Shiso, a grassy and resilient herb known for its work as a ubiquitous supporting leaf and, most recently, as the country’s most prominent cocktail garnish, has died.
The cause, according to multiple cocktail menu designers, was overuse.
Revered for its vibrant green (and sometimes purple) leaves and ragged edges, the plant’s meteoric rise in the spirits world was unexpected, even by industry standards. “Shiso’s star burned bright,” said Ben Anderson, celebrity bartender and author of the best-selling whiskey distiller’s handbook Batcher of the Rye. “Which is ironic, because you’d never want to burn Shiso. That would taste awful in a Mojito.”
Few specifics of Shiso’s sprouthood are known. Née Perilla frutescens, Shiso is believed by botanists and biographers to have spent its seedling years traveling between China and India. Later, it arrived in Japan and put down roots, humbly toiling away in soups and cradling wasabi on sushi platters.
But Shiso dreamed of more than sushi, and in 2010, it set a course to New York City. After several years under cling wrap, Shiso was discovered in 2016 by Simone Ashcroft, a New York City-based mixologist commonly referred to as the “Shiso Pioneeress.” While dining on spicy tuna rolls at Atarimae, a since-shuttered sushi restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ashcroft picked up a jackfruit avocado roll. “There it was,” she said. “So green, so fresh, so vaguely vegetal. And that’s when it hit me: This stuff could be the next flamed orange peel.”
Seemingly overnight, Shiso became a star.
“GREEN NEW FEEL,” declared New York Magazine on the cover of that year’s fall restaurant preview issue. Food critic Enrique DeMille referred to Shiso as a “breakout star”; Food & Wine declared it a “mainstream maverick with endless potential.”
Shiso’s first highly publicized appearance took place at Inspyr, a Manhattan concept bar and co-working startup where Ashcroft presented it to an invitation-only crowd of industry experts. Bathed in light, Shiso stood upright in a Japanese highball, delicately balanced atop three crystal-clear, hand-carved ice cubes. In cocktail circles, that evening is still referred to as “Shiso’s Big Bang.”
Caught off guard, farms felt the strain of Shiso’s unforeseen ascent; Wall Street was shook. Across social media platforms, the hashtag #ShisoForMe trended for months as influencers signed high-dollar contracts for promotional selfie campaigns. In a pivotal 2017 VMA performance, Lady Gaga emerged from beneath a massive Shiso leaf, dressed as a cocktail shaker. And, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow got involved.
Critics have credited Shiso’s sudden success to Ashcroft’s knack for marketing and the leaf’s curiously photogenic mien. But Ashcroft maintained that she was only a handmaid to Shiso’s stardom. “Sure, I discovered that Shiso pairs beautifully with gin and citrus, but it did all the work. Crush it, infuse it, steep it, spank it, pop it on top of a tiki drink—you name it. This stuff is very versatile. Because it is a leaf.”
Shiso was often cited by hospitality professionals as adaptable, forgiving and pleasant to work with, even as part of hugely disparate beverage programs. Still, for all its graciousness, the leaf never muttered so much as a word. “We got nothing but unflinching dedication. Shiso was always just so zen,” recalled Anderson. “So we used it literally everywhere we could.”
Within months of its initial appearance, Shiso became a fixture of the A-list herb scene. Bar Marmont devoted half its cocktail menu to Shiso-garnished drinks. In Dubai, a Shiso-shaped fireworks display heralded the opening of Leaf, a Shiso-only cocktail bar near the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. For a time, Shiso became the clandestine currency in Tokyo fish markets. In early 2018, NASA livestreamed the growing of a single Shiso leaf aboard the International Space Station.
But Shiso’s trajectory was unsustainable. At the height of its popularity, reports surfaced that the leaf had overextended itself. Rumors swirled that Shiso began binging high-strength fertilizers to stay robust; bartenders accused the leaf of being wilted on the job. Global supply dwindled. With no fanfare, Shiso retired from boutique produce aisles and canceled all farmers market appearances.
Those close to Shiso claim that the very last leaf was used early Sunday evening. A rushed bartender in a generic Midtown Manhattan establishment tucked Shiso into a mound of pebble ice to garnish a Julep. The bartender had run out of fresh mint.
“I’ve never claimed to fully understand an herb’s motives,” Ashcroft said, “but I think Shiso had reached a kind of career contentment we all strive to achieve, and decided to quit while it was ahead. Too bad. Another couple years and we’d have hit the real mainstream: Applebee’s. Maybe even TGI Fridays.”
Shiso is survived by cousins Mint and Basil, and a maternal aunt, Rosemary.