Yongli International looks like a lot of other Beijing apartment complexes thrown up in the past decade and a half: gleaming, if slightly faded, with offices and a shopping center out front. It's only after I tentatively take the building-two residents' elevator up to the eleventh floor—sharing the ride with a few locals heading home from work—and turn down the hallway that Tony's Workshop, a dreamy cocktail den carved out of a one-bedroom apartment, reveals itself.
As I settle into one of the 12 barstools, the rococo interior—lucky-cat figurines, cherry blossoms, jazz playing softly—still seems restrained compared to the view out the window of the melting neon lights of the new InterContinental Beijing Sanlitun, Beijing's stab at a Hong Kong–style skyline.
Behind the bar, as he is most nights, is 39-year-old owner Tony Zhao in a three-piece suit. Originally from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Zhao started out as a line cook and eventually went on to work behind the bar in Bangkok and Singapore for Jereme Leung, the Hong Kong–born pioneer of big-format modern Asian fusion dining at restaurants like Whampoa Club. He was a seminal influence for Zhao: "I learned a lot from him about using spices, the selection of ingredients, and the creativity of Chinese culture."
While this attention to detail could place Zhao in any world city, it's the Chinese flavor profiles—often floral, herbal, and sweet—that give his drinks a sense of place.
The cocktails at Tony's Workshop, which are listed in a hand-illustrated menu, are spiked with housemade elixirs like jasmine syrup, ice infused with rose petals, or dustings of Chinese herbs, a kind of highwire mix of bold flavors that also characterizes much of Chinese cuisine. "Westerners tend to prefer drier cocktails," he says. "Chinese people like cocktails with a balance of acidity and sweetness." His most popular drink, The Elderberry Sour, incorporates jasmine and osmanthus flower syrups, elderberry, and gin.
In a room behind me, the cozy lounge area—that would be the former bedroom—caters to older connoisseurs who seek out his collection of vintage Japanese whiskies, some held in porcelain bottles and sourced at auctions, as well as Scottish single-malts. In the bathroom, the tub is concealed with a board and display of dried flowers.
Opening in an apartment block surely adds to the bar's appeal in a city awash in "hidden" speakeasy-style cocktail joints (such as Mimi e Coco, tucked behind a pizza place on Fangjia Hutong), but was also borne of practical concerns: "With China's entrepreneurial wave, a lot of the post-90s generation opens their first businesses in low-rent apartment buildings," Zhao says. Indeed, when I lived in the same neighborhood—north of the Workers' Stadium—in 2010, I came home from work to the buzz of the musician-run tattoo parlor down the hall.
Though the local government has made some efforts to rein in businesses operating out of apartments, both for the sake of neighbors and to encourage leases in new commercial spaces, the practice persists. Zhao says his hushed watering hole draws no complaints from the neighbors, some of whom occasionally pop by for a drink at the bar.
Opened in 2015, Tony's Workshop is the culmination of almost a decade running bars in Beijing. "I opened my first bar in 2006, a Japanese bar that was only 30 square meters, and for the first month, I didn't have many customers. Thankfully, the rent back then was very low," says Zhao of his previous spot, Bar Promise. "Slowly, more guests started showing up, but they preferred fruitier cocktails, so I started changing classic cocktails into more fruit-based cocktails."
Back then, the city's craft cocktail scene was still in its infancy. "In 2004, when I first arrived in China, Scotch was leading the category by volume—in particular, Chivas Regal Scotch whiskey," explains Thomas Menier, Asia regional manager for French Cognac producer Distillerie Tessendier & Fils. "Clubs were configured with a maximum number of tables for bottle consumption at your table. The whisky was mixed in a jug with iced green tea and served in small glasses, more often than not drunk like shots—some clubs could sell 400 to 500 bottles of whisky per night!"
The ground began to shift in the past decade, led by spirits companies hoping to tap into the massive Chinese market (see Rémy Martin's new Louis XIII Cognac lifestyle boutique in Beijing), a new openness to Western trends, and Chinese bartenders and chefs like Zhao returning from stints overseas to open their own places. After the Japanese bar, Zhao opened a succession of spots in Beijing, including Sanlitun's now-shuttered Drink House Whiskey Bar and The Secret, a menu-less cocktail spot in the same apartment complex and a sort of proto-Workshop.
The most surprising assist came from President Xi Jinping, who, when he took office at the end of 2012, began to crack down on corruption. His policies led to a steep drop-off in boozy government banquets and gifts of premium spirits once used to curry favor with officials. While some liquor importers and a certain kind of conspicuous-consumption bar struggled, it also created an opening. "If anything, the policy helped the cocktail scene as people moved away from traditional business entertainment," says Menier.
Younger customers are increasingly interested in cocktail culture—and able to pay the roughly USD $20 Tony's Workshop charges for drinks like his raspberry sour, made with fresh raspberry syrup, cloves, Chinese bay leaf, and rosemary. Many are businesses owners entertaining friends, Zhao adds, and free to spend as they please.
"Five or ten years ago, people might have quietly mixed high-proof alcohol with fruit juice, but today Beijing's cocktail scene is very mature, and older customers are very familiar with single-malt whiskey," says Zhao.
In coming years, he sees local tastes moving toward more classic cocktails. But for now, in a quiet space above the teeming city, he mixes with quiet concentration, placing before me a beautiful, earthy, and sweet Morning Glory Fizz that tastes like Beijing's history and future all at once.
Rm 1111, Unit 2, Yongli International Building, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang, Beijing
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.