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Speak Low

579, Fuxing Middle Rd, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi

By Alexander Barlow

WHEN SHINGO GOKAN announced in 2014 he was opening a speakeasy in Shanghai, eyes rolled. By then, the city had seen enough secret entrances, suspenders and stirred brown spirit drinks to make the standbys of the genre already feel numbingly overdone. Concept fatigue – for Shanghai’s more clued-in cocktails sophisticates, at least – had begun to set in.. By then, the city had seen enough secret entrances, suspenders and stirred brown spirit drinks to make the standbys of the genre already feel numbingly overdone. Concept fatigue – for Shanghai’s more clued-in cocktails sophisticates, at least – had begun to set in.

Opening yet another paean to Prohibition, then, would not be easy. But Gokan nailed it: with Speak Low, the Tokyo-born cocktail progenitor of Angel’s Share, New York, made (almost) all of the city’s early tries at the neo-speakeasy look redundant. A triumph made all the more impressive, probably, by the bar’s location: a difficult, off-key part of town not known for its foot-traffic (a kind of funerary passage, in fact, where lurk the ghosts of many a concept past – countless bars have failed in
the area).

On street level, bar-tool store Ocho’s slide-away bookcase leads to the first staircase of a three-tier concept. Level one is an up-tempo, Friday-fitted fast-serve volume bar (“Think downtown New York,” says Gokan) with a menu split in two: on one side, inventive, fine-tuned house signatures such as Sawadee-Cup, a yummy blend of buttered rum, Thai iced tea and tapioca; on the other, familiar but well-wrought (and credited) New York staples such as the Benton’s Old Fashioned care of PDT, and Angel’s Share’s own pleasingly oddball Parmigiano Sour, a beguiling combination of pisco, tokaji, parmigiano, honey-lemon tea and egg white.

On level two, Gokan ups the artistry: precise, detail-dedicated nerd-bait serves make liberal use of Japanese ingredients and more rarefied spirits. A Moanin’, say, sees Hibiki 12 Year Old combined with nigori sake, clementine marmalade and wasabi (yes, it works), while the artful Speak Low, the bar’s namesake crowd-pleaser, puts together Bacardi, Bacardi 8, pedro ximenez sherry, matcha tea and kinako, a kind of roasted soybean flour.

Gokan’s other big coup is his staff. Fay Chen is one of the few female bar managers in Shanghai and, intentionally or not, this means Speak Low has felt less of a sausage party than the other overly gendered boys’ club bars elsewhere in town that have long tried, and mostly failed, to court likely the most adventurous half of Shanghai’s drinking populace.

But Chen is a talented drinksmith, too. Her award-gilded Gold Fashioned – a mix of Bacardi Gold, honey, longan water and Angostura bitters, won her the Bacardi Legacy competition in 2015 (she finished top eight, worldwide) and is one of Speak Low’s best-sellers.

Also behind the stick, dapper head bartender Atsushi Suzuki (formerly of Angel’s Share) combines with Janson Chan (Bar Soul, Taiwan; Quinary, Hong Kong) to make one of the most solid service units in Shanghai. Still director of Angel’s Share, Gokan himself makes the odd appearance, too, and this year, he tells us, will open his second venture in the city – coffee-cocktail concept Sober Company. “Again, very New York in tone, with a similar drinks programme to Angel’s Share, but totally different from Speak Low,” he says. Opens June-July.