Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Making Cocktails in Shanghai: Manhattan, Negroni, Margarita

There's not many places that mix a decent drink in Shanghai. Clubs and bars will mostly give highballs - a soda, juice, or maybe a tea, mixed with an alcohol. It's tough to go wrong, but it's not very exciting, neither. Higher-end places are good but not great, with a tendency towards seriously sweet drinks involving vodka and frou-frou things mixed in.

As a cocktail fan I find it all a bit tragic. If I want a good cocktail I have to make it myself. However it's not as easy as in the US: there's some Shanghai-specific issues I'll bring up in making my favorite cocktails. I won't go into details on the actual mixing, as I think it comes down to personal preference, although I'll say you should used bottled water for the ice! Click on the titles for a recipe, and this video of a Negroni being made is fun:

The Manhattan

Made correctly, a Manhattan is the best cocktail.

A Manhattan is basically two parts rye whiskey, one part Italian (sweet/red) vermouth, and a dash of Bitters. There's the caveat that the amount to use in the recipe depends on matching the strength of the whiskey to the sweetness of the vermouth - balance is key. While each combination definitely has a unique optimal blend, being a little off still results in a very good drink. The picture is a CC shot taken from flickr.

Even though bourbon is usually used, it's a bad idea. It's just too sweet to make an interesting drink - there'll be no contrast in the final product. Rye is the way to go - unfortunately Rye isn't available in China!

The best alternatives are Wild Turkey Bourbon, which has a substantial percentage of Rye, or Canadian Club Whiskey, which also has some. Neither is perfect: Canadian whiskeys are mixed with neutral spirits to make a seriously wimpy product, and Wild Turkey Bourbon just doesn't taste quite right with the drink. I'd go with Canadian Club, which can be found at various superstores and foreign groceries around Shanghai. Also a CC Flickr picture.

Martini & Rossi vermouth is relatively easy to find in Shanghai, and goes great with rye, but overwhelms any bourbon - matched together, it tastes sickly-sweet, gummy, and frankly a little gross. The Lawson's Market, near Huangpi Lu, stocks the mellower Cinzano vermouth. It's a lighter vermouth, but one still needs to go easy when matched against the light-flavored Canadian Club. It costs 100 kuai (about $13) for a 1 Liter bottle. This is more vermouth than anybody needs, and vermouth will start tasting not as good a couple months after the bottle is opened. But smaller bottles aren't available and there's no choice.

Angostura Bitters are the Gold Standard. They're available at the same market, a 200mL bottle for $15. It's a rip-off, but that's enough to last a number of years, and it keeps perfectly even without refrigeration. There's no orange bitters available, which isn't a surprise, although Orange Bitters used to be a de rigueur ingredient. There's a few versions occasionally available in the US, and I understand Suntory sells an authentic pre-Prohibition style, but only in Japan, and it's hard to track down.

The Negroni

The Negroni is actually a much easier drink to make in Shanghai. It's definitely an acquired taste, but I've come to enjoy them very much. It's one (or more) parts gin, one part Campari (an Italian Bitters), and one part sweet vermouth.

So although Rye can't be found in the US, and there's not much selection of Bourbon, Rum, or tequila, gin really isn't a problem. I think Shanghai alcohol importers just follow the lead of Hong Kong, and import what's popular with English people. Not every popular brand is available, but most of them are, including the more expensive gins like 10, Plymouth, or Bombay Sapphire. But these gins are not very good in a mixed drink. The way to go is a more traditional, stronger flavor, like Beefeater's (which is sporadically available at Carrefour), Tanqueray, or the easily-found Gordon's. They're all slightly cheaper than what they cost in the US.

Campari is also not a problem. It's sold at at most places that import alcohol, at Carrefour it's 100 kuai. My friend likens the taste to "carpet cleaner." So be prepared to not be a big fan, right off the bat.

Finally, sweet vermouth, the same type or vermouth as used in a Manhattan. Either brand I mentioned will work fine, although one would want to slightly up the amount of Cinzano to make up for it having a mellower taste. Be careful, too much vermouth (especially Martini & Rossi vermouth) is really a terrible thing with this drink.


This drink is widely available but seldom tastes right, and there's good reason for this: the ingredients are hard to find in China. It involves one part lime juice, two parts Orange Triple Sec (hopefully Cointreau), and three parts tequila.

The good news is Cointreau, it's a definite necessity for a decent Margarita. In local alcohol shops, it can still be found for 120 kuai, about $17, compared to about $35 in the US. Unfortunately the Carrefours and so forth have raised the price to $23 or so.

There's no real reason to experiment away from Cointreau, but for slightly more, Grand Marnier is also available, it's sweeter and has a brandy base. Lejay-Lagoute is recently available at City Market, a foreign grocery. It's more expensive, lighter in proof and taste, and comes in a small 500mL bottle. But I had a free sample and it seemed usable.

Lime juice is a tough one. On very rare occasions, Key Limes are available cheaply, it's always worth getting them even if there's no intention of making a Margarita, they're awesome. Usually, though, it's normal-size limes, for a very expensive price, maybe a dollar a lime. And usually these limes are some weird kind I'm not familiar with: stuffed filled with seeds, a nice fragrance, but a very astringent taste. I haven't devised a means to tell them apart from better limes, and they're sold under the same names at various stores. It's easy to buy Lime juice concentrate, and while the taste is there, using concentrated fruit juice will result in a boring drink. I've tried mixing it half and half with the concentrate, and while it's really not satisfactory, it's better than nothing. The sweetness of the triple-sec should be matched against the sourness of the limes, so if using weird limes, it needs a taste-test to make it properly.

Finally, the tequila. There's some easy-to-find brands - Olmeca, Jose Cuervo, Sauza Gold. All sell for $12-$18, and all of them are more suited towards frat parties than a nice mixed drink - still that's probably as good as it gets for making a Margarita.

Tequilas are sold as gold (crap), silver (unaged, stronger tastes, although from cheap brands it just means it's gold without caramel coloring added), Resposado (slightly aged), and Añejo (aged). All good tequilas are 100% Agave. Silver and Reposado are best suited to a Margarita, by the time it gets to Añejo the tastes are too different, it doesn't really work with a Margarita. That said, there's some decent Añejos available in Shanghai - some foreign groceries sell Jose Cuervo 1800, a peppery 100% Agave Añejo. The actual best tequila available in Shanghai is Don Julio Añejo, going for a ridiculous 650 kuai ($90) in Lawson's.

You're allowed to bring two bottles of alcohol into China: a cocktail fan should take advantage of this. And on the positive side, Shanghai has Havana Club 7 relatively easily available at foreign groceries. Even if it's not quite as cheap as it was a couple years ago, it's about as good as rum gets. Also there's some surprises- Rhum Agricole is available at the Japanese Groceries, various absinthes of wildly different qualities, and low-grade Maraschino Liqueur, which still makes for a top-grade Aviation.

Update 4/22/2008 - I ran across Delish, a small import store and bakery at 98 Yanping Lu, a little North of Jing'an Temple. There's a small and overpriced but definitely interesting selection of alcohols. Patron Silver is the standout, at an expensive $65 - Don Julio Añejo is the better tequila, but Patron Silver makes the better Margarita. They also have Marie Brizard alcohols and Orgeat (for a Mai Tai), grappas, Rhum Agricoles, and other exotica.


Anonymous said...

Could you please let me know where exactly that Lawson's Market is. Is great to know that Angostura Bitters can be found in Shanghai.

Jeff Rutsch said...

Lawson's Market is basically attached to the Shaanxi Nan Lu Subway station. I think there's other branches, it should be Google-able.

But now that you mention it, I was there a little while ago, and I don't recall them having Bitters - I'll double-check next time I'm around, and if not I'll try to post another source.

Jeff Rutsch said...

Sorry Sorry Sorry I meant to say Parkson's, Lawson's is a convenience store chain.

Regardless, the Shaanxi Nan Lu store no longer stock bitter's, and I don't know where else in Shanghai it's available. I'll keep my eye open.

Angustora Bitters (and possible and Orange Bitters) are probably the top alcohol to pack from a foreign country.

patrick love said...

Great write up! I'm also looking for bitters in shanghai. I'll have to experiment with some new drinks after I find them.