Shanghai Bar Review: 1945 Chinese Tavern

By Cristina Ng, February 11, 2019

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When a group of huangjiu enthusiasts comes down with a case of Old Shanghai nostalgia, you end up with something like 1945 Chinese Tavern. It’s a bar that serves exclusively Chinese spirits founded by Gordon Zhang (of Speak Low and Sober Company), a Kunqu Opera artist, a huangjiu producer and their friends.

Located on the stretch of Yuanmingyuan Lu between an outpost of % Arabica and Arsenal Football Club’s official sports bar, 1945 Chinese Tavern is a place you’d mistake for a teahouse if not for the collection of Chinese-produced booze behind the bar. Caged birds bookmark the entrance for good feng shui, while walls and cushions feature colorful floral patterns reminiscent of a qipao shop.

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

If huangjiu or baijiu are new to you, sharing a flight is revelatory. Similar to wine, huangjiu is classified as dry (yuanhong), semi-dry (jiafan), semi-sweet (shanniang) and sweet (xiangxue). 

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

Embarking on the Shaoxing Huangjiu Journey (RMB168), the shanniang with notes of honeyed jujubes and the light bitterness of the jiafan are both surprisingly enjoyable. Less to our taste is the sour yuanhong which invites comparisons to rice wine vinegar and the cloyingly sweet xiangxue, which tastes just like cough syrup.

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

All cocktails feature Chinese ingredients from osmanthus to preserved plum. Proud of Bayberry (RMB98), for example, features yangmei jiu – a traditional fruit liquor made by soaking the Chinese bayberry in a base of sugar and baijiu. Along with grape, thyme syrup and chocolate bitters, you’ll find an enchanting libation marked by delicately rounded flavors.

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

In another winning formula, semi-sweet yellow wine coalesces with citrusy Lillet and sweet vermouth for an oak-aged libation worthy of the name Love Potion (RMB88)

DSC00683-web-cover.jpgImage by Cristina Ng/That's 

Overall, the presentation is exemplary, but the flavors themselves are not always perfect. Lost in Heaven (RMB98), for instance, features a gorgeous teacup housed in a miniature birdhouse with Cityson baijiu, lime, passion fruit and pink pepper. While easy on the eyes, unwieldy peppercorns and fruit seeds, coupled with overwhelmingly sour and bitter flavors, tip the scales against this drink.

Image by Cristina Ng/That's

Tempted by a playful mélange of sweet (or xiangxue) huangjiu, preserved plum, lemon, grapefruit and lemongrass, but the choice to serve MEIsturbation (RMB88) in a bowl that drips painfully slow into a teacup makes the process of drinking terribly frustrating.

If you think that mixing barley and pea-flavored Xifeng baijiu from Shaanxi province with pineapple coconut rum, tomato, candied watermelon and parmesan cheese is a good idea, think again. Although they call it Soul Mate (RMB88), we have serious commitment issues with this one.  

While there were some missteps, it is nice to see a venue that embraces and celebrates tradition with such great style. Shining the light on underappreciated flavors and locally-produced spirits is very good for Shanghai’s bar scene. Healer’s Phoebe Han has been doing this proudly for years, and it’s about time she had more company.

[Cover image by Cristina Ng/That's]

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