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Speak Low's Shingo Gokan

Feb 15, 2019

My name is Shingo Gokan. I'm a bartender based in Tokyo at the moment. I have one bar in Tokyo called SG Club and three bars in Shanghai: Speak Low, Sober Company and the Odd Couple. Since each bar has three distinct sections, you could say I have 12 bars.

I started bartending when I was 18 in my hometown, before I moved to Ginza, the center of Tokyo's nightlife. I went to Spain for a little bit before I moved to New York in 2006 when I was 23. I worked at Angel's Share for 10 years. I lived there for 12 years total but in the last five years, I was traveling often. I used to travel a lot.

I used to be behind the bar every day, you know, five or six days a week, but after I won the Bacardi Cocktail Competition in 2012, I had a chance to travel. I learned a lot in the European and Asian bar scenes, doing seminars and guest shifts. I'd gotten a lot of experience, a lot of input, so I was looking for somewhere I could output.

Shingo

I was thinking of coming back to Asia. Not Tokyo, though, because Japan is very, very traditional. Old school! I was 29 years old and I didn't think I could fit into that market and industry. I was looking for somewhere upcoming, with a good economy, a big city.

My business partner, Gordon, asked me, "Hey do you want to open a bar in Shanghai?" I said "Yeah! Let's go." I came in 2013, and that was my first time in Shanghai.

Shingo

I'd been to a few cities in China, but Shanghai's very different. It's like New York. DC, Chicago, Miami, they're all part of the US, but New York is New York. Shanghai is the same. Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou, they're all part of China, but Shanghai is Shanghai.

The city had energy, but didn't have so many bars. There were places like Constellation and El Coctel, but most of the bar scene felt like it was coming from Tokyo back then. Not many Western style cocktail bars. Plus, the speakeasy was just getting popular in 2013. I'd been working at Angel's Share, America's first modern speakeasy, for so long that speakeasies became kind of my specialty. We found a space and opened Speak Low in June 2014. I named it after the drink that won me the Bacardi Competition.

Odd

For me a speakeasy reimagines past bar styles. All four of our bars are speakeasies. Speak Low is probably the most obvious, inspired by the 1920s. The concept is "what if Prohibition happened in Shanghai?" We added a Chinese touch, and set it in a laofangzi. Sober Company is like bar hopping in New York City. At Odd Couple, well, Steve Schneider and I were both born in 1983, and we both wanted to create a 2018 bar the way we'd have envisioned it back in the 1980s. Retro-futuristic!

SG Club is actually based on a true story. In 1860, the Japanese government sent 77 samurai to the United States, the first time a Japanese delegation went to the US. 500,000 Americans welcomed them with a parade on Broadway. There was a Jerry Thomas bar a block away from where they stayed. Probably, some of them went to his bar, because in 1862, when Jerry Thomas wrote his cocktail book, How to Mix a Drink, one of the cocktails was called "The Japanese Cocktail."

Maybe they went to his bar, and got inspired. The first American bar in Japan opened in the 1860s. It wasn't owned by Japanese people, it was owned by foreigners, but the timing is so close. So SG Club is kind of my theory about that history.

Sober

When I opened Speak Low, I was still based in New York but working in Shanghai. Like I said, I used to travel a lot. So, in some ways, I could say that I first moved to Shanghai and have been living here since 2013. Or I could say that I never lived here at all.

Shingo

I had such limited time that I didn't really go out. Now, I'm often only in Shanghai for a few days or a week, and I have a lot of things to do. Each bar section has different menus, so we have twelve different menus in four bars (I still create all the menus), and 90% are my drinks. If I get time to eat, I'm usually trying new dishes over at Sober Company. The last three days, I just ate at Sober Company. I finished everything the kitchen needed me to try, so I can finally go out today.

I've just been to Suzu Bar, which just opened, and earlier I went to Ars & Delecto, to say congratulations on opening. When I was here for Speak Low, there were so many bars opening, you know, Yao's bar (Union Trading Company), Barules, I used to go to those. I went to a lot of local restaurants back then. And Lost Heaven.

I used to take the guest bartenders we invited around town, but now the managers do that so I don't.... really go out much. It's kind of relaxing, but maybe I should go out more. Ultraviolet! I'd love to go there. Paul Pairet came to Speak Low the other day, said he might invite me to their kitchen. Very excited about that.

I'm used to big cities. I like big cities. I like Shanghai. Even though wine and cheese are too expensive.

Speak

Hospitality makes a good bar. That, and the concept. If you have a strong concept, your menu will be done right, your music, right, uniform, interior, furniture, everything will be connected. If there's a good concept, it will make the guests happy, even if hospitality comes in different forms. Don't do a very polite Ginza bar hospitality at a high-volume bar.

Sober

One thing I've never really tried in my cocktails is Chinese spices. The most interesting experience I ever had was when I went on a jungle foraging trip with a guide, and I just picked crazy ingredients, to see if I could make something. I'd like to try that, but a Chinese version, one day. Maybe somewhere in a mountain in China.

Odd

Three is probably more than enough bars in Shanghai, so I probably won't open any new ones. But I'm trying to be in Shanghai more often. I honestly didn't even think to open a third one here, but Steve asked me and we found a golden location in Xintiandi, but... as for cocktail bars, I think that's enough.

I do have other ideas. One is an SG Shochu. Shochu is very big in Japan, but bartenders don't use it. It's low-alcohol and the bottles don't look good. Bartenders are looking to new spirits, craft gin, mezcal, pisco, because they're sick of the same four spirits. So we're developing one from scratch, with a nice design, and a higher proof. No one knew mezcal 5-10 years, but now every bartender in Asia should know a mezcal margarita. Maybe in 10 years, there will be bartenders in Brazil making shochu martinis. We're hoping to bring it to China this year. Depending on regulation.

We're treating it like opening a bar: if there's a great concept behind it, it'll make customers happy.

Shingo

Hangover cure? Shijimi soup. Very common in Japan. I swear it works.

VENUES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:

  • Speak Low

    • Nightlife
    • Lounge
    • Xuhui
    • Address
      579 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu
      复兴中路579号, 近瑞金二路
    • Phone
      6416 0133

    This busy Japanese-style speakeasy is hidden behind a secret door in a bartending equipment shop on Fuxing Lu. It spans four floors, each with its own concept. The lively second floor recalls a house party and they serve classic cocktails like Corpse Reviver No.2 and... Read more

  • Sober Company

    • Nightlife
    • Dining
    • Bars
    • Address
      99 Yandang Lu, near Nanchang Lu
      雁荡路99号, 近南昌路
    • Phone
      5309 8261

    The blanket term referring to three separate venues by Speak Low mastermind Shingo Gokan. The first floor is occupied by Sober Cafe, which opens at 8am and does coffee, coffee-based cocktails and... Read more

  • The Odd Couple

    • Nightlife
    • Bars
    • Lounge
    • Address
      No. 25, Lane 181 Taicang Lu, near Xingye Lu
      太仓路181弄25号, 近兴业路
    • Phone
      6333 2363

    Cozy/compact upstairs bar in Xintiandi, this one's a joint-effort from Shanghai's speakeasy-granddady Shingo Gokan and his longtime colleague/rival(?), Steve Schneider, who's famous for a host of bars in New York and Singapore, and makes drinks way faster than... Read more

  • This venue has now closed

    el Coctel

    • Nightlife
    • Japanese
    • Bars
    • Address
      2/F, 47 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu
      永福路47号, 近复兴西路
    • Phone
      6433 6511

    el Coctel is a dark and intimate lounge from the people behind el Willy. The snacks menu is Spanish, but that's about it. The rest is a lovingly crafted tribute to the cocktail's Golden Era, in the early twentieth century, and Japan's fanatical obsession to the... Read more

  • Union Trading Company

    • Nightlife
    • Bars
    • Lounge
    • Address
      64 Fenyang Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu (entrance on Fuxing Zhong Lu)
      汾阳路64号, 近复兴中路 (大门入口在复兴中路)
    • Phone

    Chef and restaurateur Austin Hu of Madison and Yao Lu (formerly of Alchemist and The Public) combine forces for this cocktail lounge. Yao Lu contributes a list of inventive original cocktails and old-timey classics. Expect lots of stiff drinks with liberal lashings... Read more

  • Bar Constellation (Xinle Lu)

    • Nightlife
    • Japanese
    • Bars
    • Address
      86 Xinle Lu, near Xiangyang Bei Lu
      新乐路86号, 近襄阳北路
    • Phone
      5404 0970

    Constellation was a "hidden gem," prized among expats for its finely conceived and exhaustive selection of cocktails -- but now everybody "knows about it" and it has "lost its charm" apparently. Take that for what you will. Basically everything ever mixed since the... Read more

  • Ars & Delecto

    • Nightlife
    • Bars
    • Lounge
    • Address
      222 Jinxian Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu
      进贤路222号, 近陕西南路
    • Phone
      5679 9916

    It means "art and delight" in Latin. Coming from Tokyo F&B group Small Axe, the ones behind Bar Trench in Shibuya District (number 16 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018), this is a cafe-by-day and... Read more

  • Lost Heaven (Bund)

    • Nightlife
    • Dining
    • Bars
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • Address
      17 Yan'an Dong Lu, near Sichuan Nan Lu
      延安东路17号, 近四川南路
    • Phone
      6330 0967

    This is the flagship location of Yunnan restaurant Lost Heaven. They do relatively authentic Yunaan food, and if you wanna do pre- or post-dinner drinks they have a really nice terrace on the roof. Prices are reasonable for the location and views. Definitely a good... Read more

  • Ultraviolet

    • Dining
    • Fusion
    • French
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • $
    • Address
      Online booking only
    • Phone

    Ultraviolet is an avant garde dining concept by resident molecular madman Paul Pairet. 10 -- and only 10 -- diners arrive at Mr & Mrs Bund for an aperitif before they are spirited away to an undisclosed location. There they are taken to a single table in a white room... Read more

  • Suzu Bar

    • Nightlife
    • Bars
    • Jing'an
    • Address
      301 Huashan Lu, near Changshu Lu
      华山路301号,近常熟路
    • Phone
      189 1748 6880

    Shanghai project by a couple of the people behind Bar Alcocase, it's named after their head bartender, Suzu, a protege of legendary Tokyo cocktail king Takao Mori. Opened in late-late 2018, on the surface it's a demure, subdued Japanese cocktail lounge with a... Read more

[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a weekly SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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