One night in early 2018, some friends invited us to a dinner at the Gibson in San Francisco. We had been driving around the Bay Area all day, introducing Nankai Shochu to countless restaurants and bars. Bone-tired as we were, we almost didn’t accept, and Nankai would certainly be a different company today. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d soon experience something that would change our perception of cocktails and how they can be paired with food.
We arrived at the Hotel Bijou, where nestled within is the Gibson. The elegant art deco interior immediately struck us as we caught up with old friends in the lobby. Soon we were all greeted by Adam Chapman, Director of Operations and Bar Manager. After seating us, Adam simply and quietly began making cocktails, each accompanying a course in an impeccable omakase-style meal. He was friendly and warm and reserved with words, but his cocktails spoke volumes.
Cocktail after cocktail, each evoking different flavor profiles designed to complement the food, we were, simply put, blown away. Somewhere between picking up our jaws from the floor and a duck entree, Adam served his iconic Clear Bloody Mary. It was a mad scientist concoction made from extracting a few spoonfuls of pure tomato sugar from a pallet’s worth of produce and mixing that with Nankai Shochu, ponzu, three different styles of soy sauce and barrel aged fish sauce. The result was indeed a clear and umami-packed Bloody Mary. After a sip, we needed to learn more about the man.
Adam has been in the restaurant business for over 22 years, starting, as many talented mixologists do, in the kitchen. However, his desire to learn and perfect every aspect of a restaurant eventually landed him overseeing bar programs. Drawing on his experiences in the kitchen, he immediately recognized a need to redesign the bar culture to improve pace and create a more cohesive bond between the front and back of the house. His natural curiosity and tastes did the rest, creating an innovative cocktail program that blazed a path toward a new career.
Over the next decade, Adam would design beverage programs for numerous well-known bars and restaurants throughout the Bay Area and the U.S., most recently Plum Bar and Alta. His current tenure at the Gibson provided him with the creative space to execute much of his vision, from curating unique ingredients to using meticulous, lab-like methods for his complex recipes.
Our most recent conversation with Adam Chapman provides a deeper look into the mind of a mixologist who takes immense care and pride in his craft. (Recipe following the interview.)
Nankai: How has your drink-making style evolved over the years?
Adam Chapman: Molecular gastronomy was a big thing about eight years ago at El Bulli in Spain, so people started getting creative and doing showier, science-based things. I kind of tried it a little, too, like using liquid nitrogen to frost just a portion of the glass so the presentation was cool. On another occasion, we hosted a celebrity party at the restaurant, so we prepared a deconstructed Long Island Ice Tea that would be served as three classic cocktails, Tequila Sunrise, a Vesper Martini and a Rum and Coke.
A team of us served an array of glasses when guests first arrived, and I started explaining the layout and to enjoy each cocktail individually first, and then pour them together to create a Long Island Iced Tea. No sooner did I the words leave my mouth, someone at the table said, “I love Long Island Iced Teas!” and immediately poured the three together, causing others in the party to follow suit. Needless to say, it didn’t work out the way I envisioned it. After that, I realized that if I have to do or say too much just to make it sound cool, I shouldn’t do it.
Nankai: Tell us about your cocktail ideation process.
Adam Chapman: I try and focus on the products and their flavors, and not go by a name or its popularity. My whole thing is to avoid using citrus juices because it adds a lot of volume, making it tough for me to control, along with the amount of acid and sugar when building a cocktail. So I always ask myself how I can build up the volume and acid while layering in flavor.
Also, these days, it’s not just one cocktail I’m trying to conceive, it’s sequencing the cocktails for the overall experience. The challenge comes when you change one cocktail that affects the ones that come before or after it. Sometimes when I’m creating a cocktail, I may start with a concept, but because I’m constantly stretching out ingredients, it ends up in a completely different place than where I started.
Nankai: How do you discover new products?
Adam Chapman: I’ll go to some trade shows to maybe find one or two things, but the really cool stuff comes from distillers, growers or a rep I’ve worked with a long time.
In one instance, my rep showed up with an empty numbered barrel, a six-pack of the gin that came from it, and a 12-pack of sour ale that was aged in it. Now, I’m planning on making a bees knees cocktail with it, consisting of a carbonated limoncello from the gin, honey mead, sauvignon blanc and fermenting champagne juice and then infuse it with elderflower and then keg it with a little bit of the sour ale. And I’m going to serve it in a tiny flute.
In the case of this cocktail, I use the acid from the beer and the gin to extract all my flavors. And finally to build volume, I’ll use sauvignon blanc, because it’s super clean and crisp, so it stretches the drink out really well.
Nankai: How does your style resonate with your customers?
Adam Chapman: After the Long Island Tea experience, I remember going to Oakland and making smoked-cherry cola with rum or whiskey. I realized that it worked with a wide range of customers—from those who weren’t into cocktails that enjoyed it simply for the taste, to those that really wanted to hear about what went into making it.
People are not intimidated by the experience we provide them. Many of our clientele, especially those that are developing their palates, haven’t even looked at our drink menu, and simply trust that the experience is always going to be different, but built upon what they had previously. From what I’ve seen, consumers as a whole are open to sitting back and letting the industry push forward.
The good thing about a lot of the things I do now is that the general customer, even those that are not mixologists, really know their stuff. They can sense when something is BS. And they are genuinely curious when I share some of the techniques I’m using for our drinks. It’s not forced on people.
Nankai: And of course, we need to ask— How does Nankai fit in with what you are doing with your cocktails?
Adam Chapman: It’s amazing how much cheap, fake stuff is out there. I mean, stuff that’s literally food coloring and sugar, which is why I prefer to make my own. Many spirits are flavor killers too — let’s be real — it’s alcohol. By using a clean, smooth spirit I can nuance the true flavor of the product and open a whole new world of flavor profiles that don’t exist in the dated cocktail world.
If I’m looking to use something that can build out a multi-level, palate-stimulating balance of flavors, I like Nankai Shochu because it’s so clean and pulls out what I need. Even at a higher proof, Nankai Gold is also super clean, so it’s been really easy for me to nuance stuff with it. What’s great about shochu is that I can now finally see the market catching up to how the people, those that really care about what goes into their body and like flavor, want to drink.
In the Shade of an Oak Tree
- 12 oz Nankai Gold
- 2 oz Toasted rice koji
- 1 tbsp Gyokuro green tea leaves
- Infuse Nankai Gold with toasted rice koji for 20 min.
- Remove and discard koji.
- Add Gyokuro green tea leaves to infusion and steep for 10 min.
- Remove the tea leaves and save.
- Pour 3 oz of the koji and tea-infused Nankai Gold over a large ice ball and serve.