The spirited traveller: Tilting a glass in Shanghai

LONDON Tue Mar 22, 2011 7:49am EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - Shanghai, the most populous city in China, is said to be giving Hong Kong a run for its money as China's leading financial centre. One day, it may well rival other metro areas as a leading cocktail centre.

For an insider's take on what to expect in one's glass, I turned to Aaron Landis, VP of international operations at Ivie and Associates and a U.S. native who has lived and drunk (in moderation, of course) in Shanghai for the last eight years.

First off, he says, daring drinkers should cultivate a taste for baijiu, a rice-based clear spirit found throughout China, often consumed as a shot.

Though tasting "slightly worse than petrol" to the Western palate, says Landis, this is what Chinese businessmen drink.

"If you're doing business in China, you may as well get used to it, because repeated baijiu toasts at long banquets are de rigueur for doing business here."

While Chinese locals haven't yet developed much of a taste for cocktails, a number of bars cater to expatriates and business travellers. Interestingly, some of Shanghai's best bars are owned or run by Japanese, who have their own impressive and meticulous cocktail culture.

For libations in The Bund, the riverfront area which remains a nexus of upscale Shanghai city life, the hot-pink Glamour Bar (<www.m-theglamourbar.com/>) is a venue where 20-somethings and the business crowd mix freely.

Alternatively, the nautical-themed Compass Bar (<bit.ly/fq0z7L>) at The Peninsula Shanghai is considered a posh, expense-account place in which to impress guests or colleagues.

Across the river is Pudong, the recently developed banking and business centre of Shanghai. Towering high above surrounding skyscrapers, the World Financial Center is the tallest building in mainland China, home to the swank Park Hyatt. Here, bar/restaurant 100 Century Avenue (<bit.ly/frZ0cY>) is cited by Hyatt as "the highest bar in the World". Expect incredible views and astronomical prices.

Further afield, in the tree-lined French Concession area where a number of the city's best restaurants can be found, look for bars like el Coctel (021 6433 6511), a dark lounge space serving well-tended Japanese cocktails and Spanish tapas.

At buzz-worthy "molecular gastro-pub" Alchemist, the motif is experimental concoctions such as the Yangtze River Tea -- baijiu, tequila, Captain Morgan and citrus stirred with liquid nitrogen to a sorbet-like texture, and served alongside a demitasse of spiced jasmine tea.

Regardless of what's in your glass while in Shanghai, here's one Chinese phrase that will serve you well: gan bei! The toast is translated as "empty glass".

HOW TO DRINK BAIJIU

If you're not headed to China anytime soon, look for baijiu. Some well-stocked liquor stores and airport duty-free shops also carry the spirit.

-- Baijiu is typically consumed as a small shot

-- The baijiu ritual is a communal one: everyone at the table raises a glass and drinks together, and everyone is expected to keep apace

-- Toast with the phrase gan bei, which means "empty glass"

-- Maintain eye contact with the person you are toasting or has given the toast

-- Drink the entire glass at once. Some choose to show that the glass is empty by tilting it towards drinking companions

-- Keep in mind that baijiu is a strong spirit, often distilled to 100 proof or higher

(Kara Newman is the author of "Spice & Ice: 60 tongue-tingling cocktails", available <here>. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by Peter Myers)

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