There's a whole lot of shakin' going on as Beijing embraces a nightlife scene in sky-high cocktail bars and street-level dens, writes Aaron Peasley.
BEIJING knows how to play catch-up. In the space of a decade, the city has built billions of dollars' worth of public buildings conceived by the biggest names in starchitecture; amassed a collection of hotels that continue to expand the boundaries of luxury; and cultivated a taste for the good life, from Alaia dresses to bespoke John Lobb brogues.
The city's breakneck race to modernise has spawned plenty of spectacles but, until recently, Beijing's nightlife was tepid at best. Lacking the nocturnal spoils and decadent history of Shanghai, Beijing's scene traditionally reflected its imperial position - and the choices weren't great: stuffy hotel bars churning out kitschy, hastily made drinks to an expat-heavy crowd; divey hutong bars plagued by fake liquor and terrifying bathrooms; or cheesy nightclubs peddling overpriced bottle service to tables positioned a few feet from a crowded dance floor. Perhaps the Luxe City Guide to Beijing put it best: "At the China Ball, Hong Kong was always the belle, Shanghai the ambitious hussy and Beijing got stuck in traffic on the way."
The traffic is still horrendous but Beijing's reputation for after-five engagements has improved as the city's Olympic hangover has subsided. A formidable nightlife scene is rapidly springing up, populated by sky-grazing cocktail bars, tiny prohibition-inspired dens and booze-centric restaurants with lavish lounge areas.
According to Beijinger and New York-born Megan Connolly, the co-founder of ChART Contemporary, an art consultancy business that connects Western collectors and aficionados with contemporary Chinese art, the scene has come a long way in the past decade.
"When I first came to Beijing, I couldn't find a decent cup of coffee or [a] Diet Coke," she says. "At that time, the definition of cocktail meant Chivas and green tea.
"Today, I can enjoy top-quality cocktails that I would find in the best bars in New York. You can find everything in Beijing."
Hotel bars, once staid staples of a Beijing visit, have also lifted their game. Nowadays, a well-mixed drink after a day of sightseeing or back-to-back business meetings has become a fundamental traveller's right, alongside decent coffee, wireless internet or a timely wake-up call. Prior to my visit, a foreign correspondent friend who worked in China during the 1990s had warned me: "If you want a decent martini, prepare to vault the bar and mix it yourself."
There was no need for that at Atmosphere, the city's highest bar, which pairs Beijing's prowess for drama with its new-found fondness for quality booze.
As a rule, I've found the quality of an establishment's food and drink is often in direct opposition to the calibre of its panoramas. But that's not the case at Atmosphere, high atop Shangri-La's luxurious China World Summit Wing, which features wraparound views of the just-completed CCTV building and the Forbidden City. After riding the lift to the 80th floor, guests enter the Adam Tihany-designed bar through an illuminated spirits cave overflowing with rare whiskies.
Inside, the bar is all dark wood with cathedral-style ceilings and low-slung furniture. Guaranteeing the new bar would become a beachhead for fine drinking, the hotel group wisely brought in master mixologist Serhan "Charly" Kusaksizoglu, a veteran of Munich's Schumann's Bar, one of the most iconic pillars of cocktail culture on the globe.
Charly, born in Turkey and raised in Germany, is a throwback to the golden age of cocktails, with his slick hair, debonair demeanour and crisp white barman's jacket. He sees his role as not just a drink slinger but also that of teacher, bon vivant and confidante. "Beijing's drinking scene, like most of the city, is really developing fast," Kusaksizoglu says. "We are doing something here to really elevate the quality of the drinking culture in the city.
"Classical mixology is all about the art of hospitality - how to be a good host, a well-mannered guest and a fine conversationalist."
And yes, there is also the small matter of the drinks. Kusaksizoglu, who serves more than 300 mixed drinks at the bar, gravitates to the classics, often giving them a tweak in the process. During our tasting, he serves a traditional gimlet, given gusto with fresh ginger and lemongrass, as well as a sbagliato, a warm-weather rendition of the Italian negroni, made with Campari, prosecco, sweet vermouth and aromatic orange zest.
Charly, whose grandfather opened a bar in Istanbul during its 1930s heyday, believes Beijing is coming into its own, with a maturing, increasingly diverse, nightlife scene. "It needs a little more time but the city's scene is really thriving," he says. "It's an evolution for many locals, as people move away from bingeing into truly appreciating the drinks, their history and how they are made.
"Beijing now offers the best of both worlds: you can start the evening enveloped in the luxury of the highest bar in the city and move on, hopping from tiny places with an authentic vibe and young mixologists. In today's Beijing, it's all about the mix."
Another evening we followed Charly's advice and sought out Ichikura, one of Beijing's whisky-centric speakeasy-inspired bars.
True to his word, Ichikura wasn't easy to find (even with the address written down, our cab driver had no idea) but it offered quite the contrast to Atmosphere, with its Victorian-era furniture, polished bar and space for just 12 drinkers. This contingent, which is also responsible for bars such as Glen, Kura Kura and Er, produce drinks with an attention to detail that only the Japanese possess.
Japanese bartenders have made a huge impact on the city's drinking culture: their attention to detail is unparalleled and their ingredients are top notch. "Trendy bars, speakeasies and lounges full of local and international young professionals have been opening up all over the city since the Olympics," says ChART Contemporary chairman - and Megan's sister - KC Vienna Connolly, about the scene, which is constantly evolving and often a little hard to pin down for those new to the city.
Not far from Ichikura, behind a strip mall in bustling Sanlitun - the city's most commercial district - lies Apothecary, a popular late-night haunt that takes its decorative clues from the American south.
Here, bartenders construct drinks with their own infusions, some using local ingredients such as cherries and jasmine.
A menu of down-home classic food, including southern fried chicken and andouille sausages, complements the strong drinks. In many ways, the establishment is emblematic of the direction of Beijing's flourishing nightlife; it's anything goes, unburdened by what came before it.
"When a new bar opens, an old one closes," KC says, suggesting that travellers search Twitter and follow a handful of blogs dedicated to Beijing's fast-paced drinking scene. "The challenge in Beijing is keeping up with the trends and not letting your bar fall between the cracks. Very few places have survived throughout the years due to bigger and better spaces opening with bigger budgets.
"Beijing is leading the race when it comes to the cocktail world because it is fresh, new and constantly emerging."
Cathay Pacific flies daily to Beijing via Hong Kong, priced from $987 return. 13 17 47, cathaypacific.com. Australian travellers require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Atmosphere: Excellent views and some of the best libations in all of Asia, this sky-grazing hotel bar has become the place to see and be seen in China's capital. On weekends, the fun lasts until 4am. 1 Jianguomen Outer Street, China World Summit Wing, +10 6505 2299.
Apothecary: Creole-style cuisine complements expertly made cocktails at this popular hideaway. 3/F, Nali Patio, 81 Sanlitun Beilu, +10 5208 6040.
Ichikura: Presided over by a team of classically trained mixologists, this semi-secret bar specialises in the classics, as well as rare single-malt whiskies. 36 Dong Sanhuan Bei Lu, +10 6507 1107.
Shangri-La Hotel's China World Summit Wing occupies the highest floors of Beijing's China World Trade Centre and ranks as the most luxurious hotel in the city. The 278 plush guest rooms have features such as espresso machines, walk-in wardrobes and flat-screen televisions. 1 Jianguomenwai Avenue, +10 6505 2299, shangri -la.com/en/property/beijing/chinaworldsummitwing.
The beautifully-made-drink ritual is being embraced beyond the city's chefs, who have developed a range of cocktails designed to enhance their food. Maison Boulud, New York chef Daniel Boulud's first foray in China, employs local ingredients such as plums, apples and lychees in perfectly composed cocktails. Ch'ien Men 23, 23 Qianmen Dongdajie, +10 6559 9200, maisonboulud.com.