The natural starting point for any night out in Shanghai – whether you’re on a whisky pilgrimage or not – is the city’s famous waterfront area and beating heart, known as the Bund.
That’s where the Society’s China team is meeting up with four local SMWS members for a city-wide whisky tour, in search of Shanghai’s best bars, food and the soul of the city.
Joining our single malt mission are members Tao Ran, an expert in Chinese tea and teaware; Li Qi, a whisky and tea connoisseur; and Yin Li and Chen Kun, who are both lawyers. Along with myself, Christina Leung and Polly Chen from the Society’s Shanghai branch are here to lead the tour.
The Bund is a must-see landmark for anyone visiting Shanghai. It’s renowned for its grand, western-style buildings that were built between 1920 and 1936, including the famous China Baptist Building, Lyceum Building and Capitol Theatre. Nowadays, these imposing historical buildings provide the backdrop for Shanghai’s upscale bars and restaurants. A short walk from the start of the Bund brings you along the Huangpu River, where there are more than 20 buildings of different periods, countries and styles, so it’s a living example of international architecture.
This side of the Huangpu River is elegant and refined, while across the shore Shanghai bristles with the ‘new’ China – an ever-changing cityscape of towers, skyscrapers and high-rise blocks, presenting an impressive view from the Bund. If we needed any reminder of how fast the country is changing, it’s right here in front of us. The whisky scene is developing pretty quickly as well.
Need to know
Shanghai is home to around 24 million people, and is one of the country’s top economic and trade centres. It has a hot, humid summer, with August temperatures as high as 34-38 degrees Celsius (where ageing whisky could be quite efficient, and angels would steal a huge share). Winter temperatures range from 0 to 5 degrees, with rainy weather somewhat similar to Scotland.
1945 Chinese Tavern, Huangpu district
Shanghai has experienced a recent squall of wind and rain, and the sky hangs over us like a wet concrete dome, reflecting the city’s lights and seeming to emphasise the hustle and bustle of the traffic. In weather like this, a glass of whisky is a kind of redemption.
We find it in our first stop of the evening, at 1945 Chinese Tavern.
When we enter this paradise, the first thing we are greeted by are two towering golden bird cages in the entrance hall of the bar. A pair of exquisite white munias, small finchlike Asian birds, are coupled up between the branches, singing out their own wonderful welcome.
The bar’s interior drips with romance, the perfect place for an early-evening cocktail. The cocktails at 1945 Chinese Tavern are made with a base of Chinese liquor, both baijiu and huangjiu. The bar also provides extensive tasting flights of Chinese wine.
For non-Chinese speakers, don’t worry – the cocktail list comes in both Chinese and English, although the English names have been adapted into the sometimes strangely mixed up language known as ‘Chinglish’. For example, Only know one? No. No. No. Know two! is named after the cocktail’s complex, recurring aroma: the first sip is typically huangjiu, but each subsequent sip reveals an extra and moreish rich layer of sweetness.
Lost in heaven is served in a ceramic tea bowl, which itself is placed in a delicate miniature bird cage. The drink has a dominant passion fruit fragrance, with its baijiu base completely integrated into the tropical fruit sweetness. A pink pepper taste stands out and it has a fine aftertaste, with a lingering subtle spiciness.
The most popular cocktail among our members this evening – which tastes better than it sounds – is No sweet sweat? No sweet. The sweet and bittersweet cocktail has a baijiu base paired with Cointreau, coffee and caramel, with aromas that would be familiar in most people’s lives. Certainly tonight we all find some connection with its name – Christina associates it with sweating in the gym, while for Tao Ran it brings to mind hard work and harvest time.
Drink like a local
Baijiu: China’s national liquor, distilled with grain as its raw material and said to have existed as far back as the Tang dynasty over 1,000 years ago. Baijiu is transparent and can be divided into varieties according to the type of aroma. Its aroma is completely derived from the fermentation of the raw material and it will generally not be cask-aged. Its strength is comparable with whisky, from around 40 to more than 60% abv.
Huangjiu: rice wine produced not by distillation but by fermentation, mainly with rice as its raw material. It is categorised by region or sugar content and tastes a bit like fino or amontillado sherry. Popular especially in southern Chinese cities, including Shanghai. Less fiery than baijiu, generally with less than 20% abv.
Maison à 3, French Concession
After our appetising and intriguing cocktails, the party moves on to dine at the Maison à 3 in the city’s French Concession, 45 minutes’ journey from the Bund. Central Shanghai can be extremely hectic during rush hour, and finding a taxi is even more of a challenge in bad weather. That’s no problem though – the best way to get around is to take one of the city’s 18 fast and efficient subway lines, which can whisk you to any destination with four miles for only 3 yuan, the equivalent of 33p. If you’re feeling adventurous, bicycles are also convenient for short routes, with public bikes available in most areas in the city. But riding bikes on the busy streets of Shanghai without segregated bike lanes could be a test for your bike skills – even more so after a few whiskies.
The French Concession
This area of Shanghai was founded as an area administered by the French government from 1849 until it was returned to Chinese rule in 1943. By the 1920s, it had developed into one of the most desirable residentials areas of the city, and continues to be prized for its European-style mansions, parks and wide streets. It’s now renowned for its designer shops, cafes, restaurants and of course bars of every description.
The neon streets flow like ocean currents, and we swarm through the traffic like fish until we reach the bar. Maison à 3 is a solid choice for an outstanding introduction to Shanghai cuisine. The restaurant serves a mouth-watering fusion of Chinese and western dishes, and there’s also a wide selection of single malts available – not only in the lobby but also in the private VIP lounge, with more than 400 bottles of whisky.
We start with some food – classic Sichuan and Chongqing dishes of spicy chicken and duck tongue, served with dried red chilli peppers. The spicy chicken is chopped into pieces then marinated with rice wine, stir-fried with red pepper, onions and peanuts. The meat is deliciously tender, and the duck tongue is crisp and flavoursome.
The Shanghainese take their food very seriously, from cheap and tasty street specialities to the highest of high-end restaurants. Some of the city’s favourite dishes include:
蟹肉小笼 (Xie Rou Xiao Long / Crab meat dumplings): Crab roe, pork, and pork skin wrapped in an extremely thin dough and steamed to perfection.
生煎包 (Sheng jian bao / pan-fried pork buns): These have a thicker skin, and are baked in a large pan until the dough is gold and crispy, then sprinkled with sesame seeds – a favourite breakfast snack for Shanghainese.
四喜烤麸 (Si Xi Kao Fu / Lucky baked bran dough): Baked bran is a must for every household in Shanghai. It’s porous like a sponge, with a soft and elastic taste. Usually eaten accompanied by golden cabbage, mushrooms, peanut and sweet sauce.
糖醋小排 (Tang Cu Xiao Pai / Sweet and sour pork ribs): Pork ribs with sweet and sour sauce, tasty without being oily.
响油鳝丝 (Xiang You Shan Si / Rice field eel): A finless eel cooked with pepper and scallion, the meat is firm and resilient.
酱爆牛蛙 (Jiang Bao Niu Wa / Sauce-fried bullfrog): A soft and tender meat, very big in Shanghai.
After dinner, the copper-clad doors to the VIP floors slip silently into the walls, and a ribbon of light moves along the zigzagging stairway wall, like torches leading the way to the treasury within.
French artist Marcel Duchamp said his best work of art was his life. On the VIP floor, our group gets a glimpse into how Shanghainese live their lives as fine art. The wide windows are lined with irresistible sofas, the sparse lighting leaves a deep, soothing glow, and the glass window at the end of the room is home to a vast collection of whisky bottles that reflect their light on the walls like jewels.
Among these treasures, the waiter serves us a glass of Cask No. 4.245: Barnacles on a ship’s oar as an after-dinner drink. “The dram transports me to a windy coastline,” says Li Qi. That leads to a discussion of the type of cask used to mature this bottling. Christina tells us that the whisky’s flavour has 10 main factors, with the first five determined by the distillation process and the second five shaped over the years of maturation in the barrel. The distillation process determines the gene of a whisky, she says, while the cask maturation is similar to its education and culture. How the spirit absorbs the influences of the oak barrel also depends on the quality and characteristics of the new make spirit itself.
The cosiness of Maison a 3 and our shared reflections on the whisky’s birth and upbringing make it hard to leave, but night is falling and it’s time to head off to our next destination.
Bar Constellation, French Concession
This time we don’t have far to go, making for the nearby Bar Constellation, which is tucked away among the restaurants and shops of Xinle Road in the French Concession. It’s well worth searching out – Bar Constellation is not only the oldest whisky bar in Shanghai, it’s the first dedicated whisky bar in the whole country. If you’re struggling to find it, follow your nose for the fragrance of single malt.
The bar owner is Jin Zhong Lei, better known by his Japanese nickname Kin San. He has worked in the industry for over 25 years, and returned to Shanghai after working in Japan. He started Bar Constellation in 2000, and since then it has become famous for its classic cocktail and amazing whisky collection. The bar now stocks more than 500 bottles, among them a bottling from the Karuizawa Geisha collection valued at £160,000.
Perhaps because of Kin San’s background working in bars in Japan, when Constellation first opened, most of the guests were Japanese who were either working in or visiting Shanghai. The decorative style harks back to the prohibition period, while the thoughtful approach to hospitality and service, and the classic Japanese-style cocktails, all reflect the profile of an upmarket Japanese bar. But after more than a decade, cocktails and whisky have finally gained a foothold in China, and Bar Constellation is a whisky bar that almost every drinker in the country has heard of.
Not long after we take our seats on a burgundy red leather sofa, a stocky figure flashes into the dimly lit interior. Kin San himself is a walking encyclopaedia of whisky in all its forms and variations. He was recognised as a Keeper of the Quaich in 2018, and is frequently on the road preaching the whisky gospel. Tonight is his first night back in Shanghai from his most recent trip to Scotland.
Kin San joins our party and recalls how independent bottlings didn’t interest him when he started getting into the whisky world. Christina tells us when they first met – on the way to do a whisky education course in Scotland – he showed what she remembers as a “sniffy, disdainful” contempt for the SMWS.
“Kin San’s uncompromising personality would never allow him to pay an insincere compliment,” she says. But during the course in Scotland, all of the students came to The Vaults in Leith and had a short tasting of SMWS single cask, single malts. At the table, this connoisseur suddenly saw the light, praising the SMWS whisky and admitting that the Society had managed to change his long-held view.
Tao Ran agrees that although many Chinese whisky drinkers are still waiting to experience their own epiphany for single cask, single malt whisky, the numbers are likely to increase. If even someone as headstrong as Kin San can become a convert, the current situation won’t last long. Today, the Society is proudly represented among the many whiskies in the back bar of Bar Constellation, which forms the most spectacular whisky galaxy in Shanghai.
Vault Bar, Jing’an District
Where better to end our liquid tour of the city than in Vault Bar, whose name was inspired by our very own spiritual home at The Vaults in Leith. The bar is located near the landmark Jing’an temple. When it comes to Shanghai’s nightlife, it’s also the centre of attention.
Must see: Jing’an temple
A magnificent temple, built in 247AD and covered in fine gold, with a 15 tonne-silver cast statue of Buddha. The area surrounding Jing’an temple is also one of the most prosperous business districts in Shanghai. Besides Jing’an temple, tourists can also visit Longhua and Jade Buddha temple.
Vault Bar’s range of whisky tasting flights are thoughtfully put together by owner Edward Bruno You, and are reasonably priced and popular among Shanghai’s growing number of whisky fans. Vault Bar is also the Society’s first partner bar in the city, so there’s a good chance an SMWS bottling will feature in your flight.
This evening, our flight covers three styles, from Speyside ex-sherry to Highland peat: a Glenallachie 12-year-old, an Arran Machrie Moor cask strength, and from the SMWS Cask No. 4.240: Drifting into the storm.
Edward’s passion for whisky is a combination of youthful enthusiasm and scholarly inquiry. He not only offers us samples from the rare whisky collection from the bar, but also the whisky he’s personally brought back from around the world.
As we raise a toast with our members, a lively, sweet voice bubbles through the air, announcing the arrival of Julie Lee, the first Chinese woman to be recognised as a Keeper of the Quaich. Julie arrives along with a representative from the Loch Lomond Group, so what could be more timely than a glass of whisky from the Society’s distillery 135? We choose to share a dram of Cask No. 135.2: Hessian, wood and incense, which was matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead before being transferred to a Sauternes wine cask, with a rich tannin and a sweet note of smoke and spice. A wonderful last dram for us all to savour.
It’s late when everyone begins to leave the table, but before we head off into the Shanghai night, Christina raises a final toast to our guests: “The SMWS aims to curate the highest quality bottlings, to offer more choices to people like you who genuinely love whisky, and to share our passion in good company. Thank you to all our members, here in Shanghai and everywhere else – there wouldn’t be a Society without you.”
This in-depth feature is from the February 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership