Funny, really, that it’s taken this long for a proper speakeasy to arrive in Shanghai. In recent years, the trend for unmarked, Prohibition Era-style drinkeries – now an established genre widely known as speakeasies – has erupted in other cities, like ours, that are literate in the art of drinking. In fact, this certain point of departure has almost arrived at a sort of overdone, ersatz cliché in cities such as New York and London. So it was actually with some caution that we approached Senator Saloon.
In fact, we needn’t have worried. Owned by American couple Mike and Daisy Chiang (the duo behind the popular Citizen and Sichuan Citizen), the bar carries an impressive pedigree and nothing here feels inevitable or contrived. Senator’s embrace is similar to its older siblings: yet again, the Citizen owners have successfully refabricated their own brand of subtle, well-appointed snug with blood-red curtains; dark woods; low, low lighting from table lamps hand-carried across from the States; a tin-pressed ceiling (brought from Texas ‘with great care’) and a light undertow of classic jazz or, on one recent visit, Mendelssohn.
The sleepy, late-night hideaway atmosphere gently taps into to the illicitness of the American 1920s. The best seats are the booths that offer enough den-like closeness that ‘you feel like you could plan a Communist Party putsch,’ says our co-drinker one recent evening.
Senator’s menu is impressive, well researched and, in some respects, timely. Or perhaps even ahead of the curve. The emphasis is on rare US bourbons, a category reportedly planning a full-court press on the China market in the coming years in an attempt to usurp scotch and single malt as the go-to spirits for local drinkers. One standout example here is Angel’s Envy (125RMB), a distinctive, straight Kentucky bourbon that matures in old port casks.
But softly spoken bar manager David Schroeder, who uses the words ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’ with endearing frequency and who has the wry, precise air of a TV magician, says it’s the Pappy Van Winkle (180RMB), Jefferson’s Small Batch (78RMB) and Booker’s (78RMB) bourbons and the Whistle Pig rye (175RMB) that are unique to Senator (‘or close to it’).
Also interesting is the malt-sweetened, whisky-coloured Ransom Old Tom barrel-aged gin (72RMB). Sourced from a single-man distillery about an hour’s drive from Schroeder’s home in Oregon, it’s used here to give an artisanal upgrade to a robust, complex and brilliant Martinez (72RMB). A kind of happy truce between a negroni and a Manhattan, the Martinez is the modern martini’s predecessor and is one of the best drinks on the menu.
Cocktails, all from the Prohibition Era or before, are the bar’s strongest suit. Using mostly bourbons, ryes and gins, and adhering to the global revival in dark-spirit classics, they’re bold and boozy as hell.
A basil gimlet (68RMB) has a satisfyingly herby burst that neatly subdues the bitters of the lemon juice but doesn’t outmatch the botanicals of the gin. A Vieux Carre (68RMB), with rye and cognac, offers a smart interplay between the sweet vermouth and Peychaud’s bitters. When a Sazerac (72RMB) is served too small, it’s sent back and returns twice the size.
Service is likeable but uneven. On our first visit, the bar was so dark we couldn’t make out the complimentary tapas that had appeared unceremoniously on our table. The first waiter didn’t know what it was. Neither did a second, until a third arrived from the bar with the confidence of a comet and whispered gently, as if to a shoeless orphan: ‘free food’.
Still, with drinks this consistent, miscues are easily forgiven. In fact, the only major let-down of the night was the Stinky Pig (72RMB). Supposedly made with bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup and a rinse of mescal, it had a fine, silky texture but no pig. Or rather, no stink. The flavour of anything infused with bacon is less than subtle; so what gives?
Schroeder is quick to concede that the drink is a ‘work in progress’. So far, he’s been unable to source the same kind of bacon that he uses back home. And while artisanal spirits make the trip with him, meat doesn’t. ‘I’ve heard stories about people bringing, like, whole suitcases of the stuff here,’ he says. ‘I mean, who does that?’