Apothecary: Let the Shanghai cocktail competition truly begin

Apothecary: Let the Shanghai cocktail competition truly begin

Once only a Beijing staple, Apothecary Shanghai turns its attention to our crowded cocktail bar scene -- are local joints ready?
Shanghai Apothecary -- main
Even though they're starting slow, once fully up and shaking, Apothecary Shanghai will serve more than 100 cocktails.

Beijing is known for its live music -- not its cocktails -- but one capital standout is moving south and eying the competitive Shanghai bar scene. 

Ever since Apothecary opened its doors in Beijing’s Sanlitun district in 2009, prospective patrons have been lining up outside, waiting up to an hour just for a seat at the bar that serves well-crafted cocktails made from scratch. And absolutely everything is made from scratch: tinctures, infusions, macerations, juices and even tonic water.

Proprietor Leon Lee says the only reason Apothecary doesn’t make a Long Island Iced Tea is because he hasn’t yet figured out how to make cola to his own high standards.

Following massive success in Beijing, Lee’s latest project is bringing cocktails, plus all the care and attention to detail that goes with them, to Shanghai, where things are a little more competitive in the cocktail bar and lounge sector. As a case in point, Kelley Lee’s Alchemist Cocktail Kitchen is just a quick stroll from Apothecary in Sinan Mansions.

But, while Alchemist and its molecular drinks can be viewed as the space-aged future of boozing, Apothecary represents a sentimental look at the concoctions your great-grandfather would have enjoyed.

Shanghai Apothecary -- barDown from the capital, Apothecary Shanghai makes its home at Sinan Mansions.

Cocktails with a story

Lee and partner/chef Max Levy decided to open the first Apothecary because, Lee says, "there was no place in Beijing serving drinks that we really liked." Both were young men with traditional souls who were fascinated by the stories behind food and drink.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the strong taste of the American South of the late 19th and early 20th century that permeates the menu.

But Apothecary is no time machine, Lee insists.

“We love the stories behind a drink or a dish, but we understand this is 2011 and tastes have changed," says Lee.

"We’re not just picking through old recipe books -- we’re constantly experimenting and refining everything we make.”

Enoch Lim, a regular at Apothecary’s Beijing bar, and sings the praises of the Sazerac cocktail (RMB 75), invented in 1870 and made with Rittenhouse 100 proof rye whiskey, a sugar cube, Peychaud’s aromatic bitters, Versinthe absinthe and a lemon twist.

“I like coming to this bar because it’s old school, and that’s also why I like this drink -- they do things right at Apothecary, and a little absinthe never hurt anyone,” jokes Lim.

Working out the kinks

The Sinan Mansions branch of Apothecary was under “pre-soft opening” at the time of writing this article, and is due to open fully in early April.

While the Beijing operation serves more than 100 cocktails, in Shanghai during soft opening, only a shortlist of 30 cocktails are available. More will be added every week until the bartenders are up to speed. Once that happens, the barkeeps will have a toolkit that will be the envy of every shaker in town, starting with ice made from quadruple-filtered water (drink your heart out Constellation), chipped into various forms to suit the appropriate drink.

We love the stories behind a drink or a dish, but we understand this is 2011 and tastes have changed.— Leon Lee, Apothecary owner

Although Apothecary is primarily a watering hole, its American Creole-style menu is a paean to chef Levy’s roots and follows the bar’s “everything from scratch” ethos.

Sunday is fried chicken night at Apothecary (RMB 100 for half bird with coleslaw and biscuits), a crispy, spicy dish made from fresh organic birds brought in locally.

The house-made charcuterie platter (RMB 125) acts as a starter for four people and includes Tasso ham, along with bacon and sausage respectively cured and stuffed on site.

“At the end of a weekend, I’m looking for a place to relax with my friends and have a great meal," says customer Stan Gale Jr., who enjoys Apothecary's chicken dinners and a Scotch Old Fashioned (RMB 65).

"Apothecary has the potential to be that place for me. They sure can make an Old Fashioned.”

Leon Lee will continue to split his time between Shanghai and Beijing, and says he is unfazed by the competition.

“We want to make money, of course, but the reason why we’re in this business is that we have a passion for making food and drink and want to share it with others,” he says.

“In fact, I love it when a customer comes in with food or drink for me to try. Those are the kind of relationships we want.”

getting there

Sinan Mansions Bldg 2, 4/F, Lane 507 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Chongqing Lu
复兴中路507弄2号楼4楼, 近重庆路
tel +86 21 3368 9419

Want to check out more Shanghai bars? Keep reading at "7 best Shanghai theme bars".

John Coughlan is a California native, Irish national, and longtime resident of Shanghai’s former French Concession.

Read more about John Coughlan