There’s a reason why Shingo Gokan is the only person on the planet with three bars in the World’s 50 Best Bars list: the man is a freakin’ ‘G’. Razor-sharp, in both the way he thinks as well as his dapper style, you can always rely on him to have an inspiring project on the go.
Since winning the Bacardí Legacy Global Finals with his beguiling matcha tea and sherry-based rum cocktail Speak Low in 2012, the Tokyo-born bartender who made his name at Angel’s Share in New York has continued to win people over. And if you’ve met him, you’ll know why. On the one hand he radiates a reassuring inner warmth and calm that is quite rare in the fast-paced world of drinks, on the other, Gokan very much lives up to the first two letters of his name.
It took two years from him taking the Legacy title to immortalising his winning cocktail in the name of his first award-winning bar. Next came Sober Company, opened in 2017. The Odd Couple, the good-times bar he set up with fellow Bacardí Legacy Finalist and multi-bar owner Steve Schneider, followed a year after that. All three are in Shanghai and doing very nicely thank you very much. In 2018 he opened The SG Club, his first bar back home in Japan. And while that saw him spending much of last year on Japanese soil, that didn’t stop him from having ideas for further afield.
When we meet at Sober Company the day after the 2019 DMBA awards in Shanghai, where he and the team picked up two exquisitely crafted trophies for Cocktail Program and Bar of the Year, he has at least four initiatives planned for 2020 alone. The two biggies on his radar right now are game-changers. One is the opening of his debut venue in New York, the other is the release of his very own spirit. Both, it must be said, are destined to be absolutely awesome. Here’s why…
Pairing food and cocktails – Gokan style
Before setting up his bars in Asia, Shingo spent 20 years working at the much-lauded Angel’s Share in New York. Now he’s returning to the city with Gokan, a food and cocktail pairing joint in the Lower East Side. “We’re taking over a space at the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Uchu,” he begins. “One side is an omakase sushi bar which is very popular and Gokan will occupy the space that was once the kaiseki part of the operation.” It’s small, just enough for eight seats, but that suits Shingo’s concept perfectly.
“Gokan is my surname but it also means ‘five senses’ in Japanese. The idea here is to go further than straightforward food and cocktail pairings; we’ll be incorporating all of the senses in the experience.” That means a specially curated soundtrack, lighting and scents to set the mood for the two seatings each evening, with texture and taste coming from the five to eight courses on offer. All paired with painstakingly conceived cocktails.
Above: Gokan, Shingo’s new venue coming to New York in April
Of course, being Shingo, the cocktails are a very important part of the equation, a part that people will be ready to judge. They needn’t worry. He’s spent the past eight years or so perfecting what he considers to be the art of matching cocktails to food. As he explains: “For me a cocktail pairing has to be one plus one equals 10, not one plus one equals two – as far as I’m concerned, that isn’t a pairing. In my mind, you need to create a new flavour when you bring food and drink together.” How so? “It’s a different approach to making cocktails, which is why it’s very interesting. With wine you have to find the right wine to pair with the dish but with a cocktail you can adjust, play around, tweak the nuances – it means you’re totally in control,” he says, eyes twinkling with excitement just thinking about it. “The cocktail doesn’t have to be perfect on its own but once it’s added with the food, the balance is different.” There will be themes. “We might take the ocean for inspiration for example, with ocean food, ocean drinks, ocean music, or it might be a country, nature or ingredients that we take our lead from. It’s fun to have a theme – it helps you get inspiration. Without a theme it’s hard to tie down.”
Speaking of themes, like all of Shingo’s venues, you can expect his arty background to show through in the decor. “The concept is chaos in silence,” he says, offering up the CGI for inspection. “The location is the chaos part of the equation – the Lower East Side used to be a ghetto and there’s still some of that edge to it, there’s graffiti everywhere. Which is why we’re incorporating some graffiti in the design of the interior. The silence is represented in the tea ceremony style of service, the precision, detail and quietness that is part of my background.”
Gokan is due to open in April 2020.
The SG Shochu
Breathing new life into an old category
When did you last have a shochu-based cocktail? We’re guessing never, right? Sake, the Japanese rice wine, we’re more accustomed to, but shochu, its spiritual counterpart, is another matter entirely. Shingo’s next big mission is to change that.
Having spent the past year back in Japan setting up The SG Club, he noticed something: “We Japanese don’t use homegrown products in our cocktails,” he says incredulously. “Shochu is the only spirit we have but if it’s stocked in your bar, it’s considered cheap; people don’t think that it’s something that can be used in mixed drinks.”
Breathing new life into an old category: Teaser of The SG Shochu
He believes that’s down to a couple of things. At the forefront, in Shingo’s opinion, is the fact that shochu is bottled diluted to 25% abv, which means it doesn’t shine out as a base in cocktails. Then there’s the image. “It’s something your parents drank. The bottles are old-fashioned, usually black with a metal screw cap and the overall look doesn’t fit behind the modern bar,” he adds. Taste and aesthetics aside, the other major hurdle is selling the category outside of Japan. “To date, shochu has mainly been sold into Japanese restaurants because the distributors have a mindset that Japanese people drink it with food. But people outside of Japan don’t drink spirits with food, they go for wine, so understandably it hasn’t taken off.”
There’s also the small matter that people don’t really know what shochu is, or indeed, how to drink it. For the record, shochu has an impressive history, dating back around 500 years and like sake, it’s traditionally consumed with meals. Unlike sake though, which is fermented rice, shochu is a spirit commonly distilled from three main sources: rice (kome-jochu), sweet potato (imo-jochu) or barley (mugi-jochu). As for flavour profile, think gin for the rice distillations, rum for sweet potato and whisky for barley. By definition, good quality shochu is single distilled, resulting in a bold, flavoursome product that is then diluted to 25%. This is where Shingo is about to make his mark with the launch of a new shochu for an international market.
The master at work
“Traditionally there are top distilleries for each shochu category. For rice there’s Takahashi Shuzo Company located in Kumamoto, for sweet potato there’s Satsuma Shuzo Company in Kagoshima, and Sanwa Shurui Company in Oita is most famous for barley. I’m bringing them together for the very first time to collaborate on a range,” he says excitedly. That range is The SG Shochu, three expressions created by the top ninjas in their respective fields. Not only do they come in at a cocktail-friendly 40% abv, they’ll also be packaged in gorgeous, Instagram-friendly bottles.
It’s set to be a very big deal in shochu circles, not just because of the higher proof of the spirit but because these three revered companies are working together on one project. “They’ve never done that before, they each have their own pride and think what they do is the best,” continues Shingo. “To put it into context, it’s like Bacardí, Diageo and Pernod Ricard working together on a brand. They’re uniting on this project because they liked the idea of going on a global stage.”
The SG Shochu, set to be a permanent fixture behind modern bars
As for getting it out there, telling the stories, showcasing the versatility of the products and sharing the love of shochu, that’s where Shingo comes in. With his status and heritage coupled with the fact he’s put his name behind the brand (SG stands for Sip and Guzzle as well as Shingo Gokan), he’s perfectly placed to do it. As he says: “If you know the market, the people and how to make cocktails, it’s possible to reach the bar industry. I’ll be on the brand side, involved in the marketing and branding of the products. I’ve been in the industry 10 years and this is a new, exciting challenge for me. I’m planning lots of collaborations and cool events with music, fashion, art and design. I want people to associate The SG Shochu with fun, not just guest shifts – I want to do something different.”
Cleverly he hasn’t forgotten his home market. Or the growing band of no/low drinkers and people who want something suitable for drinking with food. “Japanese people don’t drink shochu straight, they add water in some form, whether that’s soda, hot water or ice, which means the spirit is diluted again to about 15%. That makes it very easy to drink with food. So although we’ll have the 40% bottles for cocktails, we’ll be producing one at 15%, which means you can simply open the bottle and pour it straight into a wine glass – serve it chilled or warm it up.”
The future of an old category starts here…
The SG Shochu launches in Japan and China on 14 February 2020 with releases in the US and the rest of the world to follow. See thesgshochu.com for details
Interview taken from The Inspire Issue of The Cocktail Lovers magazine, available in digital and print. Buy your copy here