How to Drink Like a Sanlitun Craft Cocktail Connoisseur

By Sophie Steiner, July 13, 2021

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Beijing crushes it in the grassroots craft beer scene, far surpassing its other first-tier city counterparts that are only recently starting to catch up. Yet, when it comes to craft cocktails, many were once forced to choose between vibe and value, flavor and fad or complexity and complexion, always sacrificing one for the other. 

Yet, in the past few years, to the shock of die-hard Shanghai bar scene fans, the Beijing craft cocktail culture is sneakily stepping up its game, with a handful of mixologists leading the pack. 

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The hutong bars, Sanlitun bars and up-and-coming Qingnian Lu area bars all have a distinct feel, so we picked one area and went to town, literally, uncovering our favorite cocktails the area has to offer. Without furdo ado, here’s what wowed us.

The Black Moth 

One of Beijing’s top high-end cocktail lounges, The Black Moth is anything but typical. Irregular curio and peculiar art adorn the walls and shelves, ideal for a conversation starter when out for either a date or friendly catch-up. 

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Head barman Peter is constantly pushing the boundaries with new sips added each season, involving anything from Chinese cuisine to TCM for cocktail inspiration.  

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The Popcorn Yuzu (RMB110) is a sour-forward people pleaser featuring homemade yuzu sake, gin, yuzu juice and popcorn syrup – an unusual flavor pairing that surprisingly had us gulping down our glass and asking for more. 

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For the brave, the Smoke (RMB110) is – well – a smoky tipple gaining its ‘char’ from smoked eggplant, of all things. Tequila, agave nectar, lime and yuzukosho balance this savory twist on a margarita. 

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Living up to its tagline, ‘a museum of liquid art,’ the Mapo Tofu (RMB110) is a milk-washed blend of gin, Sichuan pepper syrup, fresh carrot, tofu, soy milk, sesame oil and lemon. Although that sounds like a recipe we want to eat over rice, in liquid form, it’s just as scrumptious. 

Paper Planes 

Started in 2019, Paper Planes is lounge-style bar, featuring plush leather couches and semi-private intimate sipping. Situated below ground level in a rather average building, you have to be determined to find this elusive place, adding to its air of mystery.

Something that’s not a mystery is how you will get your next drink, as the attentive service is impeccable – a subtle difference that really raises the quality bar. 

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The back-lit bar is manned by 2-3 bartenders, each expertly pouring an array of everything from seasonally crafted cocktails to textbook classics. We witnessed the making of the most precisely balanced Vesper – visually proving the delicate cocktail making balance between art and science. 

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Refreshingly herbaceous, the Gin Pesto (RMB95) is a more balanced version of a Basil Drop. Lemongrass adds citrus, while lemon brings a rounder tart flavor to the Bianco vermouth and basil.

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Smoky, sour, spicy and sweet, the Walking Dead (RMB95) brings together all the flavors in one mouthful with mezcal, spiced rum, high-proof rum, pineapple, passion fruit, a hit of Tabasco and a squeeze of lime. If you ask nicely, they may even give you an extra dehydrated pineapple sliver for a chewy snack. 

Scandal 

The award-winning Scandal is a bit of a misnomer. It’s less political thriller, more tropical funk fest – perhaps the biggest scandal is that it’s not another speakeasy (the reigning Beijing bar trend). At the time of our visit, cocktails numbered over a dozen and sell for RMB80-110. Named simply for their dominant flavor (‘Pomegranate,’ ‘Almond’), each one is daring and complex. Basically, order to your taste, and you won’t be let down.

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The Walnut (RMB80) is a bold take on a Manhattan, with fig sous vide bourbon, PX Sherry and cardamom and black walnut bitters, while others take inspiration from an herb, like dill or coriander. 

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The newest menu iteration involves fruits and vegetables, like the Watermelon & Tomato (RMB80) with butter tequila, vodka and clarified tomato watermelon juice, as well as experimental tipples, like the Century Egg Soy Mate (RMB90) – a wacky combo of blue agave, soy bean milk, century egg, lemon, ginger, coconut water and oolong tea. 

Union 

The chandelier-bedecked space at Union fits right in with trendy Sanlitun and equally trendy The Opposite House where it happens to be located. Ideal for a pre- or post-dinner spirit, the main draw is the signature cocktail menu. It offers to take guests on a journey across the ancient Silk Road, from China to Portugal, with plenty of spice and flavor-filled stops in between.

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Their cocktails are inspired by the flavors of 10 countries and regions, many of which are reimagined classics that simultaneously emulate staple flavors of their respective homelands. 

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We suggest trying the Genghis Khan Martini (RMB98) featuring Mongolian kumis (fermented milk) and coconut, or for something lighter with a bit of a kick, the Tom Yum 2.0 (RMB98), with aromatic lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves mixed with creamy coconut milk and white rum – a vacation to Thailand in a glass. 

Chocolate & Milk 

Chocolate & Milk arrived on the scene in the summer of ’19, a season that saw a major uptick in the Sanlitun classy cocktail scene. An inconspicuous push-button sliding door reveals a cozy and warmly-lit modernist-meets-malt-shop interior, with a spacious hardwood bar facing a few Picasso replicas on the opposite wall. 

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Chocolate & Milk’s spirits selection focuses on gin and whisky. The bar holds an exceptional array of surprisingly well-priced, independently bottled Scotch whiskies (with an assortment of single malts and bourbons for the unadventurous as well). One could come here time and again and never have the same spirit twice – a great option for the insatiable spirits geek. 

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Chocolate & Milk has plenty of mixology chops as well. A rotovap and centrifuge are displayed proudly behind the bar, where they are tastefully employed in the making of the bar’s original creations. The cocktail menu — with drinks priced between RMB90-95 — is well balanced, unique and creative, featuring both molecular mixology and traditional Chinese ingredients. 

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For those who like their libations booze-forward, the Smoked Garlic (RMB95) is where it’s at. Smoked whiskey is balanced by PX sherry, vermouth, orange peel and black garlic, topped with a hit of red wine.

The Curry Colada (RMB95) is tart and creamy yet utterly transparent, with a blend of curry rum, coconut water, clarified milk, pineapple, lime and a dash of sea salt. 

Bar Lumiere 

One of Sanlitun’s most recent newcomers, Bar Lumiere – led by Jamie He (previously of Janes & Hooch), opened in the beginning of 2021, with an artsy vibe and a focus on high-end cocktails and natural wine.

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The space miraculously combines art gallery, 1920s vintage décor and neon retro lighting hailing from the disco era, all accented by a stellar playlist and exclusive private rooms. 

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The Afterglow (RMB88) and The Supernova (RMB88) are the top ordered sips, rightfully so, but we also suggest a Peddlers gin-based drink in the form of the River Meets Sea (RMB98) – a refreshing blend of preserved plum, shiso, lemon and cucumber, topped with a white chocolate mahjong tile. 

Noteworthy Mentions

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Superfly – über trendy take on a Sichuan restaurant with an expansive spread of signature cocktails – featuring Chinese-inspired flavor profiles, highballs, beer and wine

READ MORE: Stylish Sichuan Sips and Sustenance at Opposite House’s Superfly

The Vending Machine – a high energy, high volume cocktail bar with simple yet delicious bevvies all available on tap, which means no waiting is necessary to continue crushing quite reasonably priced cocktails

Burge’s Bistro & Bar – another great dinner spot that happens to serve up mouthwatering martinis

Bubble Bar – the go-to spot for Japanese whiskey-based cocktails, or just a glass of the good stuff served neat. 

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Schrödinger’s Box – situated right next to The Black Moth, this spot tends to be a bit hit or miss as there is no menu, only bespoke cocktails are available. But the well-placed location affords it a guaranteed active vibe. 


[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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