Inside Cold Drinks , the luxurious cocktail lair above China Live
Cold Drinks the sleek, Shanghai-meets-Blade-Runner-inspired bar tucked on the second floor of China Live, is now slinging Scotch drinks on Broadway. The Scotch whiskey-centric bar is the brainchild of beverage director Duggan McDonnell, who is combining a love of decadent whimsy with the smokey stuff.
“We’re taking Scotch, this serious, masculine, let’s face it — old white guy — beverage, and having fun with it,” McDonnell explains.
The name Cold Drinks refers to “a once-upon-a-time cocktail bar” that supposedly existed in Shanghai’s expat-filled French Concession neighborhood in the early 20th Century. “Gangsters, poets, expats, the soup of Shanghai — everyone went there,” McDonnell says. “And this bar had ice which, in hot and steamy Shanghai, gave it major cache.”
This Cold Drinks doesn’t just have ice: It’s got a grand ice carving station behind the black marble bar and a back bar of 150-plus Scotches, some of which are extremely expensive, rare spirits. Those include AncNoc Blas, an unknown Highlands bottling, and Circus, a Compass Box blend that retails for close to $400. “But they’re not just masculine chest-thumpers,” McDonnell assures. “We’ve got some silly shit back there.” And, per his no-limits promise, they’re all fair game to be used as cocktail ingredients.
“There’s something brazen about using Scotch in cocktails. And Scotch doesn’t always have to be the lead singer, even in a ‘Scotch bar;’ it can harmonize.”
The opening menu will feature 17 cocktails, all different from the drinks available downstairs at China Live. Downstairs, per McDonnell, the focus was on high volume, and diverse crowd pleasers that would complement the flavors of the cuisine. The experience at Cold Drinks also prioritizes Chinese-inspired flavors (like tea, mushrooms, matcha, and chiles) but is decidedly more rarified. Drinks range from $16 to $50 and all include Scotch in some form, though some in unexpected ways.
Take the Sword Swallower, served in a decidedly un-Scotch-like tiki mug and combining Speyburn 10 Year Single Malt with mezcal and Alsatian Gewurtztraminer. Then there’s the Al’s Cut — created for Al Ribaya of Al’s Attire, who designed the custom clamshell and black tuxedo jackets worn by Cold Drinks’ bartenders. That’s a gin gimlet, flavored “with a little bit of Scotch and a little bit of tea.”
“We have some of our Scotches in dasher bottles and are using them like bitters,” McDonnell explains. “The Al’s Cut has a quarter ounce of Scotch in it. But that flavor — the salty, sea dog taste of Islay Scotch — still comes through.”
Many of the drinks were developed during the bar’s soft opening, when McDonnell encouraged the bar team to create cocktails on the spot based on a guest’s taste and mood. “We’ll ask you, ‘Do you feel more like a chocolate chip cookie or garlic fries?’ That helps us decide whether we’re using a toasty, cinnamon-flavored Scotch, or a more herbaceous, salty Scotch. Then we’ll suss out if you want something boozy, something spirit-driven, or something in a big, ridiculous tiki mug with a ton of crushed ice.” This process led to the creation of A Sinister Occasion, made with Speyburn 10 Single Malt, Greek yogurt, banana liqueur and housemade firewater bitters.
There are more classic preparations to be found, including that $50 cocktail (and yes, there’s only one). The Royal Salute Rob Roy combines Royal Salute 21, stirred with Glenlivet 12, Barbera Chinato and Lustau Vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and a mix of bitters.
The irreverence-meets-decadence vibe begins in the concrete staircase leading up to the bar. A cloud of bats, symbolizing good luck in Chinese culture, decorates the walls, leading to a gold bat painted on the bar’s otherwise unmarked door. Design by Andrew Lieberman of San Francisco’s AvroKO combines Art Deco influences with angular Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pieces, Chinatown grit with disco chic, and “dystopian future cityscapes of films like Blade Runner,” says Lieberman.
This translates to grey velvet couches alongside brass and lucite tables; modern, tarantula-like chandeliers outfitted with vial-shaped Edison bulbs, and custom-made carved concrete wall tiles, complete with hidden Chinese symbolism. The black mirrored ceiling opens up to show exposed pipes painted gold, while the angular woodwork features a ’70s-style brown stain. Motown, soul, and rock are on the soundtrack, with the occasional Chet Faker tune sprinkled in.
“Something about this room really inspires… consumption,” McDonnell says. “We want to encourage the spirit of play.”
Cold Drinks is currently open Monday-Sunday, 4 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. Food is forthcoming; for now, guests can snack on duck fat cracker jacks with their drinks. – Eater San Francisco (07.28.17)