By Jim Boyce | There are always one or two bars that instantly pop to mind when someone asks me for a recommendation. When I first moved to Beijing a dozen years ago, my automatic pick was a cozy cocktail joint called First Cafe. Later on, places like the speakeasy Fubar, the Xinjiang band-featuring Cheers and spirits specialists BBC spent time heading the queue. Some lasted over a year, like rooftop getaway Q Bar, others were measured in months, like Ocean Grounds with its fine martinis.
When Tiki Bungalow opened near Beixinqiao in mid-2015, it was on the tip of my tongue. Then along came Press Release last year, a subterranean speakeasy that leveraged both the wine and cocktail scenes, and that served its last drink last night.
Hidden inside restaurant L’Epasar on the B1 level of Sanlitun’s Topwin Center, Press Release skipped the Beijing speakeasy default of Prohibition-style drinks and decor—classic cocktails, bow tie-wearing waiters, Edison lights, old-timey knickknacks—and gave us creative drinks, a casual atmosphere with colorful lighting, funk music to raise our spirits, and typewriters mounted on walls. The name is no surprise as owner Issey Lin studied PR in Chicago, and worked in that field in New York and Beijing, her hometown.
Wine bars badly trail their cocktail and craft beer siblings in Beijing, and struggle from the start to create enough business to get past a year or two. But Press Release proved immensely popular from the beginning—by also angling wine for a cocktail crowd.
Lin’s first menu included 30 wines by the glass or bottle, a list that heavily leaning toward Italy and grapes like Aglianico, Barbera and Sangiovese due to her time spent living in Milan. And it included cocktails that featured wine. These drinks were not lazy “take a famous recipe and simply add wine” efforts but envelope-pushing creations. And it meant that lovers of wine and of cocktails, and of both, could find happiness.
I took many visiting wine trade people from France, Australia, China and elsewhere to Press Release and enjoyed watching their expressions go from doubt to delight as they tried the 032c—peanut butter-infused Bourbon and Sangiovese on crushed ice with mint—all while Lin prepared new concoctions with her sous vide machine and we enjoyed funk music courtesy of a Marshall unit behind the bar.
That’s just one wine-centric drink that made the menu over the last 18 months. Lin also experimented with flights, naming them for magazines: The Playboy had a bubbly, a white and a red, each from different countries, while The Monocole featured more complex Italian pours.
Press Release will be missed but Beijing’s loss is Beirut’s gain. Lin and her partner plan to open a much bigger place—120 square meters compared to Press Release’s 20. Rather than subterranean, it will above ground, with a view of the street. And the cocktails will be more sophisticated. The concept, she says, is an Asian and Middle-Eastern all-day bar inspired by 1970s New York Chinatown.
That’s a big shift. But once thing will remain, says Lin. She’s keeping the funk music.
[Follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Check my sibling sites, Grape Wall of China, World Baijiu Day and World Marselan Day. These sites take a lot of resources. Help cover the cost with a contribution through PayPal or WeChat.]