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Tradition Meets Innovation: Shingo Gokan for Cherry Heering’s 200 Years

Cherry Heering has turned 200! Like all milestone birthdays, it’s only natural for friends to reminisce on times gone by and look to the future. It is the many bartender ‘friends’ of the brand that have cemented Cherry Heering’s position as the quintessential cherry liqueur and a must-stock for every bar, and hence it’s only natural that they should be the ones to reflect on its rich history. Over the coming weeks, we will share the musings and memories of 20 legends of the bartending trade as they reflect on a particular year in the history of Cherry Heering. As good birthday guests never turn up empty handed, they’ve each also created a bespoke Cherry Heering cocktail to mark the celebration and cheers to another 200 years.

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

Japanese schoolchildren remember 1923 for the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that shattered Tokyo, killing at least 140,000 people and causing a 12 metre tsunami. But Shingo Gokan, the Japanese bartender who made his name at Angel’s Share, New York, and now owns China’s best bar, Speak Low, chose to commemorate a very different event that occurred that year.

“The original Cherry Blossom cocktail is a classic drink in Japan. It’s actually the oldest and most famous classic drink that was born in Japan,” Gokan says. “Not many Japanese cocktails are famous globally, but this cocktail has been in the Savoy Cocktail Book since 1930.”

While nobody knows the year that Tasaburo Tao created the original Cherry Blossom, he opened his bar, the Café de Paris, in Yokohama in 1923. Like Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, it remains in the family even now.

Yokohama was Japan’s first international port, and bars and bartenders – among them Louis Eppinger, considered one of the fathers of Japanese bartending – arrived in the city long before they came to Tokyo. “In the 1910s and the 1920s, a lot of cruise ships came from the US and the UK,” Gokan says. “That’s how we got our cocktail culture.”

By the time Tao created his drink, the cherry blossom tree, or sakura, had been a cultural icon in Japan for centuries. “It’s iconic, not only for the flower. It’s an iconic plant, an iconic activity, and an iconic colour,” Gokan explains. “In the spring we celebrate when the sakura blooms by having parties under the sakura trees – it’s a very important activity.”

To reimagine Tao’s creation, Gokan combined a range of different recipes, then added a couple of contemporary twists: a tonka bean infusion and a milk wash. “Sakura petals and tonka beans have a very similar flavour, and when Japanese people try tonka bean for the first time, it usually reminds us of sakura,” he says. “We have a very traditional sakura dessert called sakura mochi, which is a sticky rice cake, and when you add the milk to the cocktail you get a milky note like sakura mochi.”

Gokan started work when he was 18, in his hometown not far from Yokohama. Rather than follow the traditional apprenticeship system, he got a job in a high-volume restaurant bar and began to teach himself cocktails on the side. “The first cocktail that I made from a recipe was a Singapore Sling. That was the first time I made a cocktail by myself,” he recalls.

By the time he turned 20, Gokan was Head Bartender in a local bar. Aged 23, he headed to New York to make his fortune – despite only speaking Japanese. He joined Angel’s Share, one of the city’s oldest and best regarded secret bars, in 2006 – and would remain involved with the bar for a decade.

While Angel’s Share hired him for his Japanese bartending technique, Gokan considers his style a hybrid. “I’m trying to combine American and Japanese styles,” he says. “My international bartender friends say I’m very Japanese, but my friends in Japan say I have a very Western style.”

Winning the Bacardí Legacy cocktail competition in 2012 transformed Gokan’s career. “After I won Legacy, I started travelling all over the world. I did a guest shift at the Savoy, and lots of countries and cities asked me for partnerships and guest partnerships,” he says. “Now competitions are everywhere, and everyone is travelling a lot, but at that time not many people were doing that much travel, It was very good timing.”

With the help of two separate sets of backers, one Asia-based and one in the US, Gokan has a stake in an impressive number of venues. He launched Speak Low in Shanghai in 2014, the turbo-charged French Concession speakeasy that currently stands at Number 3 on the World’s 50 Best list; Sober Company followed in 2017, and is now home to four distinct venues. Gokan’s first Tokyo venture, SG Club, launched in May, while there are plans for a New York bar in a couple of years.

Gokan is impressed by how the Chinese bar scene has developed since he opened Speak Low. “The Chinese economy is pretty good, so every month there are new bars opening – not just in Shanghai, but everywhere in China,” he says, noting that bartending is now seen as a fashionable career in the Middle Kingdom. “Proof & Company came to China last year, and they’re raising the level of education. The Bar Awards came to China last year, and it was actually bigger than Tales of the Cocktail! It was huge!”

Yet, while Gokan admires China’s bartending scene immensely, he feels it will be a while before it catches up to Japan. “The bar culture here is still very new,” he says. “In Japan, cocktail culture is more than 100 years old: we’ve polished our skills and created our own ways.”

Sakura 1923

Glass: Coupette

Garnish: Salted sakura petal.
NOTE: This is a common ingredient in Japan. When a sakura petal is kept, it’s normally soaked in salt to preserve it and keep its freshness.

Method: Cook equal parts rye and cognac sous-vide with tonka beans, add the Cherry Heering, vermouth, curacao, lemon juice and the milk. When it curdles, strain it, to get a completely clear liquid. After you’ve clarified everything, pour the final product into the mixing glass, stir it, then pour into a coupette.

30ml Cherry Heering
30ml Rye-cognac sous-vide tonka bean blend
15ml Sweet vermouth
15ml Curacao
10ml Lemon juice
15ml Milk (for clarification)