Photo Credit: Chivas Regal Asia
When it comes to China’s growing cocktail culture, Shanghai is still the country’s undisputed cocktail capital. With an uncalculable number of bars specializing in all kinds of spirits calling the city home, it has been the center of countless articles, industry events, awards, and even a cocktail festival, SIP Cocktail Festival, which took place this past September.
The Cocktail Capital of China has started to be noticed on the global stage thanks to the talented industry workers in the city, with two bars, Speak Low and Sober Company, being named the 2nd and 19th best bars in Asia and Speak Low going on to be named the 10th best bar in the world this year in the annual World’s 50 Best Bars list. The two bars, projects of 2017 International Bartender of the Year Shingo Gokan, made it to where they are today thanks to the owner and the intrepid bar manager for both establishments, Atsushi Suzuki.
2017 was a good year for Atsushi. Not only did the two bars he works for get major international attention, but earlier this year he was named the 2017 Chivas Masters Global Champion, after winning a rigorous cocktail competition in China and going on to the global stage to take first place in his hometown Tokyo; and he was named the Bartender of the Year at the 2017 DMBA in Shanghai this past November.
I first met Atsushi in September of 2016 when I was doing interviews and photo shoots for an article on Shanghai’s whiskey scene for Whisky Magazine. Then the venue we met in, Speak Low, essentially three bars on three floors hidden behind the bookshelf in a fake bar supplies store near Fuxing Park, was coming into its own. Later that year it would be named 15th best bar in the world, a testament to the expertise and professionalism Atsushi and his team brought to the establishment.
It would be another year before we met again for a talk, this time in the duo’s latest establishment, Sober Company. The massive cafe, restaurant and bar is located down a quiet shopping street in Xuhui District, close to South Shaanxi Road Station. Walking down the street on a crisp winter afternoon, the sun casting pictures with the help of the cold and twisted trees and building tops as it nestled gently while preparing to slip below the horizon to bring nightfall, I came to the entrance to Sober Company, on a street corner with its gray awnings and black and white tiled floor with dark wooden seats and bar filled with all sorts of Italian liquors and gins and vermouth and rum and whiskey.
It was here that Atsushi was waiting for me while meeting with a colleage. He greeted me with a wide smile and a firm handshake. Then it was up to Sober Society, a bar on the upper 2nd floor (aka 3rd floor) inspired by the East Village. Here the scene changed with the bright from the afternoon gold giving way to a quieter space. A long copper-colored bar greeted us, with high seating and a leather booth in the end of the narrow space reserved for larger groups. The backbar was filled with spirits of all kinds, moreso than in the bars in the cafe and the restaurant, with Society being the last stop on an upward journey and focusing more on digestif drinks to close the stomach after a full meal below.
We sat down and our small talk turned to more exciting matters, particularly the joy of both Sober and Speak Low jumping onto the Best Asia Bars list and Speak Low making the 10 Best list. What it boils down to, Atsushi tells me, is service. “Sometimes its easy to want to just say ‘great we made it to #10 or #2 and #19 and to not go further, but I always tell my staff to stay humble and keep striving to do better.”
Atsushi started bartending when he was 17-years-old, fresh out of college and wanting to try something, as he said, that was cool. “I thought bartending was a cool job,” he laughs “so I decided to give it a try.” Eventually bartending brought him to New York City, where he was able to perfect his craft further and make connections, particularly with Shingo Gokan, who had made waves in the city with his Japanese-style cocktail bar, Angel’s Share.
With new connections and his time in the US drawing to a close, Atsushi found his way to jobs in London and Toronto and worked for awhile before winding up back in Tokyo. It was here that he got word from Shingo that he was starting a new project in Shanghai, China, and that he needed a bartender. Having never been to Shanghai, much less China, Atsushi took the offer and began helping with the project, which became Speak Low.
Bursting Onto the Scene
Since arriving in China a few years back, Atsushi has been finding a groove and slowly making a name for himself in the burgeoning Chinese and greater Asian bar scenes. In the middle of the year, he was chosen to take part in the Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition, a major annual cocktail competition sponsored by whisky company Chivas Regal.
During the competition, bartenders were required to make three cocktails: the Classic Way, inspired by Chivas’ Scottish and New York roots; the Local Way, in which Chinese ingredients and spirits were to be used; and the Japanese Way, invoking the influence Japan has had on global cocktail and whiskey culture.
Perhaps most inspiring and impressive of the drinks Atsushi crafted was his Local Way contribution, the Shanghai Drifter, which combined Chivas Regal with Huangjiu, ruby port and syrup and bitters to invoke the cultures the young bartender had been exposed to on his global journey, and one of his many forays into use of Chinese and local ingredients and spirits in cocktails.
His efforts during the regional competition helped Atsushi to win a spot at the Chivas Masters Global Competition in Tokyo representing China. His standout drink, the Double Talk (a mix of Chivas Regal 12, Campari and White Vermouth), came during the group competition round, in which he was teamed up with bartenders representing Mexico and Hong Kong to mix a signature drink.
The win at the global championship led to further opportunities in Asia and around the world, with Atsushi representing Chivas alongside global brand ambassador Max Warner for a year, jetting around the world to do guest bartending events in major cities.
Atsushi’s 2017 culminated at the DRiNK Magazine Bar Awards (DMBA), in which he was crowned bartender of the year, proof of his hard work, teamwork and expertise from his journey to China and around the world.
The win at the Chivas competition also saw Atsushi traveling around China more this year, guest bartending in some of the country’s major bars and introducing new Chivas products into the China market.
The opportunity has allowed him to explore not only China but Chinese spirits more in-depth, with his most memorable experience occurring in Chengdu at one of China’s oldest baijiu distilleries. “When you got to the area where the distillery was,” Atsushi remembers “all you could smell was baijiu and sorghum!” After a tour of the distillery and the chance to take part in making some baijiu, Atsushi was hooked and determined to start experimenting with the spirit and offering it to customers.
“Now we have a few baijiu cocktails on the menu” at Sober Company, he explains. He hopes to try more baijiu in the future, which will allow him to see its potential in future drinks and cocktails. Along with baijiu and huangjiu, Atsushi also is interested in using local ingredients in his cocktails, and with the drinks menus at Sober and Speak Low changing regularly, he is able to change things up more and more.
Proof of this experimentation was present in Sober during my second trip to the establishment, with new tea cocktails featured on the menu at the cafe, and drinks in Sober Kitchen, the 2nd floor restaurant and bar, featuring cocktails like the Brewed (huangjiu, vermouth and oolong tea) served out of a clay drinking receptical. This didn’t stop at Sober Society either, with a whole menu of drinks inspired by the 12 Zodiac Animals featured in time for Chinese New Year, a few utilizing Chinese ingredients and one, the “Snake”, aged in a clay pot similar to the ones in traditional Chinese liquor shops.
Looking to the Future
The biggest thing for Atsushi is being humble when great success comes around, and continuing to learn the craft and not get too cocky. This is something he wants his team to take away from their time working at the two bars. There’s always something new to learn or take away, and, more importantly, to maintain good service. “I think the reason for our success is our good service, and I always want people on my team to practice that.”
The new year will also bring some great changes for Atsushi, as he will be returning to Tokyo regularly to help Shingo with a new project in Japan. He plans to go back and forth between Japan and China, in order to keep things going with Sober and Speak Low. This opportunity will allow him to spend more time in his hometown with his family and children, something he is looking forward to.
With a big year already behind him and another big one ahead, Atsushi Suzuki continues to impress guests and the greater global cocktail scene with his craft, good service, teamwork and charm. 2017 was good, and 2018 is going to be better.
This piece was originally published in print in the January/February 2018 issue of Ningbo Focus