This Is What Creativity Means to Christian Suzuki

The San Francisco bartender on the art of storytelling, the best advice he’s ever received and the recipe for his Imaginary Folklore cocktail.

We’re exploring what creativity means to the 12 finalists in the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE®. To follow along and read more about the contenstants as they head to finals, please visit the MIB 2020 home page.

With tattoos, gauged earlobes, and a bold sartorial style usually complemented by a beaming smile, Christian Suzuki makes a statement behind the bar. But he sees the cocktails he creates as his most essential mode of expression, with almost every drink he crafts telling a story.

Though born in the Bay Area, he spent some of his earliest years in Tokyo, where his grandparents ran culinary mini-empire that included a series of restaurants specializing in Northern Japanese cuisine, as well as a cocktail bar. “My grandparents are from a very old-school generation of Japan,” says Suzuki. “If they wanted to express anything, it wasn’t through their voices, it was through their work and their food. That was a huge inspiration for me.”

During summer trips to Japan as a teenager, Suzuki received a first-rate education in food service, hospitality and running a business under his grandparents’ tutelage. Though he’d originally had no intentions of going into hospitality—instead, he dreamed of making it in the film industry—with the recession in effect, at 21, Suzuki took a job as a server at one of San Francisco’s pioneering craft cocktail bars. “It really lit a fire under me. I realized, I actually love this; I absolutely love talking to people.”

He embarked on a peripatetic journey through many of San Francisco’s watering holes (Suzuki estimates he’s worked at approximately 20 bars, all told), sometimes employed at two or three at a time. It was during his time at a Union Square joint where bartender’s choice orders were frequent that he really found his identity as a bartender, he says. Suzuki reveled in the creative process of working with each guest. “I would always encourage my guests: Don’t be afraid, just throw five adjectives at me and we’ll make something happen!”

Suzuki’s drinks often draw on Japanese heritage and family stories—as with his Kagano cocktail, named after the bar his grandmother operated in Tokyo. The strong stirred drink’s intermingling of spice and fruit—rum, blended Scotch, umeshu, orange bitters and salt—evoked for him the stories his grandmother had related about the struggles of being a woman in Japan.

His drinks are also often tied to sensory impressions from his favorite activities, such as hiking and camping. He once taught wilderness survival on Catalina Island (off of Southern California), in an area overrun with fennel. “Whenever I smell fennel, my mind takes me straight back to Catalina,” says Suzuki, who created an homage to the memory: a cocktail made of vodka, aquavit, fennel and strawberry.

The drink became a storytelling device and a way to engage with customers. “When people asked why I used fennel, it was like—let me tell you something, I have a story. It’s different from what you might assume my life used to be like.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Storytelling. For me, the art of storytelling is being able to capture one’s attention and being able to put a move on their heart from laughter, love or pain.

How does it inspire you?
Storytelling is what leads me to what I do now. My grandparents would tell me stories of their life during World War II, to the success and struggles of their restaurant and bar businesses in Tokyo. Now that I’ve grown older, I find so much inspiration from those lessons and stories that were passed down to me. Now I’m here to do something about it.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A dear friend, Shirley Brooks…told me not to be a part of the problem, but a part of the solution. Though it was really hard to hear at the time, it stuck with me and I try to act harder on it every day.

Describe your creative process in one sentence.
At least a week of scribbles, tears, coffee breaks and distractions.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
I’m excited, if not maybe a little nervous, about sharing with the community a little bit more about me.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Bar owner/daddy to my future pack of puppies/wifey to whomever will help me raise those puppies.

Worst thing you ever drank:
A warm, unshaken, undiluted Ramos Gin Fizz in NOLA.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I made a Dirty Martini variation with freshly picked uni. One day, I might revisit that experiment.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
What I want to say is hiking, kayaking and camping. That hasn’t been a reality in a few years. Today, my answer would be discovering new music or rediscovering old favorites while doing the laundry and scheduling out my life—that’s my Zen place.

If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
This is tough. It’s a toss-up between Patti Smith’s Horses, Björk’s Vespertine or Mariah Carey’s Daydream. Gosh, I love those ladies!

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
When I was a child, I had the biggest obsession with horses. We lived near a horse ranch; I only read horse books. I kept a journal and would tally how many horses I saw—Every. Single. Day. My mom once found my journal and was so confused/scared by it.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That success is not a race or a competition of accolades.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Not so much a drink request, but I worked at a bar where we had butterfly pea flower ice cubes. A guest asked if she could take some home. I told her “yes?” They melted in her hand by the time she left the bar.

Best meal you’ve ever had:
When I was 12, I flew to Japan during the winter to learn about and work at my grandparents’ restaurant business. After a long shift of washing dishes and attempting to wait on tables my grandfather rewarded me with their signature dish, Kiritanpo Nabe, a northern Japanese hot pot served with toasted mashed rice. That’s a memory I will never forget.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Negroni.

Dive bar?
Room-temperature gin, or a vodka soda in the largest glass, no garnish.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
I couldn’t care less what’s on a menu, but mean bartenders need to go.

The last text message you sent:
“Papi, when you kneading the knots outta my back?!”