Drinking in Shanghai is fun.
But attempting to find the secret entrances to these bars – shielded by everything from a vintage vending machine to an eerie frosted mirror – is a very large part of the excitement.
Mainland China’s most international city is fast regaining the reputation it held in the 1920s and ’30s as being home to some of the world’s most sophisticated nightlife.
No drinking establishment will transport you back to the sorely missed golden era better than these speakeasy-style hidden bars.
Speak Low is the brainchild of Shingo Gokan, the man who sparked a Japanese-style cocktail bar craze in New York with his famous bar Angel’s Share, also a speakeasy.
Finding the main entrance – behind a bookcase in a shop specializing in bartending equipment – is only the beginning of the adventure.
Upping the ante, Speak Low has a second hidden bar, concealed behind a wooden panel on the staircase. The secret button is on an antique map.
Once pressed, the entrance slides open to reveal an intimate bar helmed by Gokan protege Atsushi Suzuki, whose Spirited Away cocktail (CNY 120, $20) is served with a spoonful of grated wasabi.
And wait for it, there is a third hidden bar that is a members-only area. Tell us how it is if you’re lucky enough to get access.
Signature cocktail: Speak Low – a blend of green macha tea, Bacardi Superior and Bacardi 8 rums and Pedro Ximenez sherry – first won Gokan the 2012 Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition over at Angel’s Share in the Big Apple.
Inspired by Japanese tea ceremonies, the drink is paired with two pieces of dark chocolate to match its bitter but intricate flavors.
Don’t be fooled by the diner-style beer and burger joint that looks out onto South Shaanxi Road. It’s a decoy.
The vintage Coca-Cola vending machine in the corner is the doorway to a classy bar that boasts over 100 bourbon and rye whiskeys, most of which you won’t find anywhere else in Shanghai.
Cocktails, however, are the focus, expertly mixed by Taiwanese bartender Allan Hsu.
Signature cocktail: Taiwanese Plum Soup (CNY 90, $15) is a sweet but complex number that plays on the flavors of Formosa.
It features Zacapa rum, Prucia plum liqueur, sweet osmanthus wine, longan juice infused with sherry and creme de cassis, dried chrysanthemum flowers and a dusting of salty plum sugar on the rim of an earthenware cup.
Flask, 432 Shaanxi Nan Road, near Yongjia Road, Xuhui district, Shanghai, China; +86 21 3368 6108
To reach El Ocho, punters have to walk through a flower shop and up three flights of stairs.
The venue, with long curved wooden bar and high triangular ceiling, boasts an extensive cocktail list, a good selection of single malt whiskeys and around 50 house-infused liquors including a Mezcal replica of smoke-infused tequila.
Tokyo ex-pat Kaoru “TK” Takii heads the five-bartender team.
Signature cocktail: Corpse of Old Tom (CNY 98 or $16 for one, CNY 686 or $111 for eight servings). This variation on a Corpse Reviver contains Ransom Old Tom gin, fresh lime, dry curacao, absinthe and fresh orange zest.
It is both bitter and botanical with a kick like a mule.
The Library Distillery
Thought you saw a fleeting shadow on a large frosted mirror but it wasn’t your reflection? Relax if you’re at Light and Salt – chances are it’s the sliding door to a 1920s-style speakeasy inside the fine dining establishment.
The Library Distillery’s speakeasy decor extends to the mock roulette wheel in front of the bar.
The cocktail menu is a solid bet for classic drinks with a local twist prepared by head bartender Andrew An.
The Library Distillery’s snacks are no ordinary bar foods – delicacies include house marinated olives (CNY 48, $8) and duck liver and pistachio pate with sourdough bread (CNY 88, $14).
A password is needed to enter the bar – call a day ahead for the entry code.
Signature cocktail: The sweet and spicy Sichuan Sling (CNY 88, $14) mixes Cachaca, grapefruit juice, Grand Marnier, tonic water and honey infused with Sichuan chili.
It comes served in a tiki mug with a garnish of dangerously hot chilies.
The Tailor Bar
The street-level entrance to The Tailor Bar is a nondescript elevator next to a Chinese medicine store.
Those who make it to the fourth floor are greeted by a wall adorned with fixed gear bicycles and a cozy bar overlooking Jing’an Temple.
There is no cocktail menu.
All drinks are “tailored” to the customers’ tastes by denim-aproned Shanghai local David Hong, who trained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel bar in Berlin.
Signature cocktail: While there is no such thing at The Tailor Bar, when asked for a cocktail based on Japanese whisky, Hong produced a Bamboo/Rob Roy hybrid which combined Yamazaki and Hakushu single malt whiskeys with Spanish sherry and Italian vermouth for CNY 130 ($21).
It is both dry and tart and complements the vanilla, spice and smoke flavors of the whiskeys.
The Tailor Bar, next to a Chinese medicine shop, 4F, 2 Huashan Road, near Yuyuan Road, Jing’an district, Shanghai, China; +86 183 0197 7360
Dave Tacon is a Walkley Award-winning photographer and writer based in Shanghai.