From drawing inspiration from thrifted glassware, to working with local farmers for the freshest ingredients, to putting on a magic show—OAK + FORT MAN talks to Satoshi Yonemori of Grapes & Soda, the bartender behind our SS17 Campaign Video Launch event, about craft cocktails and the creative process. Find out what makes The Forager’s Gimlet—one of the cocktails on the menu—so delicious and memorable with the reveal of his recipe.
Satoshi, tell us a bit about how you got into bartending.
The first time I bartended in my life was in Japan; I was 19 years old. It was in a nightclub. It was fast paced, with 500 people coming up, mostly ordering high balls. When I came here to Vancouver, I did two years of studies in business management. I started as a dishwasher and moved my way up within restaurants over the next four or five years. Eventually I switched to butchering, which is a daytime job, so I had lots of free time after five o’clock. So, I thought, maybe I could start working in a bar as well. I got hired as part of the opening bar staff at Wildebeest [a restaurant in Vancouver] and that’s when I first met Dave Gunawan, the owner of Grapes & Soda.
What are some of the differences you notice between bar culture in Japan versus bar culture in Vancouver, or North America?
Drinking culture is very different in Japan. In Japan, there is only a small segment of people who appreciate craft cocktails. There are mostly just people who drink beer.
That after-work, salaryman thing?
Haha, yes. But I think people here tend to be more open to trying something weird—in a good way. For example, I use a lot of vegetables in the cocktails, and if I have that on the menu, people here will think, “Oh, this is cool. I want to give it a try.”
Japanese people are more conservative. The first thing they think of is Gin and Tonic. Gin and Tonic is a big thing in Japan—each bar has their own version of it. In that way, I find it a bit boring. The bar I worked at in Japan was nothing like what I do here.
So what is it that you like about being a bartender?
That’s a good question! I don’t think it matters if I’m behind the bar or in the kitchen, I just like to make things. I enjoy making something from scratch, the creative process.
It’s the same for designing clothing too, I’m sure. You just start drawing your drafts, and it might not be there yet, but then you add detail, and you complete the vision. It’s amazing once you have that product that you created from nothing.
There’s also a feeling of excitement when you see something you’ve produced out there in the world being enjoyed by people.
Yeah. I’ve been having this feeling recently. When I started in this industry, I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no confidence in trusting myself. But then as I got feedback—confirmation that what I’m doing was right—I could continue doing what I was doing. Now that I have that confirmation, I never have to compromise. It builds up your courage and nourishes your creativity too. Because you’ve made so many mistakes, you’ve tried it from so many different angles, you discover new things along the way.
Can you tell us a little about the concept behind Grapes & Soda?
Grapes & Soda is a natural wine bar, but we also serve amazing food. Heather is our chef—she’s amazing. I think the style of my cocktail and her cooking is similar. We take what we have available seasonally and come up with the menu that way. So, we don’t necessarily have the same menu all the time. Tonight we’re doing lamb shank and fresh pasta but tomorrow the whole thing could change. Not just the specials, but the regular menu too. So that’s the same for me. I try to use what we have in the kitchen and maybe do something fresh and new with it in the cocktails.
We also try not to make waste, so we use a lot of stuff that otherwise would go into the garbage. We can use it to make syrup. It’s not that I’m saying that I have to use it in the cocktails, but because I have it, when I do want to come up with something new, it’s another option already available for me. It’s efficient.
The kitchen also has a bunch of ingredients that we’ve canned and jarred ourselves, so I might incorporate that as well, so that we can have local stuff, organic stuff, all throughout the year. Its what we believe in, and what we feel we should be doing.
David Gunawan, the proprietor of Grapes & Soda, is known for being committed to working directly with farmers and small producers at your sister restaurant, The Farmer’s Apprentice. How do you interpret his food philosophy, and incorporate that into what you are doing at the bar at Grapes & Soda?
I definitely ask the chef next door what’s available in the markets and sometimes they have a leftover sorbet or syrup of something that I would never think of coming up with myself. So I’ll take it, and try to put it into the daily special cocktail. Sometimes it’s going to be a hit. And if it is, I’ll put it on the regular menu. It’s the same thing, I may not be intending to use an ingredient, but because its available and I don’t want to waste it, I’ll use it and most of the time the outcome is something special.
What do you think are some of the elements that make for a memorable bar experience, from the time you walk in the door to the time you walk out?
For me, the key element is people. Of course the drinks should be tasty, but we have such a small room that we put a lot of attention into the service. I think its important that we all pay attention to all the small details. If I feel that, when I go into in another bar, every last detail is attended to, it’s important—that’s when I want to go back again and again.
Do you have any bartending tips for the OAK + FORT Man, if he’s hosting friends or guests at home?
Yes. Keep it simple. A recipe doesn’t have to have 20 ingredients. With just three ingredients, you can make a really good cocktail, like a Negroni. Switch the elements—change to the gin to whiskey—and you’ve got a Boulevardier. It’s that easy. You can always experiment, but I like to keep everything very simple.
In what ways does style and design factor into your bartending?
Hmm. You know, glassware is one of the main things for me. I like to go to the second hand store and find these $0.50 vintage cocktail glasses. Its fun to go out to another neighbourhood further outside of the city with a backpack and my bicycle and go from thrift shop to thrift shop searching for glassware. Like those guys up there! [Satoshi points to a shelf behind him.] There are a bunch of weird ones. Sometimes I get inspiration from the shape of the glass. For example, that one on the right, what could go in there? Could it be something foamy, or something straight? Yes, probably foamy. And right now I have some osmanthus syrup, so maybe I could do something orange and bright. Okay, so probably I will use tequila.
You can look at a glass and get inspiration for a cocktail from it!?
Yes! I draw inspiration from the shape of the glass. I’ll get ideas about the colour, texture and mouthfeel. That’s how I come up with new cocktails.
Wow, that’s amazing. Do you have any thoughts, then, about the relationship between fashion and bar culture?
Yes, definitely. Someone is going to be watching me—I’m making them a cocktail, right? So the movement has to be right. It’s the same thing when you are putting on a show, the movement is important. Fashion is part of the showmanship.
After I was working in the kitchen, this was one of the reasons why I enjoyed moving out to the front-of-house. I get to put on a nice shirt, do the hair, watch people, be a part of the crowd.
So what are some other things that interest you or inspire you in your daily life, or that inform your work behind the bar?
It could be many things. Sometimes I like to make things more interactive for the guest. For example, I’m thinking of a cocktail—in the glass you have a purple ice cube, made from a purple tea. And you have a bottle, sealed, of some other mixture, something citrusy, made in-house. When you serve it to the customer, they have to open the bottle and pour it into the glass. The purple drink reacts to the acid and it turns pink! There’s a surprise. It’s visual. It’s magic.
“This green cocktail is made with hemlock syrup. It came from some foraging that I did with one of our servers who is a forager. She pointed out the hemlock leaves, and I thought, “Ok, I’ll try to make a syrup from that!” I made it, and it turned out such a nice green colour. And the Gimlet, made with gin and syrup, is the perfect cocktail for it. When I first put it on the specials menu, it was all I made that night. I knew it would be the right cocktail for your event.”
60ml Beefeater gin
30ml lime juice
15ml Canadian hemlock syrup
Dashes of grapefruit bitters and juniper tincture
Combine all the ingredients, shake, and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with red currant flowers.
Photography: Rachel Samson
Interview: Craig David Long