Spotlight on China Bars
The World of Suzie Wong Club
Xian at East Hotel
Janes & Hooch
A short piece on China’s bar scene poses some problems. The People’s Republic is bigger than the EU both in terms of physical size (about twice as large) and population (almost three times). Imagine a piece summarising the bars of London, Paris and Berlin, with everything from Madrid to Helsinki in between, although that actually gives an indication of the variety of the bars in China. At one end are the KTV bars with their whisky (and baijiu - Chinese white spirit) bottle serves, while bars at the other end include small speakeasies and Japanese whisky/cocktail bars that would hold their own in central New York or Tokyo.
As with many other Western trends, China has been quick to embrace the cocktail and the drinks industry in general. Famed for their love of fine wines and high-end Cognac, Chinese drinkers are now quickly discovering single malt whisky, premium vodkas (including those being produced and marketed within China) and high-end cocktails.
In terms of the cocktail scene, bars in China are rapidly developing. Shanghai is now comparable to many Western cities in terms of quality and service. Beijing is hot on Shanghai’s tail, but interestingly characterised by smaller, often bartender-owned independents. Beyond those two, China’s second-tier cities are growing up fast, and the cocktail seems to be as much a part of that process as the ubiquitous coffee chains and luxury brands.
As an English bartender here, the interest for me lies in China’s willingness to adopt new cocktail recipes and ideas. Early bar pioneers were a mix of those with Western and Asian experience, so the better bars in China have amalgamated those into a unique style. China’s wealth of interesting potential cocktail ingredients, from teas and medicinal herbs to the vast array of different fruits and even local spirits (made with grains including rice, sorghum and corn, as well as tropical fruits and sweet potato) give a largely unexplored range of options for the bartender. China has embraced social media (Sina Weibo currently has 300 million users, posting 100 million messages a day) meaning that cocktail recipes and new bartending ideas spread rapidly amongst the growing network of Chinese looking for a career in the bartending industry.
I have been based in Beijing for almost four years now, and in that time, the bar scene has changed rapidly. Bartenders have become more and more professional and have developed their own particular styles. 2012’s Diageo World Class competition showcased this developing bartending talent and was noticeably more advanced than even 2011. I’m looking forward to seeing how bars in China develop in the next year, and to seeing an even more impressive display of bartending talent at World Class 2013 (not to mention behind the bar at my local haunts!).
Paul Mathew is a British bartender, drinks consultant and associate editor of DRiNK Magazine in Asia. He is based in Beijing, owns a bar in London, and regularly travels in-between looking at bartending styles and trends.