Shanghai's still swinging: The new breed of 'speakeasy' bars

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Story highlights

  • Fairmont Peace Hotel Jazz Band has been playing for 35 years
  • The members' average age is 82

Shanghai (CNN)Shanghai's golden era of the 1920s and '30s may be long gone, but the city's jazz babies are still swinging at the legendary Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund.

The art deco Peace Hotel opened in 1929 and has been hosting China's elite and visiting celebrities ever since, including Charlie Chaplin and Ronald Reagan.
    And entertaining the crowd on a nightly basis is China's answer to the Buena Vista Social Club: the Fairmont Hotel Old Jazz Band, average age 82.
    The oldest member is 86-year-old Sun Ji Bing, just one year younger than the hotel itself.
    Once known as "the Paris of the East," mainland China's most international city is fast regaining its 1930s reputation as being home to some of the world's most sophisticated nightlife.
    And in true speakeasy fashion, there's a new breed of drinking establishments where the secret entrances -- shielded by everything from a vintage vending machine to an eerie frosted mirror -- are a large part of the excitement.
    No drinking establishment will transport you back to the jazz age better than the following speakeasy-style hidden bars (if you can find them).

    Speak Low

    You'd better know geography if you want to access Speak Low's secret second bar. The entrance button is hidden behind Shanghai on the map.
    Speak Low is the brainchild of Shingo Gokan, the man who sparked a Japanese-style cocktail bar craze in New York with his famous bar Angel's Share, also a speakeasy.
    It recently placed at No.15 in the 2016 list of the World's Best Bars.
    Finding the main entrance -- behind a bookcase in a shop specializing in bartending equipment -- is only the beginning of the adventure.
    Upping the ante, Speak Low has a second hidden bar, concealed behind a wooden panel on the staircase.
    The secret button is on an antique map.
    Once pressed, the entrance slides open to reveal an intimate bar helmed by Gokan protege Atsushi Suzuki, whose Spirited Away cocktail is served with a spoonful of grated wasabi.
    And wait for it, there is a third hidden bar that is a members-only area.
    Tell us how it is if you're lucky enough to get access.
    Signature cocktail: Speak Low -- a blend of green macha tea, Bacardi Superior and Bacardi 8 rums and Pedro Ximenez sherry -- first won Gokan the 2012 Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition over at Angel's Share in the Big Apple.
    Inspired by Japanese tea ceremonies, the drink is paired with two pieces of dark chocolate to match its bitter but intricate flavors.
    Speak Low; 579 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu, Huangpu District, Shanghai; +6416 0133

    Flask

    "Robin Hood Roy," a signature cocktail at Flask, comes in a petrol-can-shaped flask hidden inside a book.
    Don't be fooled by the diner-style beer and burger joint that looks out onto South Shaanxi Road. It's a decoy.
    The vintage Coca-Cola vending machine in the corner is the doorway to a classy bar that boasts over 100 bourbon and rye whiskeys, most of which you won't find anywhere else in Shanghai.
    Cocktails, however, are the focus and are expertly mixed.
    Signature cocktail: Taiwanese Plum Soup is a sweet but complex number that plays on the flavors of Formosa.
    It features Zacapa rum, Prucia plum liqueur, sweet osmanthus wine, longan juice infused with sherry and creme de cassis, dried chrysanthemum flowers and a dusting of salty plum sugar on the rim of an earthenware cup.
    Flask; 432 Shaanxi Nan Road, near Yongjia Road, Xuhui district, Shanghai, China; +86 21 3368 6108

    El Ocho

    To reach El Ocho, punters have to walk through a flower shop and up three flights of stairs.
    The venue, with long curved wooden bar and high triangular ceiling, boasts an extensive cocktail list, a good selection of single malt whiskeys and around 50 house-infused liquors including a Mezcal replica of smoke-infused tequila.
    Signature cocktail: Corpse of Old Tom. This variation on a Corpse Reviver contains Ransom Old Tom gin, fresh lime, dry curacao, absinthe and fresh orange zest.
    It is both bitter and botanical with a kick like a mule.
    El Ocho; Zhong Plaza, 3/F, 99 Taixing Lu, near Nanjing Xi Lu, Shanghai, China; +6256 3587

    The Library Distillery

    Sadly, gambling is not allowed in China and this roulette is only for decoration.
    Thought you saw a fleeting shadow on a large frosted mirror but it wasn't your reflection?
    Relax if you're at Light and Salt -- chances are it's the sliding door to a 1920s-style speakeasy inside the fine dining establishment.
    The Library Distillery's speakeasy decor extends to the mock roulette wheel in front of the bar.
    The cocktail menu is a solid bet for classic drinks with a local twist prepared by head bartender Andrew An.
    The Library Distillery's snacks are no ordinary bar foods -- delicacies include house marinated olives and duck liver and pistachio pate with sourdough bread.
    A password is needed to enter the bar -- call a day ahead for the entry code.
    Signature cocktail: The sweet and spicy Sichuan Sling mixes Cachaca, grapefruit juice, Grand Marnier, tonic water and honey infused with Sichuan chili.
    It comes served in a tiki mug with a garnish of dangerously hot chilies.
    The Library Distillery; 6F, No. 133 Yuanmingyuan Lu (YWCA), near East Beijing Lu, Shanghai, China; +63611086

    The Tailor Bar

    This is a Bamboo/Rob Roy hybrid with a Japanese single malt whiskey base.
    The street-level entrance to The Tailor Bar is a nondescript elevator next to a Chinese medicine store.
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    Those who make it to the fourth floor are greeted by a wall adorned with fixed gear bicycles and a cozy bar overlooking Jing'an Temple.
    There is no cocktail menu.
    All drinks are "tailored" to the customers' tastes by denim-aproned Shanghai local David Hong, who trained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel bar in Berlin.
    Signature cocktail: While there is no such thing at The Tailor Bar, when asked for a cocktail based on Japanese whisky, Hong produced a Bamboo/Rob Roy hybrid which combined Yamazaki and Hakushu single malt whiskeys with Spanish sherry and Italian vermouth for CNY 130 ($21).
    It is both dry and tart and complements the vanilla, spice and smoke flavors of the whiskeys.
    The Tailor Bar, next to a Chinese medicine shop, 4F, 2 Huashan Road, near Yuyuan Road, Jing'an district, Shanghai, China; +86 183 0197 7360
    This story was originally published in August 2015.