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With international travel off of the agenda for the time being, many of us are missing the sense of discovery that comes from wandering the streets of a foreign city and contemplating the world from a different vista.

For jet-setting bartender Shingo Gokan of The SG Club in Tokyo, the experience of being grounded in Japan feels strange after years of traveling overseas on a weekly basis. But he’s managed to channel his wanderlust into a delightful food-and-cocktail-pairing experience that takes guests on a “virtual world tour” of his favorite global destinations: Welcome aboard SG Airways.

Since early June, Sip, the intimate bar space located on the basement floor of The SG Club, has functioned as a vehicle for culinary world travel. Upon arrival, you’re escorted to your seat and presented with a packet of boarding passes that serve as the evening’s menu. The “Business Class” seating starts at 6 p.m. and comes with seven courses and drink pairings (¥13,000 before tax), while the “First Class” option (¥18,000 before tax) offers 10 courses from 8:30 p.m. A fizzy blend of The SG Shochu Mugi (a barley-based spirit collaboration between SG Group and Sanwa Shurui distillery), wheat beer (Kagua Blanc in Business, Maison Rococo beer in First) and organic honey, finished with a spritz of herb water, is served prior to “takeoff” while Gokan explains the idea behind the event.

New spirit: The SG Club has recently collaborated with three Japanese distilleries to produce a lineup of shōchū liquor. | COURTESY OF THE SG CLUB
New spirit: The SG Club has recently collaborated with three Japanese distilleries to produce a lineup of shōchū liquor. | COURTESY OF THE SG CLUB

The cocktail pairing concept was intended to be the focus of a new bar SG Group had planned to launch in New York this year. After the COVID-19 pandemic put the project on hold, he and chef Atsushi Furukawa, a veteran of the popular SakaMai in New York, decided to roll out the pairing experience as a limited-time pop-up in Tokyo. The two worked closely to concoct recipes for dishes and cocktails that do more than complement each other: More often than not, the drinks act as sauces that complete the dishes.

A balancing act involving several competing elements, cocktail pairing is fraught with pitfalls. Generally speaking, cocktails are more difficult to match with food than beverages such as wine, beer or sake, as their strong (and frequently sweet or fruity) flavors can overshadow the notes of more sophisticated, delicate dishes. Higher levels of alcohol in spirits present another problem.

“The most challenging aspect of cocktail pairing is making sure that the alcohol levels of the drink created are not too high,” says Andrew Loudon, head bartender of Singapore’s Tippling Club, an innovative fine-dining restaurant known for its cocktail program. “The trick is being able to bring down the alcohol level to around 20 percent while retaining the flavors of all parts of the drink.”

Many of my experiences have been unremarkable, some — such as a kelp-based cocktail once served to me with a shellfish dish — are best forgotten. But a great pairing, like this new pop-up, can resonate in the soul for a long time.

Tickets, please: Diners are presented with a packet of boarding passes that serve as the evening’s menu. | COURTESY OF THE SG CLUB
Tickets, please: Diners are presented with a packet of boarding passes that serve as the evening’s menu. | COURTESY OF THE SG CLUB

The key to successful pairings, Loudon says, is to “pick out certain notes” from a dish and “incorporate those flavors into the cocktail.”

“It’s never a parallel pairing, where you just put the same ingredients or flavors in the cocktail. That’s too simplistic. You want to work with the key components and find ways to complement them,” he explains.

Take, for example, Furukawa’s combination of salty-sweet jamon iberico (cured ham) capped with a whip of butter infused with funky nattō (fermented soybeans) and rolled up in a crisp sheet of nori (roasted seaweed), which eaten together produces a textbook example of umami’s synergistic effect.

When tasted alongside Gokan’s sherry-based cocktail — made with The SG Shochu Mugi and flavored with orange and bonito essence — the umami is amplified further. As the plaintive sounds of flamenco music float through the speakers, Gokan uses a venencia (traditional metal tool for drawing sherry from a cask) to pour a shot of sherry directly into your glass in a long, elegant stream. This is his ode to the city of Jerez, Spain, and it’s marvelously transporting.

Originally, the pop-up was scheduled to end after two weeks, but the program has been extended through August. Catch it while you can.

To book a seat at the SG Airways Virtual World Tour pop-up, visit bit.ly/sgclubairways; courses from ¥13,000.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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