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[On The Radar]: 1945 Chinese Tavern

This week, one Bundward cocktail bar flying the flag for China's unappreciated tipples, huangjiu and baijiu.
Oct 16, 2018 | 12:54 Tue
Photos: Brandon McGhee
On The Radar: On the Radar is a SmartShanghai column profiling new restaurants, bars, and other new places you might like to know about. Sometimes we stumble across these venues and sometimes... we are invited. As such, these are our first impressions and not a formal review.

1945 Chinese Tavern

169 Yuanmingyuan Lu, near Nan Suzhou Lu View ListingTaxi Printout

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Quick Take: This Rockbund cocktail bar is an unapologetic and sincere ode to huangjiu and Chinese spirits in general, from a group of enthusiasts that includes Gordon Zhang of Speak Low and Sober Company.

What It Is: Let me engage in a hypothetical: what if Chinese liquor wasn't tractor antifreeze, but instead had a heritage, range and complexity to rival any whisky distillery or vineyard? Unknit your knickers. Now what if there was a cocktail bar that uncompromisingly stocked nothing but that liquor?

Tucked in between the Arsenal "fan experience" and % Arabica near Rockbund, 1945 Chinese Tavern could, at first glance, either be a snug teahouse or a nondescript restaurant. On closer inspection, it's a snug cocktail bar flying the huangjiu pride flag from the top of its ornamental birdcages. Huangjiu, for the uninitiated, is a genre of low-percentage alcohols made (mostly) from rice, known literally as yellow wine, and most famously from Shaoxing. Like sake, it's sometimes served warm, to the horror of connoisseurs. It's typically drunk by old people with dinner. It is desperately uncool.

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So eight people set out to change that! They include Gordon Zhang, co-founder of Speak Low and Sober Company, retired actor and TV host Anthony Zhan, and Zhang Jun, a 30-year veteran of Shanghai's Kunqu Opera circuit. According to bartender Jay Jay (himself a newcomer to huangjiu), 1945 Chinese Tavern is meant to reintroduce/resuscitate Chinese alcohol. Huangjiu in particular has gotten a bad rap over the years because most of the stuff on the market is, frankly, bad. The co-founders contend that huangjiu doesn't have to be bad. According to another co-founder and huangjiu producer Chen Shihai, it can be a miracle elixir: it causes no hangovers and can help prevent high blood pressure and heart disease.

Big claims in a small space. The interior, maxing out at maybe 30 people comfortably, with its muted lighting, racks of exotic bottles and tall cages with actual songbirds flanking the doors, should thrill fans of overtly Chinese design. The lounge at the rear, with drum seats, leather couches and 3,000rmb minimum spend, will seem more familiar to KTV goers.

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On to the drinks! It breaks down like this: a handful of Chinese liquor flights, a drinks list proving they work in cocktails, and whole bottles on sale. Baijiu is present but huangjiu holds the spotlight. The most approachable option is the Shaoxing Huangjiu Journey (168rmb), four little cups with progressively sweeter types; yuanhong is light and a little sour, while xiangxue is made by remixing a kind of huangjiu grappa to make something molasses dark and just as sweet. Unfortunately, the menu is light on English descriptions.

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Shaoxing Huangjiu Journey (168rmb)

The list of signature cocktails (most 88rmb, one 118rmb) don't create any groundbreaking new flavors, more riffs on other familiar drinks but as proof-of-concept that huangjiu and baijiu belong in cocktails, they're spot on. Highlights include Lost in Heaven (98rmb) for playing peppercorn and passionfruit off Cityson baijiu.

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Lost in Heaven - Cityson, Lime, Passionfruit, Pink Peppercorn (98rmb)

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Kunplug - Yuanhong, Homemade Red Date Spirits, Bitters (98rmb)

For patrons uninterested in huangjiu (what are you doing here), there's also Chinese-made gin, vodka, wine and Taiwanese whiskey (specifically Kavalan) available. There is, in fact, nothing on the menu that isn't Chinese, except Sprite. Also, separate note, the "snack" menu is less "snack" and more "set Shanghainese meals." They're actually very good.

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Shaoxing Soy Preserved Goods Set (98rmb)

First Impressions: I was introduced to huangjiu five-six years ago. A colleague would spike his morning coffee with the finest cornerstore vintage, under the impression the line manager wouldn't notice because, he'd say, clumsily rubbing the side of his bloodshot nose, "it doesn't smell like baijiu, see?" If you're reading this, Gary, you were right, but it still reeked.

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Love Potion - Shaoxing Shanniang Huangjiu, Sweet Vermouth, Lillet, Oak Aged (88rmb)

So huangjiu and I didn't get off to a great start, and I don't think I'm alone there. The consensus seems to be "it's like sake, but for cooking?" With such low standards, it's not a surprise 1945 Chinese Tavern turned me around on huangjiu in one flight. This place should exist. It's a little earnest, but you should visit at least once if you consider yourself even a passing fan of spirits. Whether you like it will depend on how you feel about rice booze. The taste is particular and unmistakable. People fresh off a baijiu moment, maybe hold off for the wounds to heal.

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I'm preemptively adding this one to our tourist favorites. Bring your whisky-snob family members and show off your local knowledge. Add this to the out-of-towner food tour after the stops for xiaolongabo and hongshaorou. Just go for the novelty. Prices are Bund-valid, it's instagramable as kittens, and if you discover huangjiu and its ilk just aren't for you, pat yourself on the back for giving it a go and maybe hit up Windows instead.

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