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[New Drinks]: Art & Whisky

Laowai Jie Redux. Diving into Shanghai's biggest whisky bar, and hanging with the rabbits, wolves, and foxes of the Dobbtis steampunk kingdom...
2015-07-24 16:31:44
The TV screens on West Shanghai's Laowai Jie 101 bar strip -- the "foreigner street" established in 2005 -- loop a promotional video that boasts of the street's glorious history and culinary treasures. Phrases like "Mini United Nations of food" get thrown around. All the foreign friends in the video seem to be having an undeniably rad time simply because they are there. A few doors down, two middle-aged American businessmen are arguing with the staff at a girly bar. "I told you, my bank put a freeze on my card because I'm traveling. Can you take American Express?" "No." As we watch, a giant statue of a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle crashing through a wall hangs over us.

Mao famously stopped by Laowai Jie in 1971, back when it was called the 101 train station. Just off the main strip and above the Blue Frog is a new bar concept that doesn't fit into the Laowai Jie framework of Tiger draft happy hours and expat bars. Enter Art & Whisky, a Henan real estate don's art gallery that doubles as the alleged biggest whisky bar in Shanghai.

Investments like Art & Whisky are how the lucky .001% from Henan spend their cash. Ironically, the collection of antiquated whisky bottles here is the better art. The actual art exhibition, which features price tags on many of the works, changes every six months, and currently on display is a steampunk exhibit by Henan artist Xiang Zheqing.

Steampunk is basically neo-Victorian historical fiction -- a world of powerful analog computers and steam powered, warp-speed flights. Don't confuse this with that far less tacky genre, cyberpunk. Ornate statues and medallions decorate the building's exterior, and inside the entrance is a long hall of "steampunked" portraits of historical figures like Steve Jobs and Abe Lincoln.

Sipping an old fashioned (68rmb w/rye, 48rmb w/Jim Beam) in the vast, mostly windowless bar feels like disappearing down a well. It's like a cross between the hotel in The Shining and a jazz bar in a Murakami novel. Some old blues and jazz plays softly, and steampunk animal statues and figurines -- most of which have price tags -- appear throughout the 500 square meter venue. These characters comprise Dobbtis Kingdom (pronounced doe-bi-t-si), a fictional world whose map looks not unlike that of Scotland's whisky producing regions.

Dobbtis has a rabbit hairdresser, a giant cat in a scuba outfit, another rabbit who floats on a pink cloud and can fly by inflating her cheeks, a rat thief who steals barrels of whiskey, a horse plumber who believes he can fly, and over by the piano, two foxes that look like characters in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. The waitress giving the detailed tour of the place seems genuinely happy to tell their stories. She said a feature length Dobbtis animation will come out later this year, but couldn't provide more details.

As for the whisky, they have over 500 kinds. The staff say that's the biggest collection in Shanghai, and by the end of the year that number will rise to 800, making this the biggest collection in China. Glasses start at around 55rmb, and there's loads of selections under 100rmb. The menu itself tops out at around 1400rmb for a glass of Yamazaki 30-year. Off-menu selections can go much higher, and as with most high end whisky bars, customers can buy bottles and keep them chilling at the venue until they finish. Cocktails are decent and strong enough, and currently 20rmb off for the near future. But really, you're coming here to drink high quality malts straight or on the rocks.

All the key whisky regions get representation, but Japanese varieties and single malts have the most presence. They've got a room in the back that only opens with a keycard, filled with dozens of bottles from the '50s and '60s. One bottle of Laphroaig displays the year 1908. Another bottle of that is expected to fetch up to 5700USD in a Glasgow auction in August, but Art & Whisky say that their most expensive bottle is 400,000rmb. Maybe that's what they were drinking when they decided to run with this concept.

The staff here definitely got proper training. Water comes out without asking, as do multiple trays of those little Japanese cocktail snacks. On both occasions they refilled the bowl maybe six-seven times, without even asking. The good service makes sense, as the manager Rum used to work at Ultraviolet, one of Shanghai's most lavish venues.

On both visits, a Monday and a Thursday, just a few customers were in here, which adds to the odd feeling of the place. There is probably a reason why not many people have tried to make "the biggest whisky bar" before, and instead opt for intimate spaces like Comet and Constellation. Art & Whisky is definitely not a place where you come to meet people, but would make an amusing spot for a second or third date, or just whisky drinking with some friends. They also host business meetings in the afternoon, and have live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights from 9pm. And just around the corner, you've got some great yakitori at Tori King.

It's good to see someone trying something different -- bizarre, even -- in a bar area known for Tiger draft happy hours, FOB business dudes, and Filipino bands. It's hard to predict how the tacky but enjoyable Art & Whisky will work out, but then again, even if business is slow, the real art -- those decades old bottles of whisky -- are appreciating every day. With that, a toast, to Dobbtis -- you may not be as deep as you think you are, but you're trying.