China's tippling hub

By Alywin Chew in Shanghai ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-07-02 09:35:16

China's tippling hub

Award-winning bartender Yao Lu (third from left) helms The Union Trading Company, ranked ninth in the recent Asia's 50 Best Bar.[Photo provided to China Daily]

From hidden speakeasy bars to chic lounges and gastro joints, Shanghai's booming cocktail scene lays claim to being the best in China

It is a manic night at The Union Trading Company and Yao Lu is constantly shuttling back and forth from the bar counter to the fridge to the liquor shelves.

"I have a problem. The customers just don't stop coming," says Yao, the head mixologist and co-founder of the cocktail bar, during a quick breather from service.

"I guess it's a good problem to have, but it's so hard to find good help. My staff are overworked. Some of us haven't had day off for ages."

It might have been a Tuesday, generally considered the quietest time of the week for bars and restaurants, but Union was nonetheless packed to the brim with a balanced mix of locals and expats.

Situated along Middle Fuxing Road in the heart of the former French Concession in Shanghai, the bar offers a well-curated menu of expertly mixed cocktails and sophisticated renditions of comfort food fashioned by Chinese-American chef Austin Hu. But perhaps what makes it stand out from the competition is the one thing that Yao considers sacrosanct - service.

Many of the regular customers agree. Mark Ng, who has patronized Union since its very beginning, is one of them.

"I like Union because it isn't pretentious like some of the other bars in Shanghai. This place feels like home to me because the staff are very friendly and they're always ready to have that one last bourbon shot with you before you leave," says Ng.

Ng is not the only person to sing Union's praises. In December 2014, just a few months after its official opening, Union won the Readers' Choice awards for Best Bar and Best Bartender from Time Out Shanghai. A year later, it won the awards for Best New Bar and Bar of the Year at the City Weekend Readers' Choice Awards.

This run of achievements has inadvertently vindicated Yao's decision to move to Shanghai from his birthplace, the city of Plano in Texas. Born to Shanghainese parents, Yao first got into bartending during his sophomore year in college because he needed money to pay his tuition fees.

But what started out purely as a means of survival soon developed into a passion and he found himself working at the acclaimed Anvil Bar& Refuge in Houston, Texas a few years later.

Compelled by the urge to seek "a big adventure in a big city", the then 24-year-old packed his bags and headed to Shanghai, a city he was intrigued by during the four years he spent there as a child. He first got his feet wet in Shanghai's cocktail scene at the now defunct Alchemist bar.

Yao later chanced upon Hu through some mutual friends, and with both of them being American Chinese who loved their food and drinks, the two instantly hit it off and decided to combine their expertise to start a bar.

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