Now, Union is in summer mode, and Lu uses locally sourced grapes and jam made from Chinese goji berries. The jam is shaken with muddled fruit and sage, plus brandy, vermouth, lime, and crushed ice. He dubs it “Planet of the Grapes.” I had to try it, and no thinning pocketbook was going to stop me.
Photo credit: Edna Zhou