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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.

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