Bartender in Residence

Christian Suzuki’s Cocktails Are a Love Letter to Japan

September 01, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Aubrie Pick

The San Francisco bartender channels sense memory to build modern drinks that evoke his family's home country.

“I grew up in this industry,” says bartender Christian Suzuki, “and for the longest time I really didn’t want to be a part of it.”

The San Francisco–based Suzuki aspired, instead, to be a filmmaker. “The point of filmmaking is to tell a story,” he says. But since the age of 11, Suzuki had been making triannual visits from the Bay Area to Tokyo to spend time with his grandparents, absorbing the ins and outs of hospitality as he shadowed them at the group of restaurants they operated, and learned about the cocktail bar Kagano, which his grandmother ran. When Suzuki moved to Tokyo after graduating from high school, his grandparents hoped he might take over the family business (his mother opened her own now-shuttered Italian restaurant in the Bay Area after immigrating in 1987), but he remained drawn to a career in filmmaking, even while working as a bartender at a nightclub in the Omotesandō neighborhood of Tokyo. “Once I realized that I can take that creative mindset and apply it to creating cocktails, that’s when I started really understanding and appreciating cocktails and the joy of making them.”

This shift, however, only occurred after Suzuki moved back to the Bay Area as a 21-year-old and took a job behind the bar at 15 Romolo, an enduring North Beach cocktail bar that he credits with reviving his interest in spirits. He wasted no time in getting to know the local drinkscape, working at 20 bars in the span of only nine years. “I always have to be on-the-go; I typically work at at least three bars at a time,” says Suzuki, who most recently held a bartender position at Wildhawk before the pandemic forced a national shutdown.

Of late, Suzuki has found renewed inspiration from the culinary background he rejected as a teenager. “I have this huge guilt that I didn’t take over my grandfather’s restaurants,” says Suzuki. “He passed away a few years ago and about half a year later, his restaurants closed too.” The loss of this legacy has become an unexpected font of creativity for Suzuki’s original cocktails, which are cloaked in nostalgia and deeply tied to sensory memory. “My career is really an homage to what my grandparents taught me,” he says.

Kagano, in particular, has come to represent a poignant parallel to his own experiences. As a queer multiracial child of immigrants who has faced difficulties with discrimination, the bar opened by his grandmother in the 1950s—when women were still unwelcome in many Tokyo establishments—is a useful lesson in perseverance. “Kagano is the inspiration for everything,” he says. His cocktail of the same name marries fruit and baking spice in a bold, complex blend of rum, Scotch, umeshu and banana liqueur. “It’s a love letter to my heritage, my family.”

But it’s his Kimochi that perhaps best illustrates Suzuki’s ability to translate Proustian sensations into liquid form. Inspired by ochazuke, a porridge-like dish consisting of rice, green tea and various toppings that his grandmother would prepare for him before he set out on early morning trips to Tsukiji Fish Market, Kimochi (meaning “sensation” or “perception” in Japanese) combines gin, vapor-distilled genmaicha tea, myoga cordial and clarified yuzu juice served on the rocks. To round it out, a few dashes of housemade sea bean solution add a hint of salinity. It’s personal, transportive and nostalgic all at once.

“There’s a thought and a process that goes into all my drinks,” says Suzuki. “I really do have a story for every single one of them—it’s all just storytelling for me.”

Kagano

An homage to his grandmother’s cocktail bar, Kagano, which Suzuki aims to re-open in the U.S., this rich, stirred drink blends aged rum with Scotch and banana liqueur. A measure of Japanese plum wine, known as umeshu, ties the drink together and harkens back to Suzuki’s youth: “My grandma used to put it in milk and give it to me as a child,” he recalls.

Kimochi

In his Kimochi, Suzuki recreates ochazuke in cocktail form using gin; vapor-distilled genmaicha tea, produced from a still he fashioned out of a tamale pot; myoga cordial, made with a type of Japanese ginger that adds a hint of acidity; clarified yuzu juice and sea bean solution. “It sounds complicated, but it’s actually not,” insists Suzuki. “I’m not a science person.” He carbonates the tea distillate before mixing it for a cocktail that is lightly effervescent, bright and slightly savory.

Jusanya

Translated as “The Thirteenth Night,” Jusanya takes its name from a short story by Higuchi Ichiyō, the first woman to be published in Japan and an ancestor of Suzuki’s. The drink, a spin on a dirty vodka Martini, combines sesame-washed fino sherry (in place of vermouth) with a housemade sesame brine, as well as sesame-infused bitters. According to Suzuki, sesame is the one ingredient that’s most evocative of his heritage, drawing from not only Japan, but also El Salvador, where sesame is central to the cuisine. “[Jusanya] is that perfect representation of how two completely different backgrounds can come together and create one homogeneous, beautiful poem,” he says.

Nekokaburi

Nekokaburi, or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” borrows Suzuki’s childhood nickname. “[My mother] would always joke that I always showed this sweet, shy, innocent side … but really I was loud like a dragon, striking like a scorpion and slick like a snake,” he says. Combining mango cream liqueur, lemon juice, egg white, amazake (a sweet sake) and mezcal, this frothy dessert-like drink masks its boozy bite beneath its fruit-forward top notes.

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