By Jim Boyce | The Beijing wine bar scene is thin vis-à-vis its cocktail and craft beer siblings. Many venues struggle from day one to build enough business to survive and the list of casualties in my neighborhood, one thick with “Western” bars and restaurants, is long.
That’s what made Press Release, a speakeasy that launched 18 months ago and served its last drink this week, intriguing.
Hidden inside a restaurant 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 concoctions, a casual atmosphere with colorful lighting, funk music to raise our spirits, and typewriters mounted on walls. And the name? Owner Issey Lin studied PR in Chicago and worked in that field in New York and Beijing, her hometown. Press Release was her first bar.
Lin’s initial menu, launched in March of 2017, included 30 wines by the glass or bottle. Three-quarters hailed from Italy, with grapes like Aglianico, Barbera and Sangiovese getting the nod, inspired in part by time Lin spent living in Milan.
But Lin went far beyond that with a list of cocktails that featured wines as ingredient. These were not lazy “take a famous recipe and simply add wine” efforts but envelope-pushing creations. And it meant lovers of wine and of cocktails, or both, could all find happiness.
I took wine trade people from France, Australia, China and elsewhere to Press Release. I enjoyed watching their faces go from doubt to delight as they tried the 032c—peanut butter-infused Bourbon topped with Sangiovese on crushed ice, with a large mint garnish—while Lin prepared new concoctions with her sous vide machine and we enjoyed funk music courtesy of a Marshall unit behind the bar.
They could follow that with another 032c, a different cocktail or a switch to wine straight up. The blend of novel location, creative cocktails, relaxed atmosphere and Lin, who patiently explained the menu whether a customer was a wine beginner or aficionado, worked well. And thus a tiny hidden venue in the B1 level of a mall became a success by going past the standard template and making wine accessible and fun for consumers.
Press Release will be missed but Beijing’s loss is Beirut’s gain. Lin and her partner plan to open a bigger place there. Rather than subterranean, it will above ground, with a view of the street. And the drinks will be more sophisticated. The idea, 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.