- Speak Low
- 579 Fuxing Middle Rd, Shanghai, China
- January 11, 2019
Perrier sponsors a list of the "50 Best" bars in the world every year. Now, as with any rating system for literally anything, it's tricky to actually accurately list a bar as one of the "best,"let alone rank them in any sort of meaningful way. Bars, like restaurants, are apples and oranges. However, I found a speakeasy-style bar in Shanghai, Speak Low, which was no. 20 on the list, and had also seen some glowing reviews on other sites, so we made our way over to the place after our (out of this world) cheap dinner at Linlongfang with a little more cash to burn on some excellent drinks.
The bar's façade is a storefront selling bartending equipment. You speak to the receptionist and tell them you're looking for Speak Low and they will point you to a bookcase to the right of the desk, which you have to figure out how to open in order to get up to the second floor (hint: it is not a candle on the wall). The bar portion of the place is three different levels, each with a different concept, and increasingly intense prices. The second floor, above the shop on the street level, has a pub-like feel, with mostly classic cocktails and a few cool, but simple, house cocktails, and the prices here tend to be rather affordable.
We had one drink here, but quickly became intrigued by the trickle of folks heading up to the next level (I had forgotten there were multiple levels and was honestly not blown away by the drinks on the second floor), so we paid our bill and headed upstairs. We had to find a button to open the door, which we were told was on a map of the world with a bunch of stickers indicating various destinations. It wasn't hard to figure out which button (Shanghai) to press, since 1) duh, and 2) it was the sticker that was all worn down. The door slid open to reveal the second level room, which conveniently had two remaining stools at the bar waiting for us.
This was my shit. The scene was much more 1920s classic speakeasy style, with a LOT of wood paneling, big leather seats, and bartenders in vests and white shirts. The cocktails were more expensive, but still not absurd, and looked immensely more interesting. Our bartender, Yumi, was from Japan, and was an awesome conversationalist, especially when Jake found other folks with whom to hone his Chinese-speaking skills.
I started with a take on a take on an old fashioned that is one of their signatures. This cocktail is made with añejo rum aged (I think) 12 years, which they pour and "marinate" in a coconut that they roast themselves. They provided me with a crystal tumblr and a large ice cube with "Speak Low" engraved on the top, and poured the "old fashioned" out of the coconut. It was absolutely delicious, with a rich and spirit-forward flavor that definitely smacked of the roasted coconut in which it lived.
We asked Yumi which cocktail was her favorite, to which she responded, "At which moment in time?" She said that on that night, with the cold rain, and early in the evening, she'd order another whiskey-based drink that they call "Into the Woods." This involved bourbon, maple, walnut, and cinnamon (burned stick with smoke coating the glass), along with many other ingredients. The key, however, was that there was an infusion of Chinese reishi mushroom that formed the umami, savory backbone of the drink.
Yumi suggested that we order alongside this cocktail another whiskey-based drink, this time flavored with truffle, so that we could try two "fungi" alongside each other. I wish I could remember the details of this drink (I forgot my little notebook!), but I do remember that despite truffle being one of my favorite things and the truffle-based drink delicious (and having little shavings of Yunnan truffle on top of the drink!), the mushroom drink was more interesting and enjoyable because of its unique complexity.
Despite my conscience telling me to not drop 120 RMB on another cocktail, or to ingest more alcohol, I just couldn't resist one last drink that I came across on the menu––a mezcal-based sazerac. The sazerac, an old-school classic drink from New Orleans, is usually made with rye whiskey and absinthe, but Speak Low made this one with an aged espadin mezcal. They pre-make the cocktail and put it in a gigantic leather water bladder, let it sit for a good while, and then pour the drink directly from the leather. This was probably my favorite of the night. It definitely had the slight slap of leather to compliment the rich smoke of the mezcal, while the licorice bitterness of the absinthe provided a nice counterpoint. Perhaps I enjoted this most because it was my last cocktail, but I left the bar very impressed by the experience.
This place sort of reminds me of the speakeasy underneath Aviary in Chicago, The Office, without the pretense and with much more reasonable prices. They definitely are doing interesting things with their drinks, especially their takes on classic cocktails, and I very much enjoyed my time here. Next time I'm in Shanghai (God knows when that will be) I'd like to check out the third level, which we couldn't figure out how to access, if it was even open! One of the 50 best bars in the world? I could believe it; certainly one of the 50 best I've been to––but hell, I've got a lot of places to go yet!
What are some of your top 50 bars?