Mixing it with the best of them

The cocktail business in Shanghai is booming as more and more young people consider drinking a couple of easy cocktails a fun lifestyle.

Editor’s note:

Foodprints is a series profiling the smaller restaurants and unsung chefs working every day to provide Shanghai with food that is tasty, imaginative, wholesome and memorable.

“Today, a cocktail is judged by its presentation first, the taste often comes second,” said Xu Lei, a veteran bartender who is bar manager at Cinker Pictures.

The cocktail business in Shanghai is booming as more and more young people consider drinking a couple of easy cocktails a fun lifestyle.

For Xu, the important thing is to be consistent with market expectations.

Ti Gong

Veteran bartender Xu Lei.

Born in 1982, Xu has been in the bartending business for 16 years, starting from the lowest level at M on the Bund in 2002 when he was just washing glasses and cleaning the floor.

“To be honest, I got into the industry because the entry requirement was low, I was introduced to the restaurant by a friend, by chance I started to work in bars and I haven’t changed ever since,” said Xu.

It took him over six months to understand the basic operation of the bar and the culture of drinks. Only two years later did he started to learn about the wines, liquors and spirits.

“I was quite drawn to the art of mixology. For me the foundation is always the knowledge of the drinks. The recipes are different in every bar, if you know the ingredients well, you can adapt really quickly,” he said.

After three years at M on the Bund, Xu decided to go out and see the outside world. He took a job at VaBene, an Italian restaurant at Xintiandi.

“It was similar, both are bars in restaurants, but at VaBene, there were more wines, so I got to learn something new,” he said. “After all these years working at different establishments, I think it doesn’t matter if the restaurant is small or large. There’s always something to learn, something I didn’t know before.”

Professional cocktail bars often have the highest standards for the taste and presentation of the drinks. Nightclubs are more casual, and Xu preferred working at clubs because it gave him the opportunity to freestyle.

Without rules, he was able to develop creative recipes. Innovation is a must in mixology, as the drink menus must surprise customers constantly. One of the crazy drinks he was tasked to create was a black cocktail.

Xu first used squid ink but the fishy smell and taste was hard to remove. Then he turned to black vodka, which appeared in Shanghai many years ago but had no stable supply. Next, he tried the black alkaline water from the brand blk. (a mineral water), but the color was brownish.

In the end, Xu used black charcoal powder from Japan, a healthier alternative to artificial coloring.

However, Xu likes the classic, whiskey-based cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour.

“Also, a lot of the new specialty drinks are created based on the classics.”

Li Anlan / SHINE

Casino royale.

The biggest challenge in the bartending business is the schedule, Xu confessed.

“For a long time, I only got off work after sunrise,” he said. “When I was young, I liked working at the clubs because of the freedom. After I had my own family, I wanted to find a more stable platform, that’s why I joined Cinker Pictures.”

Xu rarely goes out to drink at other bars, because spending at least five days a week in the same environment makes him want to take some time off.

In 2008, Xu joined the newly opened M1NT Club, a top party spot.

In five and a half years, he worked his way up from a bar supervisor to bar manager.

“I always believe that no matter how good you are at mixing drinks, you are only an excellent bartender. A good team must know how to manage the bar and venue,” he said.

Now, Xu heads a team of seven to manage beverage operations.

He asks his staff to do a lot of things beyond making drinks, like checking and controlling costs, so that when the brand expands to open new restaurants, the staff can be promoted to management positions.

Li Anlan / SHINE

Starting from the lowest level apprentice, Xu Lei has worked his way up to managing top bars in Shanghai.

The market in Shanghai is now pretty much saturated, said Xu. Bars that can survive in the city today must have ideal locations and be more cost efficient.

“The customers can afford the spending on wine and cocktails. It’s just that they will compare different bars on the location, taste of the food and beverages, as well as cost,” he said. “But for us, the key is always the product, people who spend money must recognize the quality.”

A trend in the Chinese market now is the need for cocktails to be photogenic.

Social media now plays an important role in people’s daily lives and snapping a shot of food and drinks is a must, especially among young people.

While looking at international cocktail competitions, Xu saw that trends are leaning toward simplicity abroad.

The cocktails are not garish in presentation but stress the depth of flavor.

“That won’t work in China at the moment. The customers are more curious and they want fun experiences when ordering drinks in bars. If the presentation is excellent and the taste is not bad, people will come back,” said Xu.

The much-exaggerated cocktails people seek for their appearance may not be healthy, he said, as a large amount of artificial colorings and additives are involved in making colorful drinks.

Customer taking photos can also be a good thing for restaurants and bars, the younger customers are easy to communicate with, and having a successful profile on social media brings more people to try new concepts.

“I check the reviews of the restaurant on dianping.com every night, to see what the customers think of the beverages and what we can do to improve,” he said.

When Xu joined Cinker Pictures, he was tasked to create a cocktail menu inspired by films, like “The Italian Job,” which is composed of cynar, sweet vermouth, Aperol, orange bitters, edible gold foil and maraschino cherries.

He spent a long time researching the films to look for elements that can relate to the drinks.

“If you don’t keep studying in the business, you’ll be washed out,” said Xu.

Ti Gong

The Rum Diary (Ieft) and Up in the Air (right) are two cocktails created by Xu that are named after the films of the same name.

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