Craft cocktails have become part of the woodwork in Shanghai, with neighborhood bars even offering the simplest of mixed drinks. But while it’s easy to get an Old Fashioned outside, the drinks at many corporate and private events still lack the most basic of imagination. It’s a problem Alex Lessard decided to solve with Lemons Cocktail, where he brings craft cocktails to your next corporate party, or hosts cocktail-making classes at your home. We chat with him to find out what turned him on to this idea, what Lemons Cocktail brings to a party, and the challenges of catering (and dressing up) for private cocktail parties.
What brought you to Shanghai originally?
I’ve been in Shanghai for almost five years now, previously working as a consultant for a digital strategy agency before starting Lemons Cocktail. It was a bit of a jump into the f&b scene, but definitely the right one. In consulting, after giving a 150-slide presentation, you don’t get too many clients saying, “Oh, that was wonderful! May I have another?” But give that same client a perfectly balanced Negroni and things start to be a little different. Weekly cocktail parties have also been somewhat of a ritual of mine, so the adjustment to starting Lemons has been a smooth one.
What are you trying to achieve with Lemons Cocktail?
I started Lemons in 2016 with a simple goal: to create a totally new cocktail experience outside of the bar. In my old job, I would constantly be attending corporate events and the drink options were just sad – generic beer, red or white wine, and low-quality G&Ts – I had to take these company parties up a notch. The same things that define a good cocktail bar should define good cocktail catering: fresh ingredients, homemade syrups, infused alcohols, and a level of creativity that enhances the party beyond getting your HR manager drunk and dancing on the table.
My first corporate gig was actually for my old consulting company – I think they did it as a favor. But the response was so good that now I’m at every event, and they even jokingly call them “Lemon Parties.” Lemons just kind of grew from there, and we’ve since worked with brands like Bottega Veneta, Pernod Ricard, and Chanel. It’s been an amazing reaction and I think that’s simply because good cocktails is something that can really change the entire party experience.
But the corporate side was just the start – I want to bring the home party scene to Shanghai and take full advantage of the beautiful spaces hidden in the city’s lanes and alleys. While I love the atmosphere of a good cocktail bar, there’s something about having a summer BBQ while sipping a Peach Bellini, or watching “The Blues Brothers” while drinking an Old Fashioned out of a flask. Or why not bring the bartender into your home and have him or her teach you how to make a classic Hemingway Daiquiri? Cocktails aren’t only about matching the customer’s taste, but also building their mood and letting them be creative.
You’ve done quite a number of events big and small since starting out. What were some of the more unusual requests you’ve encountered along the way?
We have had to dress up a few times, and I don’t mean a vest and tie. Have you seen the 90’s movie “The Fifth Element?” That was the theme of one of our events and we had to look the part. So there you have me dressed up as Bruce Willis’ character Korben Dallas: bright orange tank top and cargo pants.
But honestly all of our events are different and have their unique requests, and that’s what makes them fun. From impromptu cocktail lessons, to (almost) winning a hula-hoop competition, no two events are ever alike.
What new cocktail trends excite you?
I don’t know if I’d call it a trend, but it’s something I am thankfully seeing more of: bartenders listening. Sometimes it’s a bar with no menu, other times it’s crowd-sourced recipes; it comes down to understanding what the people want, and making them happy.
What cocktail trend would you like to see disappear?
Many cocktail bars have 13-ingredient drinks and half are infused with some endangered African wood. It’s overwhelming and in the end you don’t know what you just ordered. While this approach might work in highly developed markets like New York or London, we should be educating the customer here. I try to build my menus with ingredients people can understand: homemade syrups, fresh juices, and ideally non-endangered infusions. Flavors can be new and surprising, but there must always be something familiar, something they can remember.
What is the spirit of the moment?
Gin is in. It lends itself so well to creativity, to new flavors that can really shine. This is especially the case in new markets, particularly in Asia. Because gin is an infused spirit (the base is actually a neutral spirit like vodka flavored with juniper berry), it lends well to experimentation with local ingredients: peppercorn from Sichuan, lemongrass from Thailand, or a Japanese gin made with bamboo and ginger.
What can someone expect at one of your cocktail classes?
We offer these classes both at someone’s home or office and at our new Lemons Lab workshop space. You can expect a full immersion into cocktail history – starting from its earliest “origins” with the punch bowl, and moving our way through to stirred cocktails, shaken sours, and classics built in the glass. We teach you how to infuse your spirits and make your own homemade syrups. We finish off with a chance to create your own cocktail with your new knowledge. Those who make the best cocktail can even win some pretty cool prizes. All-in-all it’s a lot of drinking, but you learn how to drink well, and will hold on to some unforgettable stories behind those tipples.
What challenges did you face when starting Lemons?
Even though bartending was always my passion, it was never my profession. I had to make a choice: hire an experienced bartender to lead the team, or undergo formal training myself. I did both. That lets me straddle the lines between customer, bartender, and student, and helps me be better understand the customer’s point of view. I know the questions they would ask because I was once asking them myself. Being able to anticipate that and building it into our service is something really unique to Lemons.
What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs in China?
Don’t obsess over the entrepreneur title. You’re doing what people have been doing for a thousand years: starting a business. Focus on creating the best product or service you can and let that be the foundation for your business. Only then should you divert your attention to scalability, creating a platform, and more.
Your favorite cocktail bar in Shanghai?
It’s really tough to pick one considering the great stuff coming out of Shanghai right now, but recently I’ve been a big fan of Tour on Changle Road. It’s focused on food-cocktail pairing and I’m happy to see cocktails starting to get the same level of attention to flavor pairing that wine does.
To book Lemons Cocktail for your next party, visit their website for more information.