Shanghai’s growing and constantly shifting cocktail scene is welcoming a new addition to its ranks, all the way from Japan. From the team behind Tokyo’s Bar Trench, comes Ars & Delecto, a Japanese-style cocktail bar that might sound strikingly similar to a few other Japanese bars in the city, yet offers much more than expected.
The new bar is the 4th establishment from spirits importer and bar brand Small Axe, which runs Bar Tram, Bar Triad, and Bar Trench in Tokyo. While all three bars are noted for their expertise and elegance, Trench is by far their most popular, having earned accolades from local and international publications for their unique bar program, and even earning a spot at 16 on the Asia’s Best Bars list for 2018.
Situated on a small side street right behind the United Valley complex, if you walk too fast you’ll miss the black wooden exterior if it weren’t for the beautifully crafted signage and doors and lights emblazoned with the bar’s signature logo.
Step inside and you’re greeted by smartly lit interior with café charm: a white marble bar, tile floors, wooden chairs and tables, the bar staff dressed in vests and suits working their magic behind the stick, taking bottles from a dark wooden back bar filled with some common Japanese bar elements like whiskey, but a bit of the unexpected, with ample bottles of amaro, aperitif liqueurs and, more interestingly, a nice selection of absinthe.
The bar is managed by Hisatsugu Saito, who worked at Bar Trench for a time before being tapped to manage things at Ars & Delecto. Saito got into bartending in Vancouver, eventually moving to Japan and trying his hand at bars there. It was at this point that Saito came across Bar Trench and decided to join the team.
Ars & Delecto brings the expertise and style which Small Axe’s bars are known for to Shanghai. Since their grand opening last week, which went swimmingly, there was a steady crowd of Chinese and Japanese patrons at the bar and tables when I came to the establishment on a rainy Monday evening.
With their café-like style, choice of location, and the intriguing nature of their menu, my first question was why Small Axe would want to open A&D in a city like Shanghai instead of a more established cocktail city like Hong Kong or Singapore. Posing this question to Saito, situated behind the bar, keeping a watchful eye on patrons and staff, he answers that it’s because the scene here is young.
“In Shanghai the bar scene is still changing and fresh, whereas bars in Hong Kong and Singapore are more well-established.” While Tokyo sports some of the most formal bars in the world, where form, precision and class come before change and experimentation, there’s been a change as more tastes enter the city, and, with establishments like Bar Trench leading the charge, why not bring the experience to another city where things are also in flux?
Saito explains, after watching me peruse the menu a bit, that at present, A&D will be serving a small menu of Signature and Classic cocktails with a twist until their 2nd floor bar opens (in the next 1 to 2 months), with the 1st floor adding coffee into the mix. The current menu, although small, has an interesting mix of obscure classics like the Vieux Carre and a few drinks featuring absinthe, like the Corpse Reviver No. 2, Van Gogh and Tuxedo.
The addition of cocktails featuring absinthe isn’t just something that’s been done on a whim. “We were the first group to start importing and serving quality absinthe in Tokyo” says Saito.“Our owner tried absinthe for the first time during a trip to France and loved it” so he decided to make it an addition in his bars.
It’s not just the backbar filled with eclectic spirits that’s interesting, but the beverages as well. The drinks, with names like Black Sea Old Fashioned, Going to Acalpuco and Czech Inn, are meant to allow guests to travel, much like Saito and the staff did when they all came to Shanghai, experiencing with them, as it were, strange new lands, only in the realm of taste.
Wanting to see what the bartenders could dowith absinthe, I opted for the Van Gogh (125 RMB), a gin sour amped up with Mansinthe absinthe (that’s Marilyn Manson’s brand), with cinnamon syrup and topped off with dried lemon and burning sugar cube. The aromatic licorice flavor of the absinthe cuts through the gin and mixes wonderfully with the cinnamon, making for a wonderfully sippable drink where the heaviness of the absinthe sneaks up on you, leaving you in a trance-like state as you sip more and more.
Other standouts included their Mezcal Milk Punch (100 RMB), which sees smoky mezcal paired with pear brandy, clarified milk, lime juice and spices for a layered and surprisingly clear drink, and Going to Acalpuco (120 RMB), named after the Bob Dylan song of the same name, with tequila combined with cilantro, carrot, chili and agave for a drink that reminded me of being in a farmers market back in Phoenix; a bit of heat yet refreshing and vegetal.
Even their menu of classics have interesting tweaks and twists, a welcome change from all too common renditions of the same drinks. Seeing that their House Negroni (95 RMB) was listed as “best for after dinner”, I decided to test it out. Mixing dry gin with intense La Quintinye Vermouth – a lively French vermouth made with 26 botanicals – and Bruto Americano Aperitif, a red aperitivo-style liquor not unlike Campari but with more bite, I’m presented with a Negroni that’s bracing, minty and herbal, a nice sipper and something completely out of the ordinary.
If there’s one thing A&D does right, it’s throwing all expectation out the window and serving drinks with character that will blow your mind. Although the bar is still relatively new on the scene, check it out if you want to take a walk on the wild side. You won’t be disappointed.
Ars & Delecto
Hours: Daily, 6pm-2am
Address: 222 Jinxian Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu
Nearest Metro: South Shaanxi Road Station, Line 1/10/12