Shingo Gokan estimates that he boarded approximately 80 flights to 40 different cities last year. The jet-setting Japanese bartender known for his unsung cocktail creations (think Parmesan Sours and Wagyu Old Fashioneds) has become one of the planet’s most in-demand bar talents. And with so much worldwide interest in his craft, it starts to make sense why it took him until this past summer to finally open his own bar on home turf in Japan, specifically Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood.
Gokan moved to New York City from Japan in 2006 and quickly landed a job at pioneering Japanese-style cocktail bar Angel’s Share, a venue at which he would stay for a full decade. In 2012, he won the prestigious Bacardí Global Legacy competition with the Speak Low, a libation inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony, composed of matcha, yuzu, rum and sherry. This drink would go on to become the name of his first bar, Speak Low.
Currently, Gokan is a partner in two China-based projects: Shanghai’s covert multi-level speakeasy-inspired Speak Low (number 20 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list) and newer addition Sober Company (number 51 on World’s 50 Best Bars list), which combines two bars plus a restaurant and café.
But it was only this past June that his career came full circle. After spending more than a decade introducing New York, along with the rest of the world, to the art of Japanese cocktails, with the inauguration of The SG Club, he’s taking those years of experience and now schooling Japan on the art of American craft cocktails, built with ingredients from all corners of the earth.
“I was waiting for the [right] time and a strong concept,” says Gokan of his two-floor bar whose moniker stands for “Sip” and “Guzzle” but also references the 1860s when a samurai gang visited New York for the first time. “What if those samurai went to Jerry Thomas’ bar to get inspiration?” ponders Gokan. “[They might have gone] “on to open the first American bar in Japan.”
Spread between two floors encompassing about 1,000 square feet, The SG Club offers two drinking experiences. Upstairs at Guzzle, one will note an 1860s-like pub aesthetic with dark wood paneling and tufted banquettes, paired with upbeat Afro-Latin tunes in the background. Here, highly quaffable libations range from a Banana Daiquiri to a Lemon Sour made from gin and a trio of botanicals: lemongrass, lemon verbena and lemon balm.
Meanwhile, one level below at Sip, expect to find what Gokan describes as “1860s gang club décor,” which translates to a cozy room also decorated in dark wood paneling, though with more of a rustic, slightly industrial feel. Tunes at Sip follow a jazz vibe, while drinks are spirit-forward, like the vodka-based Tomato Tree, with tomato, elderflower liqueur, dill and mastic; and the LOL, composed of aged scotch, aged plum liqueur and melon.
In a city lauded the world over for its stunning, artful approach to cocktails––some of which can take 10 or more minutes to assemble––Gokan’s built-for-speed elixirs flavored with a long list of global ingredients immediately separates The SG Club from other local top-level drinking dens.
“We are completely different from Japanese classic bars,” says Gokan. “We don’t serve many typical Japanese classic or fruit-based cocktails.” Instead, Gokan says The SG Club offers a new style of partially American-inspired craft cocktails.
Take, for example, the Champagne & Ice Cream cocktail. Gokan says that when the samurai visited New York back in the 19th century, they tried many foods and drinks for the first time, most of which they didn’t like. However, two new discoveries they enjoyed were Champagne and ice cream.
“So I combined these two ingredients to make a cocktail,” says Gokan, whose unique concoction melds pear brandy infused with tonka bean, Champagne and vanilla ice cream for a creamy yet effervescent drink.
With three bars under his belt and active consulting projects in New York and Atlanta, Gokan admits there’s only more to come. Next month, he’ll be teaming up with Employees Only partner Steve Schneider to introduce The Odd Couple, an ’80s-themed bar, also hitting Shanghai.