If you spend time browsing through cocktail photos on Instagram, it’s pretty impossible not to know the name Jason Yu. He’s a talented yet humble bartender who has been in the business for over thirteen years. His craft cocktails, deep well of alcohol knowledge, photography skills and especially his humor are just some of the reasons I reached out to meet him. I mean, take a look at one of his most popular clips for his Mile High Negroni and tell me you don’t want to drink with this guy.
Jason Yu and I met up at Bar 365 in Los Angeles’ Koreatown about a month before the COVID19 lockdown. We shared some beers while we chatted and then enjoyed a massive meal with a lovely group of food influencers. We gorged as if we knew our future would be spent the next few months strictly at home.
NANKAI: Thanks again for meeting up with me. And also for making the Nankai Shochu cocktail.
JASON: Yeah, my pleasure.
NANKAI: I forget if you tried our other product, Nankai Gold.
JASON: The barrel-aged one, right? It’s really good. I didn’t to a cocktail for that one. It would kind of defeat the purpose of it. I mean, you wouldn’t pour A-1 sauce over a filet mignon, right?
NANKAI: Agreed. Still, we do a lot of whiskey cocktails with Gold to try and introduce it to Japanese whisky lovers. Our Old Fashioned is pretty popular. I noticed you designed a bourbon sour for DRNXMYTH. I always like to ask bartenders what their go-to cocktail is; is that yours?
JASON: I don’t really have one… I go through phases. After whiskey, I was big into cognac and brandy for awhile, and now I’m on a big agave kick. As is the rest of the industry.
On Jason Yu’s Origin Story
NANKAI : Speaking of our industry, you and I also share a background in another industry, too. Print media, right?
JASON: Yeah, that’s right. I used to do photography for a magazine house, like for five or six of their titles, and I was a writer for one of them. About eleven years of my life.
NANKAI: No kidding. What were you covering?
JASON: A lot of extreme sports, like motorcross. It was fun until it became not fun. Any time I had to go to any of these races. If you’ve ever been, they’re a lot of fun as a spectator, but if you’re working the event, you go at the very beginning and leave at the very end. After a day of standing in the sun and getting beat up by dirt and rocks, you’re so exhausted.
NANKAI: How did you go from that world to the bartending world?
JASON: The economy crashed. The iPad came out, and nobody was buying magazines anymore. I needed to find a job. But to backtrack a little bit, I didn’t like my job, which was in Valencia, and I lived in Pasadena—
At this point, my jaw dropped. If you live in Los Angeles, then you know that could be a hellish 2-hour commute.
NANKAI: Holy #^&#$.
We both chuckled because, before the coronavirus, traffic was a joke everyone suffered. (And strangely, now, I miss it.)
JASON: Once I was nearly home, I would stop at bars in Old Town Pasadena and have a drink. This was years and years of me doing that. So when my job got cut, the owner of this bar I used to frequent called me up and offered me a temporary gig. And that was my first hospitality job— I was a busser. I gave myself six months to find another job, but here we are thirteen years later.
NANKAI: That’s incredible. So how did you go from bussing to learning the craft?
JASON: I went through all the loops. From busser to server to barback and finally to bartender.
NANKAI: Did you dive deep into bartending right away?
JASON: Um, it took a long time, you know? I was at that bar for the better part of seven years. I got trained from four different bartenders, two of which are prominent inspirations to this day. But it was basically a nightclub sort of place so a lot of two-ingredient cocktails like vodka sodas. And of course, shots like Incredible Hulk.
NANKAI: Kamikazes and Lemon Drops. I confess to ordering a bunch of those back in the day.
JASON: Exactly. But, I got to a point where I got bored and I started coming up with my own things. Like I would want a cocktail that tasted like something in my mind and would tweak recipes to figure out how to get there.
NANKAI: And you got hooked.
JASON: Well, at the same time, I got really into wine. That’s what I mean when I say I go through phases. And I drank so much wine to the point where I’m like, “I’m going to study this,” and I started training to be a sommelier. That’s where a lot of my tasting knowledge, my solid tasting assessments arrived from. The sommelier guild.
NANKAI: I remember when I first asked you to drink Nankai Shochu and Nankai Gold, you blew me away by breaking down all the tasting notes.
JASON: Yeah I still do that. Everything I taste, I follow that training.
On Learning the Craft
NANKAI: Is the creative part of bartending something that can be learned or is part of it having an instinctual palate?
JASON: Definitely learned. Because everyone has a palate. You taste stuff and you know whether it’s good or bad. It’s a matter of training. That’s what the sommelier courses really taught me— to understand my palate, figure out what I’m tasting, different breathing techniques to assist smelling, even visually assessing viscosity and age. I’ve put years into studying, in addition to my past experiences. It’s an accrued amount of effort.
NANKAI: Like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours thing to perfect something.
JASON: Definitely. I get a lot of questions on Instagram on how to become a bartender, so I’m always like, “One, you gotta drink a lot, and two, you gotta study.”
NANKAI: At Nankai, we’re always trying to develop that cocktail that will turn people onto trying our shochu more. How do you overcome the challenges of creating a cocktail?
JASON: Books are great. You gotta have the fundamentals before you start creating. You can’t really go in blind. The basics are important right? If you want a cocktail that’s gonna work every time, you need a sweetener, an acid, and a spirit. That’s it. The most basic formula. But, the trouble is, it’s all gonna taste the same. It’s what a whisky sour is, what a daiquiri is.
NANKAI: What about a Manhattan? That’s sweet and bitter?
JASON: Right, so you get the concept of contrasting flavor profiles. What if I remove something and substitute with a contrasting flavor? And that’s cool. It’s all about the flavor profiles. If you understand that, you can mess with it. But to understand the flavor profiles, you need to study it.
NANKAI: So back to books.
JASON: A lot of great books on this stuff out there, like The Flavor Matrix or The Flavor Bible. These are all commonly used, but they’re not easy to read straight through. You wouldn’t read them front to back like a novel. They’re literally more like a dictionary.
NANKAI: So, what’s your process? Do you have an end flavor in mind or build as you go?
JASON: Both, depending on what I’m inspired by. Like, if I discover or revisit a really cool flavor, I might build around it. Or, if I think of a concept where I want the cocktail to resemble something, I’ll figure out what components to tweak to achieve the flavor in a different manner. Perfect examples are like Negroni variants, which are some of my favorites.
NANKAI: Speaking of which, what made the Negroni surge in popularity?
JASON: It’s just a good drink. It’s the industry drink. Everyone in the service industry all love a negroni.
NANKAI: That’s interesting. Why do you suppose bartenders gravitate toward Amari and that style of liqueur?
JASON: For some reason, bartenders have this strange knack for things that really taste gnarly. I’m not sure why.
We laughed as we thought about this. Jason was genuinely confounded.
NANKAI : Is it because it’s a challenge?
JASON: I think that might more accurately be it. Most Amaris are bitter, and humans by nature, we’re bred to not like things that are bitter. You know, the body thinks it’s being poisoned. So for us to learn to enjoy it, it is sort of a middle finger to evolution. The other thing is, which I find fascinating, who thought of making this stuff?
NANKAI: Hey, the first shochus on Amami Island were not made of black sugar or even rice. It was made from a toxic palm tree. Who decided to drink that, right?
JASON: It’s all weird.
On the Joy of Creating
NANKAI: Starting this alcohol brand and diving into the industry, I’ve truly come to respect those that create. My joy comes from sharing those creations with others. What’s the satisfying part for you in being a creator?
JASON: The literal creating part, but the end goal is to make someone happy. Always. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting something together and presenting it to someone and having them gain some sort of happiness from it. That’s the constant drive. I want to create something that’s gonna make people happy.
NANKAI: Do you watch people take that first sip of your cocktail?
JASON: Always. [Off my look] I mean, I don’t stand there and hover. [Laughing] I’ve been saying for years, “If they don’t like it, I’ll drink it and make them something else.” As long as there’s no citrus.
NANKAI: Why’s that?
JASON: I’m allergic to citrus.
NANKAI: Wait… WHAT?
JASON: Yeah, worst Achilles’ heal to have as a bartender. I can’t drink daiquiris or sours. Nothing with lemon, orange, you know. I can taste it to check the profile, but I can’t sit there and drink a whole whiskey sour.
NANKAI: Ouch. It’s like unrequited love.
JASON: I’m not worried about it… there are so many other drinks to enjoy.
On Nankai Shochu
NANKAI: On a selfish level, I have to ask, what do you think about Nankai Shochu?
JASON: There’s a lot about shochu that I like. I love how mellow it is and how easy it is to work with. It’s so versatile. You can sip it neat and it’s not so abrasive that it’s gonna burn your throat. It’s really like a wine in that you can enjoy it casually.
NANKAI: What do you think will take shochu to the next level?
JASON: It needs to break out of its own culture. If tequila had stayed in Mexico, it never would have been the success that it is now. Shochu has so many subtleties, like its comparison to soju and sake, so you really have to get it into the hands of bartenders and get that education going. It needs to be out there. But you have a good product, man. It speaks for itself.
NANKAI: Which is part of why I love the Nankai martini you designed for us.
JASON: Oh yeah, it was so easy to work with. Perfect for the low ABV sections in cocktail programs. You can have three of those and not get fucked up. Well, I can have three. I don’t know about other people.
NANKAI: [Laugh] Yeah, I was gonna say. What is your tolerance like? Pretty high?
JASON: It’s pretty fucked up, yeah. [Laugh]
And that was Jason Yu, a class act and incredibly learned about all things alcohol. You can find Jason and his fabulous cocktails on his Instagram.
Below is Jason’s original Nankai Shochu cocktail, The Shochu 50/50. Cheers!
Shochu 50/50 Martini
- 1.5 oz Nankai Shochu
- 1.5 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
- 2 dashes Scrappy's Bergamot Bitters
- 1 Pickled Lotus Root
- Combine shochu, vermouth, and ice in mixing glass.
- Stir to chill.
- Strain and pour into coupe or martini glass.
- Garnish with lotus root and serve.