In 1860, 77 members of the Tokugawa shogunate traveled to New York to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, following the opening of Japan’s borders by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854.
The delegation was the first to leave the country since 1635, and the mission marked a new era of cultural exchange between Japan and the United States. The “ambassadors” set sail from Yokohama to San Francisco and took a train to Panama before making their way to New York, where their arrival was celebrated with parades and grand banquets.
In an article published on June 16, 1860, The New York Times reported that “a splendid collation will be provided on the boat during the passage to the City, under the superintendence of Warren Leland, of the Metropolitan Hotel. Several tables will be spread so as to accommodate the whole retinue without crowding, and the food will be adapted to the Japanese taste.”
This story of the samurai diplomats planted a seed in the imagination of mixologist Shingo Gokan, who wondered, “What if those guys had taken inspiration from the U.S. and opened the first American-style bar in Tokyo?”
After all, he posits, the Japanese were staying at the Metropolitan Hotel and could have easily visited the hotel bar where Jerry Thomas, one of the fathers of American cocktail culture, was head bartender. While no record exists of their interaction, Thomas’ book “How to Mix Cocktails,” which was published in 1862, includes a recipe for “The Japanese,” a Cognac-based cocktail with orgeat syrup and bitters. Coincidence? Gokan doesn’t think so.
Gokan’s new bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, The SG Club, is a living piece of historical fiction that delights in cross-cultural references. The initials “SG” stand for Sip and Guzzle, and the space is divided into two bars, each with a different vibe.
The more casual Guzzle, on the ground floor, is modeled after a 19th-century saloon, with an amber-wood bar, faded grey walls and tarnished mirrors in gold frames. Look closely and you’ll notice the Japanese details: Espresso is served in ceramic sake cups, and the menu — written in English and old kanji — is printed on paper decorated with traditional kimono patterns from the 1860s.
Guzzle’s signature is a riff on chawari, a simple drink typically made with shōchū and tea. Gokan’s take uses ice-brewed gyokuro green tea, vodka and fine-grain Japanese sugar. There are monthly iterations; October’s version featured fermented black tea, Tattinger champagne and sudachi citrus.
Downstairs, Sip is a cavernous and elegant affair that channels an upscale speakeasy. An old-timey shoe shine booth stands at the entrance (Gokan, who worked in New York for more than a decade, eight years of which as the head barman of Angel’s Share, is well acquainted with the hipster aesthetic), where you can enjoy a tipple while your footwear is polished with whisky (“so your shoes can sip, too,” he notes).
Inside, the walls are covered with painted tatami mats and softly illuminated by Edo-era street lamps. The menu is fittingly posh (drinks start around ¥1,700, compared with ¥1,200 at Guzzle): The Wagyu Mafia Fashioned is a decadent mix of bourbon washed with A5 wagyu beef fat and organic raw honey from Ome Farm in western Tokyo.
A native of Tokyo, Gokan spent the bulk of his career abroad, first in New York and later Shanghai, where he owns two bars. At The SG Club, he wanted to combine the “professionalism” of Japanese cocktail culture with the “fun” of international bar culture.
On a recent visit to Guzzle, international groups of guests floated in and out of the bar as I sipped a No. 1 Cup, a refreshing mix of gin, sake and spiced Earl Grey tea. It was the perfect place to be on a Saturday afternoon — somewhere between a reimagined past and a slightly tipsy future.