Young bartenders shaking up China's maturing cocktail scene

The China final of the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition was held recently at Imperial Ancestral Temple of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The iconic landmark witnessed the first female winner of the competition, Chen Shibei from Speaklow Bar in Shanghai (pictured above).

At night, a 3-D mapping projection transformed the temple into a visual work of holographic projections, revealing Bacardi's brand stories and its new bottle design. Twelve young and talented Chinese bartenders were also introduced.

"It's so amazing that I won the championship at the great Forbidden City. The competition is very exciting, and each bartender is great. I'm very proud of myself, for being a female bartender," says Chen, 26. She will bring her cocktail Gold Fashion to Sydney, Australia, in May for the global finals, competing with her peers from all over the world.

Gold Fashion was an inspiration from her journey when she moved from her hometown in Taiwan to Shanghai last year.

The cocktail is about her impression of Shanghai, with a combination of old and new, incorporating ingredients such as longan fruit.

Bacardi rums, which originated in the Cuban city of Santiago in 1862, are used in many classic cocktails, such as the mojito and the Cuba Libre. Launched in China in 2013, the competition nurtures Chinese bartenders and creates a platform for them to showcase their talent.

The 12 Chinese bartenders, including two women, stood out in the regional finals of the competition, which were held last September and October in different locations around China.

More than 510 people participated in the competition. At the China final, the contestants introduced themselves and their original cocktails.

The competition also showcased some Asian elements. For example, one contestant used a traditional Chinese wine vessel called zun, a bronze wine goblet with three legs used in ancient times. Another contestants used Thai soup Tom Yum Kung in his cocktail.

Zhang Min from Flavor Lounge in Chongqing placed second in the competition with Summer Day, a cocktail inspired by a summer vacation in Thailand with his girlfriend.


Yao Jian from Peacock Music Restaurant in Jinan, Shandong province, finished third with his creation, Spring Morning.

"Making cocktails has enriched my life. It's a lot of fun being a bartender. I gain experience through competitions and chat about various interesting topics with many guests," says Chen, who became a bartender about five years ago.

Chen had her first cocktail at the age of 20, and says the process of making a drink looked cool.

She has become even more interested in the craft as she has learned more about the art of making a high-quality drink. "It's not just about mixing ingredients with liqueurs and spirits. There is much depth to explore."

According to Chen, innovation is very important. More and more bartenders are offering good cocktails to customers, who are seeking better drinks.

"You have to be used to working late until midnight and getting up early to learn things. It's important to practice basic skills such as stirring, shaking and rolling, just like learning the basics of tai chi," she says.

"The competition helps me fulfil my dream. My suggestion for Chen is not to have so much pressure. It's important to have fun in the global finales," says Xie Jun, one of the judges.

Xie, who finished in the top three at last year's global finals, says it's important for contestants to be able to speak English so they can communicate with other bartenders.

"It's true that there are more males than females in the industry, but I don't see many differences. The only thing women need to pay attention to is one may feel uncomfortable and tired during menstruation," Chen says.

According to Dean McHugh, managing director of Greater China, Bacardi Asia Pacific Limited, the inclusion of females in the cocktail industry is becoming more commonplace. Men like to create strong drinks, while women tend to make both strong and sweet drinks because they are a bit more balanced and creative about ingredients, McHugh says.

"If you can represent for your consumers, you will probably do a good job. Nearly 50 per cent of the consumers are females, why wouldn't you include females in the creation of cocktails? " says Jon Grey, regional president of Bacardi Asia Pacific.

"A woman would understand what another woman wants for a cocktail better than a guy. Having a guy making all the cocktails can't be the best thing."

According to McHugh, when he first came to China three years ago, there were not many people interested in cocktails. But in recent years, he noticed a change in people's interest in cocktails.

"The Chinese consumers have changed about what kind of cocktails they like. As Chinese are traveling more outside the country, they're experiencing Western culture and bringing back those experiences. Their expectation is to find the same in China," McHugh says.

"That's why there are more small bars focusing on cocktails opening in China. It helps with the expansion and development of cocktails. Cocktails are becoming more popular among Chinese consumers and a more reputable industry. "

Says Grey: "As Chinese have more disposable income, the cocktail moment can be a part of their enjoyment in life. Savoring cocktails is one of the rewards for you about being successful in life."

He says the next generation in China wants to try different things and experiment with international trends. The spending of the middle-class in China will change the consumption patterns around the world, including in the cocktail industry.