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First Sip: Constellation Exclusive

Oct 20, 2015 | 12:04 Tue
Here's another one from Constellation, the granddaddy of cocktail bars in Shanghai. This one is called Constellation Exclusive, but let’s look past that and head into a bit of history for those who aren’t Constellation regulars. This is the sixth in the series, with all others still going strong. Despite their numbers, the Constellations keep a low profile, eschewing publicity and any whisper of a drink deal, theme night or -- perish the thought -- a happy hour. They’ve kept the formula rigorous for 10+ years, across all locations: classic cocktails made by waistcoated bar staff, served with ceremony and precision.

The bars are designed to look gentlemanly and old-school: leather armchairs, button-backed sofas, long, beautiful bars, bad jazz tinkling away in the background. But despite changing times and proliferation of far more high-concept bars in town, the expertise behind the drinks at Constellation has kept patrons coming back.

You’ll find this one on Julu Lu, just east of Fumin, next to Contestarockhair. If memory serves, the former occupant was a long-time resident Japanese bar -- the sort of place with no windows, minimal signage, all of it in Japanese, and the promise of something really exciting and sleazy going on inside -- but not a place any one of us would have been welcome.

The newest sequel is about three times the size of the original Constellation, just around the corner on Xinle Lu, and perhaps the logic behind opening another bar so close to the first was to act as an overspill. The Xinle Lu Constellation is often full to capacity, and there is a no-standing rule. With this larger spot, owner Kin San may simply be offering neighborhood patrons an alternative on busy nights. However, the Constellations also have patronage from Johnnie Walker and its family of whiskies, so maybe those deep-pocketed fellows at Diageo just wanted another venue to showcase their comically oversized bottles of Blue Label. In any case, as soon as you walk in, you’re in familiar territory. The bar looks the same. The interior design is the same. It’s a little dim in there as there’s almost no natural light, but you’re in no doubt that this is another Constellation.

But a couple of things have changed. Kin says he’s added a few drinks to the vast leather cocktail menu. I tried a Left Hand, which I hadn’t seen on the list in any of his other venues. It’s a relatively new cocktail, invented by New York bartender Sam Ross while he was at Milk & Honey, which puts its creation somewhere in the early 2000s, and consists of bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari and chocolate bitters.

The chocolate taste is hardly there, and what remains is a deep, warm mix of a Negroni and a Manhattan. The precision with which it was made was what we’ve come to expect from Constellation. I counted Kin stirring my drink 100 times before it was served. That was not an accident.

I still prefer the warmth of the original location, but if you’re in a larger group and you want to be sure of a table, or if you’re a Constellation aficionado and you want to check out some new creations, head a block north and find this place.


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