Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Japanese schoolchildren remember 1923 for the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that shattered Tokyo, killing at least 140,000 people and causing a 12-metre tsunami. But Shingo Gokan, the Japanese bartender who made his name at Angel’s Share, New York, and now owns China’s best bar, Speak Low, chose to commemorate a very different anniversary.
"The original Cherry Blossom cocktail is a very classic drink in Japan - it's actually the oldest and most famous classic drink that was born in Japan," Gokan says. "Not many Japanese cocktails are famous globally, but this cocktail has been in the Savoy Cocktail Book since 1930."
While nobody knows the year that Tasaburo Tao created the original Cherry Blossom, he opened his bar, the Café de Paris, in Yokohama in 1923. Like Harry's New York Bar in Paris, it remains in the family even now.
Sachiko in Café de Paris, Yokohama
Yokohama was Japan's first international port, and bars and bartenders - among them Louis Eppinger, considered one of the fathers of Japanese bartending - arrived in the city long before they came to Tokyo. "In the 1910s and the 1920s, a lot of cruise ships came from the US and the UK," Gokan says. "That's how we got our cocktail culture."
By the time Tao created his drink, the cherry blossom, or sakura, had been a cultural icon in Japan for centuries. "It's iconic, not only for the flower, but it's an iconic plant, an iconic activity, an iconic colour," Gokan explains. "In the spring we celebrate when the sakura blooms by having parties under the sakura trees - it's a very important activity."
To reimagine Tao's creation, Gokan combined a range of different recipes, then added a couple of contemporary twists: a tonka bean infusion and a milk wash. "Sakura petals and tonka beans have a very similar flavour, and when Japanese people try tonka bean for the first time, it usually reminds us of sakura," he says. "We have a very traditional sakura dessert called sakura mochi, which is a sticky rice cake, and when you add the milk to the cocktail you get a milky note like sakura mochi."
Gokan started work when he was 18, in his home town not far from Yokohama. Rather than follow the traditional apprenticeship system, he got a job in a high-volume restaurant bar and began to teach himself cocktails on the side. "The first cocktail that I made from a recipe was a Singapore Sling: that was the first time I made a cocktail by myself," he recalls.
By the time he turned 20, Gokan was head bartender in a local bar. Aged 23, he headed to New York to make his fortune - despite only speaking Japanese. He joined Angel's Share, one of the city's oldest and best regarded secret bars, in 2006 - and would remain involved with the bar for a decade.
While Angel's Share hired him for his Japanese bartending technique, Gokan considers his style hybrid. "I'm trying to combine American style and Japanese style," he says. "My international bartender friends say I'm very Japanese, but my friends in Japan say I'm very Western style."
Winning the Bacardí Legacy cocktail competition in 2012 transformed Gokan's career. "After I won the Legacy I started travelling all over the world. I had a guest bartendership at the Savoy, lots of countries and cities asked me for partnerships and guest partnerships," he says. "Now competitions are everywhere, and everyone is travelling a lot, but at that time not many people were doing that much travel: it was very good timing."
With the help of two separate sets of backers, one Asia-based and one in the US, Gokan has a stake in an impressive number of venues. He launched Speak Low, the turbo-charged French Concession speakeasy that stands at number 10 on the World's 50 Best list, in Shanghai in 2014; Sober Company followed in 2017, and is now home to four distinct venues. Gokan's first Tokyo venture, SG Club, should launch in May, while there are plans for a New York bar in a couple of years.
Gokan is impressed by how the Chinese bar scene has developed since he opened Speak Low. "The Chinese economy is pretty good, so every month there are new bars opening - not just in Shanghai, but everywhere in China," he says, noting that bartending is now seen as a fashionable career in the Middle Kingdom. "Proof & Company came to China last year, and they're raising the level of education. DRiNK magazine China did the Bar Awards last year, and it's actually bigger than Tales of the Cocktail! It was huge!"
Yet, while Gokan admires Singapore's bartending scene immensely, he feels it will be a while before China catches up with Japan. "The bar culture is still very new," he says. "In Japan, cocktail culture is more than 100 years old: we've polished our skills and created our own ways."
Garnish: Salted sakura petal, a very common ingredient in Japan. Sakura petals are normally soaked in salt to preserve them and keep their freshness, it's a common product in Japan, not home-made.
Method: Cook equal parts rye and cognac sous-vide with tonka beans, add the cherry heering, vermouth, curaçao, lemon juice and the milk, when it curdles, then you strain it, to obtain a completely clear liquid. After you've clarified everything, pour into the mixing glass, stir with ice and strain into chilled glass.
30ml Cherry Heering
30ml Rye-cognac sous-vide tonka bean blend
15ml Sweet vermouth
15ml Orange curaçao
10ml Freshly squeezed lemon juice
15ml Milk (for clarification)