As he shakes a Tokyo gin fizz behind Himitsu’s illuminated copper-topped bar, Shingo Gokan tells the drink's backstory. This is just part of the alchemy he performs behind the stick inside the swanky speakeasy. Most cocktail menus change seasonally, but Gokan's new one shines a light on the Japanese zodiac, taking imbibers on a celestial cocktail journey with 12 drinks.
A journey is what Gokan is all about these days. He describes himself as a “well-traveled bartender” and has made a name for himself in bars and cocktail competitions around the globe. In 2012, he was named one of the best bartenders in the world after winning the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition. Last year, Tales of the Cocktail named him International Bartender of the Year. Between traveling the world to learn cocktail traditions, he spends his time jutting among his speakeasy bars Speak Low and Sober Company in Shanghai and Himitsu in Atlanta, where he is creative director.
The Japanese zodiac, “junishi,” was imported from ancient China. According to the lunar calendar, it groups together birth years into 12 blocks, with each block honoring an animal. People are said to inherit the personality traits of the symbolic animal associated with their birth year.
The Tokyo gin fizz, Gokan says, was the signature cocktail of U.S. soldiers stationed in Tokyo. They wanted to be able to drink a cocktail forbidden in the morning by General MacArthur. Bartenders at the now famous Kaikan Club bar shook up gin with milk so that soldiers could sneakily imbibe. This classic becomes the year of the sheep (hitsuji) for Gokan. He sneakily hides clarified coffee under the foamy top, which to him, resembles sheep’s wool. It’s a zippy mix that’s bright yet carries distinct coffee flavor.
For the year of the ox (ushi) a mezcal negroni is mellowed with Mastiha, a Greek liqueur made with the resinous spice of an evergreen tree. Gokan adds ingredients to an airtight leather bota bag, periodically adding more, in what is called a solera-style technique. The leather softens the harshness of alcohol, marrying ingredients. The oils of the leather bag infuse earthy tones and add a savory mouthfeel to the cocktail. The traveling barman learned this technique during an exploratory agave trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
One fun zodiac-inspired selection is for hebi, the snake. In a time-honored technique, Laphroaig 10-year scotch and Umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) are added to a clay pot called a kame. The unlikely duo of intense peat and sweet plum bond and mellow to a subtle, powerful and elegant sip. Gokan uses a small steel cup on a long, flexible handle (venencia) to aerate the mixture before serving it over ice. It’s spectacular as a show that also allows flavors to open up in the sparkling crystal glass.
We won’t give away all the menus details. The fun is in discovering the way each classic cocktail relates to the honored animal of each sign. Trust us, you’ll find your spirit animal within the menu and Shingo Gokan as your guide.
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