Gateway to China

The best bars in Shanghai
By Vincent R Vinci
Shanghai has always been China's modern city. Its choice as a location for one of the first British consulates in China in the 1840s was followed by the opening of concessions following the Opium Wars. This led to an influx of foreign lifestyle in the city which transitioned to a Renaissance in the 1920s. The first western department store and pharmacy were started in the city around that same time. While its unclear where and when the population influx fit into this picture, the Shanghai of today is completely different than it was in the 1920s and perhaps even the 1990s. What was once a reasonable sized city has spread out into a massive megalopolis, with roughly 24 million people calling it home, making it the sixth largest city in the world. Such growth has seen a change in attitude towards Western food and drink, as the city has welcomed its fair share of amazing fine and stylish bars. While there are a great many bars, not all of them serve whiskey and cocktails, but with some searching you're guaranteed to find some hidden gems embedded in this eternal 'Paris of China'.

1. 1515 West Chophouse & Bar

4/F Jing'an Shangri-La, 1218 Yan'an Middle Road, Jing'an District

To experience the feel of old Shanghai and the high class that accompanied it, one need look no further than 1515 West Chophouse & Bar. The restaurant, opened in 2013, draws on an old Shanghai vibe with its plush black leather seating, immaculate wooden bar and walls laden with brick and mortar, pulling everything off quite well. Along with a selection of quality Wagyu beef, oyster bar, and more sides and accompanying dishes that can be counted, the most impressive aspect of 1515 is their partnership with Evan Williams in Kentucky, which they've used to bring the Americana of the establishment to a capital with their own 1515 West Bourbon. This is used as the base in the majority of the amazing libations served up at the restaurant's bar. The touch of their own brand of Bourbon makes 1515 a true whisky bar indeed, one that certainly demands respect.

2. Bar Constellation

86 Xinle Road, Xuhui District

This cozy bar can be found on a small quiet street in Shanghai's ever trendy Xuhui District (aka the Former French Concession). Of all the bars in the city, Bar Constellation can be considered the granddaddy of the bunch, as it was one of the first fine cocktail and whiskey bars to call Shanghai home, opening its doors way back in the year 2000. Enter the non-assuming exterior decked out with empty bottles of The Glenlivet and Singleton and you'll find yourself in a rectangular space with a long bar, high and beautifully lit shelves filled to the brim with spirits, and rounded booths with red leather seating. The bar is so successful that there are now five branches in Shanghai, the newest one located close to People's Square. Still, ask any local cocktail connoisseur and they'll tell you 'Constellation 1' is the place to go for quality classics done right.

3. Bar XYZ

384 Dagu Road, Huangpu District

XYZ is simple: the design isn't crazy or pretentious, it's just a long bar, nice exterior design, classic cocktails, no gimmicks. The bar itself was started back in 2013 by a former bartender from Constellation. Tired of the same old, same old, he graduated and moved on up to Bar XYZ. Much like Constellation, XYZ serves up quality classic cocktails, but head bartender Ming and his staff do their best to make it unique, and bring the quality up a notch for perhaps the best cocktail you'll ever drink. On top of that, with a location near the city's new subway Line 13 and its relative seclusion from the rowdier bars and restaurants that make up the Dagu area, XYZ is a nice little slice of heaven. The bar is situated away from one of China's craziest nightlife areas which means you can enjoy a quieter cocktail.

4. LAB Whisky & Cocktails Bar

1093 Wuding Road, Jing'an District

Chris Wang, owner of LAB, is a whisky lover. She loves it so much that she decided in 2012 to open her own bar for herself and her friends to have a place to enjoy the water of life. What came out of this creation is nothing short of impressive. A nice concrete and metal space with a short bar behind which lies an impressive selection of whiskies and liquors. The space itself is dimly lit with low-hanging Edison bulbs and ambient lighting. Along with the extensive selection of whiskies, LAB offers their take on the classics as well as some tasty house cocktails of their own making. Plus, unlike some other bars in the city, the place doesn't reek of pretentious absurdity. So much so that, as manager Sophia Sheen tells me, "If we don't have what a customer is looking for, we can recommend other bars to find it."

5. Malt Fun

123 Hunan Lu, Xuhui District

Malt Fun is literally what the name suggests. A fun place to drink single malt whisky. Not only that, but this Japanese-style whisky bar that opened in 2011 close to the Shanghai Library has a fun design, from the rusted metal sign and chic door to the soft tan wooden interior that makes use of odd geometry to enhance the space. Behind the bar, bottles are arranged on long, thin shelves. Very much different from the rest of the bars in town, thus giving it a less cluttered look. The bar is a great place to relax and sip, with walls and pillars plastered with professional whisky ads and bottles in glass cases on some of the tables. It's rumoured to have the best selection of single malts in Shanghai and makes it the go-to spot for Scotch buffs and whisky aficionados.

6. Senator Saloon

98 Wuyuan Road, Xuhui District

Having joined Shanghai's bar scene only last year, Senator Saloon has quickly made a name for itself quite literally after it was given the honour of being named the city's Best Whiskey Bar in 2016. That being said, the bar doesn't disappoint. Paying homage to the American Prohibition era, it finds itself in a beautiful dark wood and concrete building in the Former French Concession. The interior has beautiful red walls, old photographs, ample seating, jazz wafting through the air, and a small yet ample bar decked out with the most rye and Bourbon I've ever seen behind a counter. Along with some classics and even one or two aged cocktails, their craft cocktails are the things to try. The best of the lot being the Jericho, a sweet and spicy concoction made with rye, St Germain, green chartreuse, and sherry that is oh-so-refreshing.

7. Speak Low

579 Fuxing Middle Road, Xuhui District

This bona fide speakeasy, located behind a bar supplies store near Fuxing Park, has three separate and unique bars on three floors, with the fourth floor serving as a members-only space. The second floor is a great place to go for Prohibition-inspired cocktails that have been featured in bars throughout New York, from PDT and more. The place you really want to go is the third floor bar, a Japanese-style cocktail bar where you'll find head bartender and manager Atsushi Suzuki serving up an extensive menu of the most unique craft cocktails Shanghai has to offer. The incredible selection has some wonderful whisky-based choices, out of which two strong recommendations are the Japanese whisky and sake based Moanin' and the Bourbon based and smoke driven 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'.

8. The Long Bar

1/F Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, 2 Zhongshan East First Road, Huangpu District

If Constellation is the granddaddy of fine bars in Shanghai, then the Long Bar is the great great granddaddy. The Long Bar was opened in 1911 as the Shanghai Club, a foreigners only gentleman's club where the elites of the city came together to enjoy a taste of home. Today, after an extensive remodeling, the high ceilinged room with its wood panel walls and 32 metre long bar is the best place to go for classic cocktails done in style and even some that harken to the Waldorf Astoria's treasured past. A great place for sipping while taking in the immaculate nature of the place. Also worth a look is their selection of rare whiskies, especially the 1975 Convalmore and the 1970 Glenugie, both from closed distilleries on Speyside and in the Highlands, respectively. Essentially, the Long Bar is the place you have to go to in order to understand this city's elegant past.