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Drink like a local • Bars in East Asia

Quintessential drinking experiences from Beijing to Singapore – local bars the locals love…


© Chen Chao

Beijing • China

Try: a jar of Honey Ma Gold beer at Great Leap Brewing

A US brew laced with honey from the Great Wall and peppercorns from distant Sichuan province, Great Leap Brewing’s sweet-yet-fiery Honey Ma Gold is Beijing in a glass: a mix of old Eastern ingredients and modern Western techniques, enormously attractive to hipsters and, thanks to Great Leap’s location, intimately tied to the city’s winding hutong alleys. Plus it’s enormously alcoholic, just like a sizeable chunk of the city’s foreign population…

The bustling, tat-filled storefronts of Nanluoguxiang have made the street a magnet for tourists from around the world. But push past the glowing façades and into the knot of alleys down Jongying Hutong and you’ll find one of Beijing’s most idiosyncratic – but influential – beery haunts. Opened in 2010, Great Leap Brewing wasn’t the first place in Beijing to offer microbrewed beers in the city, but it did spark off a craze for home-brewing that has seen amateur hop-heads crafting ales all over the city.

Not that the pints served up at Great Leap are anything less than professional quality. Whether you’re sipping the sweetly malty Pale Ale #6 or the moreishly bitter Danshan Wheat – made with black tea from Danshan – you’re all but guaranteed high times (and a high ABV). They’re not cheap (the menu declines to list prices for a reason) but these are beers to be savoured anyway, not knocked back in a boozy rush. Indeed, such is the bar’s success with ale connoisseurs that founder Carl Setzer has even started hosting ‘how to brew’ classes (pictured).

It’s the setting that completes the package, though. Surrounded by 8ft-high walls, dotted with trees and tables and thankfully equipped with a mosquito zapper, Great Leap’s courtyard – located on Doujiao Hutong, down the west end of Jongying Hutong – is a great place to while away the summer. And while it’s a little less inviting in the colder months, the warmly friendly staff (well, save for Setzer, a man who’s in love with beer alone and seems to regard customers as a necessary evil) and comfy couches make the tiny interior space a fine place to hide as it gets colder. James Wilkinson, editor, Time Out Beijing

Great Leap Brewing 6 Doujiao Hutong, off Dianmenwai Dajie, Dongcheng, Beijing, China. +86 10 5717 1399.

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Yang Xiaozhe

Shanghai • China

Try: a ‘Shaoxing Cavalry’ at Yuan

A landmark new opening and a major stride forward in Shanghai’s surging drinks scene, Yuan is an experimental cocktail bar at the forefront of a new chapter in the city’s drinking culture. A night out in Shanghai these days feels more Chinese with bars relying less on foreign talent and imported tastes, instead nurturing a bright new wave of homegrown bartenders and locally derived concoctions… 

George Nemec is a well-known Shanghai-based bartender who is widely credited as one of the early architects of the city’s drinks scene. In an interview in 2011 he told Time Out Shanghai his ultimate goal was to see Shanghai’s bar culture more self-sufficient and less reliant on foreign talent – either Western or Japanese – who are behind many of the better bars in town. ‘The ideal scenario,’ he said, ‘is to eventually have Chinese bar owners, employing Chinese bar managers, mentoring Chinese bartenders, serving cocktails to Chinese drinkers’.

In many ways, Yuan is that ideal scenario realised. Behind the bar is an all-Chinese line-up of bartending talent, including local legend Ted He and fast-rising up-and-comer Jerry Chen, the winner of the inaugural Time Out Shanghai-Cointreau Cocktail Shakedown competition in 2012. Yuan is also one of the first bars in town to successfully riff classics with Chinese ingredients to render cocktails that are actually drinkable. One of the signatures here is the Shaoxing Cavalry. Essentially a reimagining of the Manhattan, Chivas 12 Scotch replaces bourbon and is tempered with wolfberry-infused Shaoxing rice wine (a stand-in for sweet vermouth), balanced with orange bitters and served in old-style Qing Dynasty pottery and tops the list of one of the most inventive, Sino-centric cocktail menus in town. Alexander Barlow, deputy editor, Time Out Shanghai

Yuan, 17-2 Xiangyang Bei Lu, Jingan district, Shanghai, China. +86 21 6433 0538.

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© Time Out Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur • Malaysia

Try: an ‘Oh Boi’ at Palate Palette

Blended Calamansi lime juice infused with a jaw-numbingly sour preserved plum – Palate Palette drops in a shot of rum that turns this common KL coffee shop drink into an alcoholic thirst quencher…

A colourful restaurant and bar housed in a colonial-era shophouse, Palate Palette is understated but cool. As its name suggests, it attracts a variegated creative crowd – artists, performers, musicians and the city’s culturati – but it manages to be neither pretentious nor intimidating. The interior complements its artistic inclination with whimsical wall murals, carousel horses and mismatched furniture. The upstairs space often hosts independent film screenings and music events (Palate Palette is one of the very few venues in KL that holds regular dubstep and reggae nights) while its outdoor seating welcomes pets.

Besides serving an inventive food and drinks menu, the bar is a great supporter of the city’s many subcultures, including body art, buskers and the LGBT community. But its big draw is the creativity that goes on behind the counter. If you’ve anaesthetised your tongue with our ‘Oh Boi’ recommendation, wake it up again with the fiery cili padi passion martini. Lim Chee Wah, editor-in-chief, Time Out Kuala Lumpur

Palate Palette 1 Jalan Mesui, off Jalan Nagasari, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. +603 2142 2148.

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© James Hadfield

Tokyo • Japan

Try: Hoppy and shochu at Fujiya Honten

Exquisite cocktails, ultra-rare whiskies, miso beer – Tokyo is a tantalising destination for any booze geek. But for an introduction to the city’s salaryman drinking culture, this retro standing bar in Shibuya is the place to go.

There’s never much risk of running up an outrageous tab at Fujiya Honten. Customers at this basement standing bar – a venerable boozer that was established more than 130 years ago – simply plonk down the amount of money they’ve budgeted for the night, and the staff deduct from it accordingly as each order arrives. It’s an old-fashioned practice that seems to have died out at other, less honest drinking establishments around town, but very much in keeping with the retro vibe here.

Join the salarymen crowded around the open kitchen, bathe in the aroma of the deep-fat fryer and start off with a round of draft beer – at ¥450 (€4.20), one of the priciest things on the menu – before moving on to something stronger. While sophisticates might prefer some nihonshu, the most popular option is shochu liquor, sold in 360ml bottles with a choice of mixers. Opt for Hoppy, an old-school beer substitute that’s come back in vogue with the office-worker sect recently, and which makes for a crisp, refreshing DIY cocktail. James Hadfield, editor, Time Out Tokyo

Fujiya Honten, B1F, 2-3 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan. +81 (0)3 3461 2128.

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Hong Kong • China

Try: a ‘Red Sky Colour’ at Sugar

With its commanding city views, Sugar is already proving popular among the Island East business crowd, who have long been starved of decent drinking holes. But it’s more than accessible for the hoi polloi as well – and is set to become a popular outcrop on Hong Kong’s drinking scene.

Occupying the entire 32nd floor of the upscale hotel EAST is Sugar, an undeniably cool space that sells itself as a ‘bar + deck + lounge’, with phenomenal views across the city. To the north are the bright lights of Kwun Tong, with the vista swinging uninterrupted to the North Point skyline in the west, and out over the island’s often building-obstructed east. And from the outdoor deck you can see Quarry Bay extend toward Tai Tam Country Park. The bar’s interior has been smartly designed to maximise the views. Ottomans and couches flow over three tiers; Sugar feels casual by day, a sexy futuristic capsule saturated with jazzy house beats by night.

The drinking options, as you’d expect from a first-rate hotel bar, are both abundant and excellent, particularly when it comes to cocktails. Unlike many first-rate hotel bars, they’re not wincingly expensive. Their ‘Forest Sour’ (vodka, crème de mure, grapes, lemon, strawberry, maple syrup) is recommended – it’s impressively fresh, balanced and distinctive. But for the superlative Hong Kong drinking experience, it has to be the ‘Red Sky Colour’ (comprising vodka, crème du cassis, rosé wine, raspberry honey, lime and ginger), sipped out on the deck, having raised a subtle toast to the sunset. Mark Tjhung, editor, Time Out Hong Kong

Sugar 2/F, EAST Hotel, 29 Tai Koo Shing Road, Hong Kong. +852 3968 3738.

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Try: a ‘Singapore Sour’ at Loof

Tourists may charge to Raffles Hotel to venerate the Singapore Sling, but for a slightly less 19th-century, more up-to-date Singapore drinking experience head for an a la carte cocktail at a rooftop bar. Following a recent renovation, Loof has re-emerged as one of the leaders of the year-round alfresco trend, thanks to a locally inspired list of cocktails and some of the best bar bites you’ll find in Singapore…

Atop the Odeon Towers in Singapore’s downtown CBD, the revamped Loof bills itself as Singapore’s first standalone rooftop bar. The name references the idiosyncrasies of local culture (particularly Singlish), and in its new incarnation, the bar turns the spotlight on local flavours. There’s a strong menu of South-East Asian-driven food and cocktails, conducive of a fun and relaxed atmosphere – great for a post-work tipple and a chance to sit back and enjoy an excellent view of the surrounding area (Loof overlook Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the original Singapore Sling).

Among the bespoke drink choices, created by Loof manager Aaron Tan and local mixologist Ken Loon, our local hero is the ‘Singapore Sour’, one of their ‘Asian Sensations’, featuring calamansi juice, vodka, soda and a sour plum syrup – plus an actual sour plum dropped into the mix. It manages to pull off sour, salty, sweet and refreshing all at once – perfect for the open-air tropical weather and one of the few drinks in town to utilise the sour plum, found in supermarkets all around town. Berwin Song, editor, Time Out Singapore

Loof Third Floor, Odeon Towers, 331 North Bridge Road, Singapore. +65 6338 8035.

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