Yao Lu doesn’t just know where to find some of Shanghai’s greatest cocktails—he’s the mind behind many of them, including local favorite Birds of Paradise and Union Trading Company, a regular on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. Raised primarily in Dallas, Texas, the bartender extraordinaire recently returned to Shanghai, where his family is originally from, to make his mark on the city’s bartending scene.
Now back in China, Lu focuses on using only local and seasonal ingredients in his drinks, prioritizing innovation over-familiarity—a distinction that makes him and his cocktails stand out in the world’s most populous city. But even here, where 26 million-plus people roam the streets each day, Lu finds that it takes little more than good drinks to make space for good company.
“That’s ultimately why people go to bars, in my opinion; people want a refuge,” says Lu, chatting about human connection and bartending in Here’s ninth issue. “People want to walk out happier than when they came in.” And at these five spots, cocktail-loving customers (Lu himself included) can easily find that giddy feeling from the first sip onward.
With its bright green ceilings, floating picture frames, and ultra-geometric decor, Arch looks like a bar you might find in the Emerald City of Oz. Luckily, the cocktails are just as magical (and come without a side of wannabe wizards). In one room, sample from their aperitivo bar, where you’ll find inexpensive classic cocktails; in the back, their upscale cocktail bar shines, offering innovative drinks that channel a unique combination of the Chinese and Italian palates.
Also ranked on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, Constellation’s small and intimate venue tends to attract a specific type of crowd: those looking for the place to drink whiskey in Shanghai. Reviews rave over the bar’s focus on the spirit, offering jaw-dropping 1,500 or so different bottles. The number of classic cocktails they can concoct, whiskey-based or otherwise, is almost just as impressive.
For four stories of secrets, duck into Speak Low for one of Shanghai’s best speakeasies (and a frequent name on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars). Led by popular Japanese bartender Shingo Gokan, each of the floors here become smaller in size and more difficult to access as you climb your way to the top—particularly the final level, which can be accessed by invitation only. A hint for first-timers: the entrance is disguised as a bartending equipment shop, and the first floor can be found hidden behind a bookshelf.
Found on Gaoyou Lu, EPIC is three straight floors of alcohol-induced goodness. Brought to life by Cross Yu—another name to know in Shanghai’s blossoming craft cocktail scene—the upscale bar specializes in creative cocktails made with high-quality spirits, fresh fruit, and unique key ingredients like coffee and homemade honey syrup. Paired with a tapas menu perfect for nibbling alongside drinks, prepare for a cocktail list that always intrigues inside a buzzing but intimate venue that rarely bores.
Another project by Shingo Gokan and a regular on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, Sober Company has two floors and three different venues for guests to enjoy. On the first floor, find Sober Café, where they serve breakfast until 4 p.m., as well as coffee and coffee-based cocktails. The second floor is home to two additional sites: Sober Kitchen, which serves modern takes on Chinese cuisine like foie gras mapo tofu and black sesame crème brûlée, and Sober Society, a cocktail bar where drinks feature unexpected ingredients like green tea and blue cheese in ways that only Gokan and friends could dream up. For those seeking another opportunity to hunt for speakeasies, a hint: Keep an eye out for the entrance to Tipsy, the building’s secret bar.