October 20, 2023
“The SG Club is one of Tokyo’s crown jewels. This award-winning bar in Shibuya is split into three floors: Guzzle, a relaxed space on the first floor; Savor, a membership cocktail and cigar bar on the second floor; and the popular Sip on the basement floor. The latter is where we sat down to chat with the bar’s immaculately dressed founder, Shingo Gokan.
Gokan rose to prominence after winning the 2012 Bacardi Global Legacy Cocktail Competition, an accolade that thrust him into the international limelight and supercharged the trajectory of his career. His winning cocktail, inspired by his grandmother’s tea ceremonies, included matcha, yuzu, Bacardi rum and sherry. The mixologist says it was the uniqueness of the flavors at that time that helped him pull the win. “Back in the day, Japanese ingredients and techniques weren’t as popular as they are right now, so it was pretty new for the industry to showcase Japanese styles. It was good timing and it had an impact,” he explains.
Gokan used the momentum to open his first bar in Shanghai that he named after the winning drink, Speak Low. Once established and thriving, he moved back to his native city of Tokyo to shake up more than just cocktails. Opening The SG Club in 2018, it’s now one of Asia’s most-awarded bars—and that’s just the beginning.
Gokan’s priorities have changed a lot since he first started bartending. When moving to New York at age 23, he had his mind set on fame and fortune. “I was just working hard and thinking about myself, and things like how I wanted to be famous; I wanted to be rich.” He went on to win awards such as International Bartender of The Year in 2017, and 2019’s Altos Bartender’s Bartender, but with the passing of time came a change in mindset.
“In my 30s, I was thinking more about the team and the company and the staff. It’s great to receive an individual award, which is very appreciated, but I appreciate it more when we earn team awards that we can all share.” And share they have, with many of his bars making it onto Asia’s 50 Best Bars list over the years.
Now he has set his sights on a new challenge. “Getting older, now I’m 40, I’m thinking I want to do something for my country.” Gokan hopes to leave behind a legacy, and he understands that the challenges within the bartending industry in Japan are twofold: sharing authentic Japanese ingredients and culture globally, and sharing cocktail and bar culture with the Japanese community. He is already addressing the former by creating his own brand of shochu, a Japanese alcohol severely underrepresented in the cocktail scene. By collaborating with three of Japan’s largest shochu manufacturers, he has brought forth The SG Shochu, with which he has developed a range of new cocktails that highlight the alcohol’s unique strengths.
The second challenge is a bit trickier. Gokan is well aware of how special the bar culture is here. “The Japanese style,” he explains, “differs significantly from others. It holds a distinct place.” According to him, it’s not solely about attention to detail and technique; the very foundation diverges from other philosophies. He points out that Japan has historically been process-driven, often treating methods as sacred. However, this ‘way of doing things’ mentality also comes with drawbacks, which he has observed throughout his career.
“The culture has already become a classic, so not much has really changed, which is quite cool. However, I believe we should still be striving to create something new.” This lack of innovation hasn’t helped address another issue that Gokan points out: the distance between the consumer and the bar.
Japanese consumers often perceive bars as too serious, expensive, or overly fancy
This problem has resulted in a circular conundrum: with Japanese customers not being drawn to the bars, the market remains relatively small. Thanks to a limited market, it becomes challenging to attract new talent, and without new talent, there’s little room for innovation. Of course, without innovation, nothing changes — thus the cycle continues.
How does one address this, then? “I’m trying to figure that out,” he replies. “That’s why we keep opening different concepts at different price points to reach a diverse target audience. I’m attempting to break down the barriers.” In addition to The SG Club, which already offers three distinct drinking experiences, he has also introduced SG Low, a cocktail izakaya offering a more relaxed and playful take on the traditional casual bar-restaurant concept. El Lequio, a Latin/Okinawan bar located in Naha, earned a spot on Asia’s Best Bars list within its first year. Most recently, he launched æ (pronounced “ash”), a zero- waste coffee cocktail cafe. Through these new ventures, Gokan aspires to tap into new markets. For instance, æ is drawing in younger women who might visit for coffee, thereby also giving them an opportunity to explore cocktail options.
For the moment, many of his bar’s patrons are international because, as Gokan tells us, “They already know how to enjoy cocktails.” He views this as an excellent opportunity to showcase what Japan can offer that other countries cannot. “We strive to incorporate Japanese ingredients and weave Japanese history into the cocktails, introducing Japanese culture through the recipes or cocktail names.” Even the design of his bar, Sip, embraces a historic theme. Inspired by the story of samurai dignitaries who visited New York in 1860, the bar seeks to imagine how these samurai might have brought New York bar culture back with them — a true East-meets-West fusion.
Despite all his success thus far, the bartender’s mission to enliven the Tokyo bar scene remains ongoing. He enigmatically reveals that he has a new venture in central Tokyo on the horizon. We’ll just have to wait and see what he has up his sleeve, because as the most ambitious individual in the cocktail scene right now, it’s bound to be tantalizing.