Globetrotting Japanese bartender at the forefront of the scene
Shingo Gokan was never going to be a hometown boy. While his peers settled for jobs in the local supermarket in a province on the outskirts of Tokyo where they grew up, Gokan sought to find a craft that would see him indulge his love of travel. He listed his career options as pastry chef, pilot and bartender, eventually settling on the skillset that would make his name – mixing some of the most accurate and innovative drinks on the planet.
Today, he’s one of the best-travelled bartenders in the trade. In the past 12 months alone, he has boarded 80 flights to more than 40 cities to hone his skills and further extrapolate his craft.
Starting out in backstreet bars in Tokyo aged 18, he quickly ascended to the role of head bartender. He then moved to a larger bar, also in Tokyo, where he continued to learn and progress. He fast realised that if he was going to stand out in the worldwide bartending scene, he needed a unique string to his bow. Gokan took the decision to immerse himself in the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony by taking lessons to fully understand every element, while dually working overtime shifts at a sherry bar. His point of difference became quickly recognised, where an American customer at his bar suggested he make the move to New York.
Gokan arrived in the States without a word of English. Finding a job proved difficult, but a hotel saw his ability after a demonstration and employed him to fix drinks based on the orders he received without interacting with customers. As his confidence and grasp of the language grew, he found work at Angel’s Share, a Japanese-styled speakeasy where he stayed for a decade.
It was here that he devised the drink that would make his name, the Speak Low. Comprising matcha, yuzu, rum and sherry and served in the theme of a tea ritual, it beautifully brings together his decades of learning. He held the drink in such high regard that he lent its name to his first solo bar: Speak Low in Shanghai, which opened in 2014 to worldwide acclaim. His mixology today focuses on melding unusual ingredients with far-reaching technique. A Parmesan Sour is a beautifully balanced umami bomb, while his Wagyu fat-washed Old Fashioned has become the stuff of legend.
Today, no fewer than three bars bearing Gokan’s name populate the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list: Speak Low, The SG Club and Sober Company. His skills are now rightly recognised the world over and his contribution to the Asian bar scene is unprecedented. Shingo Gokan is a worthy winner of the peer-voted Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award 2019.