Well-travelled Tokyo-born bartender Shingo Gokan, of Angel’s Share and Speak Low fame, was recently in town for a few guest shifts at various local bespoke cocktail bars such as D.Bespoke and 28 Hong Kong Street.
The winner of the second edition of the Bacardi Global Legacy Cocktail Competition in 2012 – with a cocktail called Speak Low influenced by the Japanese tea ceremony that inspired his Shanghai bar of the same name – also took some time to share his experience with the five Singapore finalists competing to see who will represent Singapore in the global finals of Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition 2016, as well as show them and other Singapore-based bartenders some tending techniques he’s picked up in his travels.
We grabbed Gokan for a quick chat.
What do you think was the main reason you won the Bacardi Global Legacy Cocktail Competition back in 2012?
I think it was because the drink I made for the competition was very different from those made by the others. Most of the other competitors essentially gave a twist on drinks that already existed, while my entry was a twist on an original cocktail I came up with. So while my drink was very simple, it was something that was very different from any of the others.
The technique I used came from a Japanese tea technique and, at that time, nobody really did what I did with my technique of shaking and stirring. How I moved was very different too. It was something very new for the judges as well.
At the final stage there was a lot of emotional drama too; I almost ran out of time. I didn’t have any time left to clean the stage – which was a completion requirement – but all the other finalists joined in to help me to clean the stage.
And then I won.
Winning that competition let you set up your speakeasy bar Speak Low in Shanghai. How do you split your time between Angel’s Share in New York and Speak Low in Shanghai?
I spend six months a year in New York, and three months at Speak Low; the rest of the time I travel doing guest shifts at bars like this, judging at competitions, and consulting.
“Master your basics as they are the most important skill to have; your basics is what will define and make you a better bartender.” – Stuart Danker, senior bartender at Sugarhall, on what he learned from Shingo Gokan’s masterclass.
In all your travels visiting bars around the world, what have you learned?
A lot of things! Every time I visit a new bar I learn something, like how to present the drink, or how to create the right atmosphere.
Being a bartender is not just about making a good drink; it is about how to treat the customer right, item selection, the recipes, the right atmosphere and concept.
It’s not just about good shaking or stirring.
For example, I definitely learned a lot from Tatsuro Yamazaki of Bar Yamazaki in Sapporo. Yamazaki-san is about is 95 years old this year – the oldest bartender at work in Japan – and he still tries to work every day even though his family doesn’t let him. Talk about dedication and passion!
Also White Lyan in London, it’s completely different from what I am doing. Because they don’t shake, they don’t stir, they don’t even use a bar spoon. That was very interesting for me.
Even at 28 Hong Kong Street in Singapore – I did a guest shift there, and their operation is great.
I try to learn something every time I visit a Top 50 bar.
Tell us the story behind one of the drinks you can find at Speak Low.
We have a cocktail at Speak Low called Bananas Foster Old Fashioned; it’s like an Old Fashioned take on the classic American dessert Bananas Foster from New Orleans, which is made of banana, chocolate, whipped cream, brown sugar, vanilla ice cream and cherries. I took all the elements to the Old Fashioned – banana-infused rum, chocolate bitters, brown sugar syrup, and vanilla tincture.
When you build a bar, the concept is the most important thing. The Bananas Fosters Old Fashioned has a concept; people normally like to drink what they like, but they want to know the details and the story behind that drink sometimes.
Of course not everyone wants to know, but some people would.
“Shingo has what I call the heart of the sea – he’s big-hearted and has the willingness to share his master skills. My biggest takeaway? His humility.” – Anti:Dote assistant head bartender Bannie Kang, on Shingo Gokan.
As a winner of the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition you actually got to visit Bacardi in Puerto Rico. As cocktail drinkers many of us don’t normally visit the places that produce the spirit, so sometimes we don’t understand how it is made. What was the biggest lesson you learned when you visited the distillery?
I actually made a rum with the senior master blender at Bacardi, and that was when I learned how to blend (a rum). It was very interesting for me, especially since not many people actually have done something like that. He advised me about things like the structure of a rum, for example.
Blending rum is kind of similar to making a cocktail – they has an idea in their head of what kind of rum they are trying to make, and it’s the same with bartenders. There’s quite a lot of similarity with mixing a drink and blending a rum.
If you had to share one lesson from the finals with the five finalists from Singapore, what would it be?
Practice. Just practice many, many times. Because when you’re on the stage you will get super nervous, and when you get super nervous you will sometimes forget what you wanted to say or do, but if your body remembers what to do you will be ok.
So you just need to practice many times to let your body remember everything.