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Union Trading Company

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64 Fenyang Rd, Xuhui, Shanghai, China

By Alexander Barlow

THERE’S NO DENYING IT: if you’d said, a few years ago, that Shanghai’s barscape was overly indebted to the stolid, stately and self-serious drinkeries of downtown Ginza, manned by too many timid, un-fun, tool and technique-obsessed auto-tenders, then, well, you would’ve had a point.

But not now. In 2014, Shanghai’s cocktail bar boom ushered in a new chapter and bartenders everywhere were put on notice: product, however precise, means nothing without personality.

If Texas-born Union Trading co-founder Yao Lu didn’t get the memo, it’s because he was the one who sent it out.

A former underling of Bobby Heugel (at Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston), no other barkeep in China combines craft and charisma so convincingly as this pedigreed bar-trade polymath – mentor, writer, consultant, owner-operator and truly gifted drinksmith. His influence here has been huge.

No surprise, then, that his bar is smashing it. Few, if any, China openings channel their owners’ ethos quite so successfully as Union Trading – a buzzy, embracing, arms-out-wide, all-smiles neighbourhood anti-speakeasy and industry go-to where style and service are evenly keeled.

Inventive, but always on point, cocktails change every three months with a steady bias towards seasonal ingredients. On the just-released spring menu: a chewy, well-crafted Crocodile Dilemma combines rye with peated single malt, maple syrup, Peychaud’s and absinthe; the Albino Mulled Wine offers depth and pep via Sauvignon Blanc, yellow Chartreuse, spiced pear brandy, dill and Asian pear; while Grandma’s Hands get busy with gin, Cocchi Americano and house-made blueberry-lavender shrub. Creativity inspires loyalty on both sides of the stick: Lu says he hasn’t lost a single staffer since opening.

In a city where bartenders are known to be flighty, that’s really something. “Making drinks has never been the hard part of this job,” Lu says. “It’s the instinct for hospitality that makes the bartender.”

Who could deny that?