Amber-tinted, tulip glasses of sherry-scented single malt are hardly synonymous with Beijing’s queer nightlife. While cocktails have lost height and froofiness, you’re still more likely to secure a decent Long Island Iced Tea at the club than a snifter of Royal Brackla.
In these times of respectable wine lists produced tableside by immaculate servers, only true veterans recall overpriced bottles of Chivas served with a sweetened green tea mixer accompanied by a disinterested, seated karaoke performer – such things are now quarantined in the remaining bars surrounding Houhai.
Gentrification has also touched the queer scene, where a paltry handful of dedicated venues serve a theoretical market of at least one million potential customers (going on probability and the latest population data). As the latest surveys
suggest, Beijing’s LGBT consumers are better-travelled, better-heeled and more visible than ever – and thus not shy about appropriating any venue they deem worthy, whether or not there’s a drag queen
on the door.
In short, it’s out of the bars and, well, into the better bars.
Perhaps that explains why, at 10pm on a Thursday night, a sliver of retail space next to Hummingbird Spa
in Central Park is packed with well-groomed, well-muscled gentlemen and sharply-attired ladies clinging to a handful of tables in order to sample carefully curated whiskies and wines. With its idiosyncratic driftwood décor and dapper, knowledgeable staff, Straight Spirit
(we’ll get to that name later) has crammed a tiny space with a heady mix of class and sass.
Co-founder Glenn Schuitman, formerly of late lamented Sanlitun LGBT fixture Pop-Up Beijing
, was keen to turn this new venture into a safe space for all. From the rainbow flag on the door to the nod-and-a-wink name, Schuitman and his five business partners, including one of the masterminds behind Glen Bar,
and a former head mixologist from perennial expat favourite The Bar
, had a lengthy discussion about the image they wanted to project.
'As a gay man, I wouldn’t get involved in a business that in any way wasn’t inclusive,' he enthuses, noting that the tongue-in-cheek choice of name hasn’t necessarily translated with every customer. 'When it came down to the branding, all the partners sat down and had a serious conversation. I needed to know that, at the end of the day, there would be no doubt about using this as a venue to support the LGBT community.'
There are no barriers here – indeed, there’s not even a bartop. The owners serve their clientele at their tables. Everyone seems to know – and like – each other. And everyone is talking about the name.
'Wherever we go with this name, we’ll be challenged, so we need an answer ready,' says Schuitman. 'It’s a deliberate play on words designed to encourage dialogue. In Beijing, a city struggling to define itself as cosmopolitan, there’s less pressure to pigeonhole your business – "gay bar", "straight bar”" We should make the most of it.'
Straight Spirit has a membership plan that can knock as much as 30 percent off the cost of a bottle of premium whisky (they currently stock between 130-150 bottles). Those looking to try before they buy can purchase 100ml miniatures or take a sip from the ever-changing tasting menu. On the night we visited, three hand-charred oak casks occupied one shelf, each of which held one of Straight Spirit’s signature barrel-aged cocktails – a Roaring Twenties- era technique that infuses the cask’s rich character into the liquor much in the same way as an aged whisky or wine – that has made a comeback in a few high-end watering holes.
By breaking down barriers, both physical and psychological, Straight Spirit aims to, in the words of Schuitman, 'be direct and cut through the bullshit,' delivering a personal, inviting experience to all comers. Not a night goes by when one or more of the founders isn’t circulating in a natty three-piece to hob-nob and putting new arrivals at ease.
Positioning this kind of retail business as a safe, shared space by wearing their LGBTIQ heritage on their sleeves, the Straight Spirit team haven’t only created an overnight institution for the capital’s growing legion of whisky lovers. They’re also helping contribute to a wider conversation about brand identity that will resonate with a new generation of LGBT consumers who don’t only want to be included in such conversations – they want to help set the terms.
If there ever was a place to have that conversation, it’s Straight Spirit.