My first real encounter with a craft cocktail bar—rather than the basic bars found at American chain food restaurants, or in the college town bars of Athens, Georgia in the aughts— was in, of all places, Jacksonville, Florida. I wandered in to a liquor store one afternoon after I finished teaching at a local high school, only to discover a bar in the back. The area, which runs along the St. Johns River and is full of old, historical homes—a far cry from the beach bar culture a few miles east—was absolutely dead at the time. The surprise bar offered tasty hors d’ oeuvres, and I happily settled in for my greatest naughty trick since growing up a teetotaler: grading while drinking.
After six years in Vegas, I thought I was familiar with the options, and wandered over to the bar to get a cocktail while my food was being prepared. “Long Island,” I asked triumphantly, with all the confidence of a sorority girl at a T.G.I. Friday’s. Or something. I’m not actually sure what the best analogy would be; suffice to say, my life was about to change.
The bartender…laughed. He laughed at me! His bread and butter, his income, his cash cow (or, on a Florida teacher’s salary, more like a cash duck). Then, he asked me what flavors and liquors I liked, only to eventually lead me to a fantastic ginger whiskey cocktail that I still look back on fondly. Not to be confused with a whiskey ginger, of course: while whiskey plus a spicy ginger beer or ale is my at-home favorite, this was the kind of experience that involved words like “infused” and “ginger syrup,” as well as a delicious gummy ginger candy on top.
I was hooked…on whiskey. While I did grow an appreciation for fine cocktails, it wasn’t until I embarked on a road trip through the Midwest in 2018 that I really came to gasp the unique skill that went into that Riverside meet. Though “mixologist” sounds pretentious, my forays in Chicago, as well as Louisville, New Orleans; Beijing’s Moonshine bar; Busan, South Korea; and now, locally, in Shanghai and Hangzhou, help me grasp why a person may use the term. The aforementioned drink slinger at T.G.I. Friday’s is a world apart from well-trained individuals who spend their lives tinkering with flavor combinations like a chemist or a master chef.
A recent foray into The Curious Bartender only heightened my interest with its description of essential tools, elements of flavor and unique ideas, so when the university where I teach agreed to let me out of Zhejiang Province, I was thrilled to visit one particular place. Sober Company, recommended by regional bartenders whom I respect, had the great fortune of winning the title “Best International Restaurant Bar” by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation as I was headed east on one of China’s bullet trains. Good for them!
The three-story extravaganza combines my first love—coffee—with food, whiskey and other liquors to create a multi-faceted, evening-long process. According to general manager of the first-floor Sober Café, Lubby, the desire is for guests to enjoy a coffee-related aperitif on that initial level, which features prominently upon entrance with a small bar of coffee-themed cocktails at the fore.
Next, customers with a pretty penny to spend and a good chunk of time would, ideally, progress into the Kitchen, a place that was closed by the time I arrived near midnight. There, dinner would be had alongside its own retinue of complementary (NOT to be confused with complimentary!) cocktails. After 8 pm, the second floor bar, Society, opens, and that is where my particular adventure segued.
A gentleman formerly known as “Whisky Rover” has been after me to write more, but I lack the breezy confidence of certain writers who bring taste to life with a with a breadth of adjectives that reflect expansive palates. Instead, words themselves are my passion, as well as less exacting experiences…so JJ suggested something more concrete, with easily identifiable flavors and concrete ingredients: cocktails.
I kept it in mind, but it wasn’t until I tasted my first drink at Society that I saw something worth describing to the general public. As a bourbon fan, I am biased towards the sweet, yet the description of flavors below includes no added sugar, only a carefully crafted, beautiful symphony of flavors that come together in a lovely sweetness—but, I get ahead of myself.
The cocktail pictured above is not some aberrant absinthian concoction, meant to glow or shock the senses. Despite its artful hue, which comes from the pistachios within, its remarkable taste is more akin to chocolate.
Ingredients: Peddlers Gin, Lapsang tea, pistachio, cacao butter, milk wash, orangette as garnish (candied orange peel with chocolate).
What marks truly exceptional customer experience at cocktail bars from their middling counterparts is the near-mystical ability of bartenders to gauge a guest’s preference based on a few questions, and then go off to the races with a cannily accurate call on what drink, exactly, will suit them. (I once heard a couple ask a bartender to craft a cocktail that tasted like love, and he complied… and, according to them, succeeded.)
To be fair, this kind of context is nearly impossible in the wall-to-wall fervor of trendy, speakeasy-style bars pre-COVID, but now, it’s an unexpected pleasure to enjoy in the age of less-packed venues. Additionally, when I visited on busier nights, the staff still took special care to explain the ingredients of and thoughts behind each cocktail. The attention to detail was a consistent feature that I enjoyed.
After the aforementioned Lubby served me a lively Passion Fruit Gin Gizz in the Sober Café, he sent me upstairs to Wayne in the Society bar on floor two. I told Wayne, a gifted, multilingual bartender from Taiwan, that I like bourbon and gin. He proceeded to supply me with one profound experience after another—if drinking a cocktail can be called such a thing (I vote YES).
Sober Company’s general manager, Kazuhisa Arai, is the man behind the drink. Arai, Jameson’s “Ball World Mix Master” 2016 (say that three times fast), spent over a decade in Japanese bars before moving to Shanghai. He said that, given the devastating effect of COVID-19 on bars and restaurants, this drink was a way to try and honor the industry locally. Thus, it uses a gin from Shanghai, a smoky white port lapsang tea of Chinese origin, and also pistachio nuts, colloquially known as “funny guy” or “happy fruits” (kaixinguo). Altogether, the title of “Local Happiness” seemed fitting.
The liquor used, Peddlers Gin, deserves its own review. If I stay on top of things, such a review will follow soon. For now, know that it’s an easy-to-drink alcohol from Shanghai that incorporates the Sichuan pepper notes that have made eastern China famous for spicy food. In addition, it has two types of mint, cardamom, almond, juniper berries (of course), cassia, coriander and angelica, all sourced from different regions of China. In my experience, it’s not the most complex gin, but that Sichuan pepper note is addictive. It undoubtedly serves as a nice complement to the cacao butter that races to the fore.
The Local Happiness – review
On the nose: the orange that’s attached to the glass provides quite a zip of citrus, and beyond that, the smell of cacao butter permeates the experience. It’s a round, creamy scent that follows through in the drink.
In the mouth: the front of the first sip brings out the tea and some of the gin, but not a trace of the Sichuan pepper I usually get from Peddlers. The middle hits you with the pistachio, and then the milk wash combines with the cacao to yield an impossibly sweet taste for a clear cocktail. It was truly mesmerizing, the kind of unexpected harmony and “party in your mouth” that makes you want to come back for more. The finish was as lingering as any 10-year bourbon, which, for those as much a fan as me, is pretty damn good.
I will mention, in slight contrast, that the second time I enjoyed the cocktail, the cacao butter dominated the experience from start to finish. Perhaps because I had, by then, memorized the ingredients, that was the main thing that I detected.
I just know that I was left breathless, for a millisecond. By a cocktail.
I first encountered milk washes in Lexington, Kentucky, where another drink slinger took the time to educate me. That and many other such moments are what make cocktails interesting. Bourbon, my usual drink, can be imbibed at leisure, alone, and evaluated over time. In contrast, cocktails add the element of another person’s imagination in the present, combining a myriad of items in a way that goes far beyond the easy pleasure of pouring one liquid from a bottle into a glass.
Until the pandemic came, such an experience could only be had live and in person. Now, that’s changed too, but I’ll save that idea for a later post.
Initially, I scored it higher, but the price for one drink nears $20 USD at 130 yuan. It’s worth it if you view the interaction as more of an adventure, rather than a simple drink; still, it’s unquestionably high. That’s why I live in a far less expensive Chinese city and can afford such indulgences occasionally … without bankrupting myself!
That said, this is the drink that got me off my couch and into writing for the first time in seven months. It was stupendous, the kind of thing that deserves an honorary mention in the Taste Olympics. Is that a category at Taste of the Cocktail? I don’t know, but it should be.
Lead photograph and cocktail ingredients kindly provided by Sobe Co. and by Molly Shen. The others are taken by the author. And there is a commission link within this article if you wish to do a little more reading.