It’s been so long since I lived in the US that I am in no way informed about trends.
That said, my first experience with “speakeasies” happened there, years after they probably reached their peak. I enjoyed checking out the Red Phone Booth in Atlanta, a luxe “secret” spot with a 1920’s vibe, a few years ago. More recently, at the start of the pandemic in the West (but as it grew to fever pitch here in Asia), I was treated to a remarkable spot in Busan, South Korea. There, a man honored his father’s whiskey collection by adding to it with his own carefully-cultivated stash. A few weeks later, when I was pretty sure that I wanted to return to China, I holed up in a tiny AirBnB in Osaka, Japan, where a fifty-dollar ticket bought me time to make the choice and endure a sort of purgatory.
While there for ten days, I ventured out just a few times: once for excellent sushi; another for Mexican food and to stock up on the coffee I’d use during my government quarantine in Hangzhou, China; and a third (rather bizarre) night where a chance meeting at an Italian restaurant led me to a clandestine karaoke bar. That particularly surreal evening, cheap shots led to some amusing and wild behavior by the bar’s owner, to the delight of all patrons. It was quite an introduction to a nation that I had been told was highly formal, and I woke up the next day with a series of photographs that were, shall we say, deliriously fun.
The virus wasn’t in Osaka yet, as far as we knew, but it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to go out like this. Still, the disparate experiences with hidden spots highlight the fact that secret bars are still quite hot in the East. At the very least, here in China, they are having a moment: from Speak Low in Shanghai to a friend’s easier-to-find spot in Beijing, the Middle Kingdom is still quite happy to partake in the thrill of a hidden enclave. This reality was reiterated by a recent experience in Xiamen, a southern city in China, after my first flight in over a year.
To say I was thrilled would be a bit of an understatement.
If I maintain this productive streak, I’ll describe the whiskey competition elsewhere, but my focus today is on a little treat that I discovered through an “in-the-know” member of the industry. In an area of the island unknown to me, in an unmarked house on a lonely corner, a gorgeous bar with a marble top and dark wood paneling unveils itself to those who enter. The whiskey selection is wide, particularly for a less-Westernized part of China; the drinks are superb; and the whole evening felt like a visit to a wealthy uncle’s home. After making me swear not to reveal its location, one of the co-founders granted me an interview.
Today, I wish to revisit a long-dead series on cocktails I began a year ago, when I discovered a melt-in-your-mouth experience in the form of The Local Happiness at Sober Company in Shanghai. Instead of going with something new and creative, this drink that grabbed attention was the powerful representation of a classic cocktail: the spirit-forward Old Fashioned.
It really needs no introduction, but researching a beloved drink is always fun. While originally just composed of a block of sugar, bitters, ice, whiskey and a possible garnish in the early 1800’s, so many variations on this recipe arose that patrons eventually started asking for the whiskey cocktail to be made the “old fashioned way,” thus the name. I was delighted to discover that a bunch of cherries wasn’t a part of the original recipe, as I hate the fruit in general, and especially despise when it’s poured indiscriminately into the glass. I also understand that orange is to be used sparingly, but must admit a related departure from the tradition is what caught my attention about this unnamed bar’s version.
This speakeasy came after a year of preparation by its two owners, Feng and Joanna Liu, who also serve as its sole employees. They share a decade-long career in the industry and a member who placed sixth in world bartender competitions. In a country obsessed with branding, and in a culture where local apps akin to TripAdvisor are more reliable for details about a place than businesses’ sites themselves, they have no online presence or advertising. Their 17 seats are available by WeChat or phone reservations (WeChat is one of the two apps used for virtual payment, and is the main app for everything else in China; it is used almost exclusively instead of email, for example, and people rarely text outside the app). The bar is in an impressive townhome that stands at the end of a series of similar buildings. The townhome boasts five floors, and the owners and their family have their office and living quarters above the bar. Can’t beat that commute!
My first pour that night was Michter’s Small Batch, which only recently came to China. When I asked for an Old Fashioned next, Feng reached for Michter’s Rye. Using such a whiskey in the drink added an appreciable quality, but it was what came afterward that made it distinct.
Feng followed the traditional method to some degree, using a sugar cube instead of simple syrup and bitters. He then added a couple of small cherries (not maraschino, thank God!) and a satisfyingly wide circle of orange peel, larger than I’ve seen used before. There was some firm muddling before he added the whiskey, removed the fruit, and poured in a healthy serving of ice. After stirring well, a cherry and orange garnish were added.
On the nose: A heady mix of the dark cherries, rye and Angostura mix with the orange to project a scent of strength, spice and heartiness that is not present in weaker-made Old Fashioneds.
In the mouth: The strength of the nose carries through. The combination of the rye with the bittersweet orange peel and dark cherry is divine. It carries all the thick, satisfying strength of a spirit-forward drink without losing the accents that make it more than just a heavy pour of whiskey.
Sometimes, when I see that much ice in a glass, I despair of it losing the power that makes such a cocktail punch you a little bit in the face. Here, though, Feng managed to bring out the best of the whiskey while enveloping it in the other ingredients to the point that they represent the best that the combination can offer—and, in fact, cease being a combination at all, and rather, represent a whole new flavor. Using a larger-than-usual rocks glass probably enables him to increase all of the ingredients to some degree; it felt like two drinks in one. And while I may not get back to Xiamen for awhile, I will dream of this drink.
The unique taste of the cocktail that I previously reviewed earned a 9/10, but the price brought it down to an 8. While this may not be as mind-blowing, it is a deeply satisfying pour and a strong value, given the “two-drinks-in-one” feeling and excellent craftsmanship, bringing it to an 8/10, too. The cocktail starts at 87 yuan, or $13, and the max price for using higher-end liquor is 107 yuan, or $16.
I have to admit that my introverted (or should I say small-town?) side loves the intimate, quiet setting, as opposed to my overwhelming experiences at Shanghai’s speakeasies. In my mind, you are not just paying for the cocktail; you are paying for the experience of what a great, hidden treat like this should be: a respite where high-quality drinks and whiskies make it worth tracking down. Thanks to Liu Feng and his partner, Joanna, that is exactly what this nameless place is.
(Feel free to message me on Instagram @flaskandpen if you’re ever in the area. Photos of the bar provided by Liu. Photos of the drinks are my own. Sources for the history of the Old Fashioned are listed below.)
- Slate’s take: https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/11/the-old-fashioned-a-complete-history-and-guide-to-this-classic-cocktail.html
- Make Me a Cocktail: https://makemeacocktail.com/blog/the-old-fashioned-history-of-the-old-fashioned/