Jen Ackrill is veteran mixologist currently based in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she has been heading up cocktail programs for some of the top bars and food festivals since 2014. Not only is she a talented, highly respected member of the bartending community, but she’s a friend and integral to the start of Nankai Shochu back in 2017.
About three years ago, we had received our first shipment of samples. One of our first tastings was at our friend James Jean’s house. We met a lovely woman there named Melissa from Hawaii. She enjoyed Nankai Shochu so much she wanted to include it as part of the refreshments for a Chrome Hearts gallery event. Jen was putting together a drink menu for the event and made the first Nankai cocktails. That event directly resulted in Nankai Shochu becoming distributed in Hawaii and ultimately the decision for us to work on this business full-time.
We talked with Jen during the beginning of Week 3 of quarantine, not knowing then that it would last months. We even ended our call, thinking that the lockdown would end around Week 8. It is now about Week 18, so we’re not only really slow in publishing this interview, but the pandemic has only picked up more steam since then.
Hopefully, reading this will inspire some of you to make some cocktails at home and stay safe.
Nankai: It’s such a crazy time with this pandemic. How are you doing? What’s changed for you?
Jen Ackrill: It’s funny because I discovered that when I’m not working and I’m left to my own devices, I will supernaturally wake up at 5:30 in the morning, no alarm. I’m turning into an old lady because it’s like 5-10 minutes before the birds start chirping.
Nankai: We’re learning all these new things about ourselves.
Jen Ackrill: Yeah, it’s surprising. Do you find yourself drinking more or less or at weird times?
Nankai: Definitely at weird times. Day drinking is officially as acceptable as coffee at our house.
Jen Ackrill: It’s a timing thing for me because I get up when it’s still dark. So why not have wine for breakfast? And then I won’t drink again until maybe dinner. So I’m not drinking any more, it’s just at odd times.
Nankai: Hey, I’m with you. Is that what you’re drinking now?
Jen Ackrill: No, this is a little Nankai spritzer I put together. It’s so good.
[We’ll post the recipe for this below.]
Your Face on a Bottle
Nankai: So, I’ve been meaning to ask you this forever. Your face on a bottle of Cocktail Artists Triple Sec Syrup. How did it get there?
Jen Ackrill: I answered an email. I don’t know how they found me, but I did know three other personalities that were featured so I asked them about it. And they were like, “It’s not a ton of money but it’s cool for your parents.” And indeed it is, especially if you didn’t give your mom any grandkids. Having your face on a bottle at Walmart is a close second.
We both laugh.
Nankai: Emails, man.
Jen Ackrill: Getting your name out there really is about answering emails. And you know, giving them all the information they’re asking for, because if you don’t, they’ll find someone else that’s hungrier than you.
Nankai: Trying to sell shochu in America? Oh yeah, I’m constantly calling and emailing people to give us a chance.
Jen Ackrill: Is it fascinating how slow bartenders are to respond to stuff?
Nankai: Not at all. I mean, at first I thought it was something I was doing wrong.
Jen laughs, shaking her head.
Nankai: But now I get it. Everyone has their own stuff going on, even without me knocking on their door.
Jen Ackrill: Bartenders just get distracted. They’ll be like, “OHH I answered that thing in my head.” I’m notorious for doing that.
Jen Ackrill on Nankai Shochu
Nankai: Me too. You know… I have to ask, at that Chrome Hearts event where you made Nankai cocktails, was it your first time tasting shochu?
Jen Ackrill: No, it was definitely not my first time with shochu or soju or the various expressions it can be. But it was the first time coming across a product that didn’t have that same… bite that shochus can have. The mouthfeel is really silky and sexy and nice. It’s really clean. For me, the way I enjoy it the most is on the rocks with a citrus peel expressed over it. It really is lovely to drink by itself. The “mixability” is there, too; it has enough weight with the ABV to carry cocktails without getting lost.
Nankai: Thank you and [our mutual friend] Melissa again for opening up everything for us. One of the things I love about Hawaii is the power of word of mouth.
Jen Ackrill: Oh for sure. One of the first things I learned when I moved here is how different a conversation is here versus San Francisco, where I was previously. In Hawaii, people will introduce you to someone of similar interests or goals. They’ll say, “Hey, you should meet the guy so let’s get together on Tuesday,” and then you do get together on Tuesday. In San Francisco, you have that same conversation but it means we should get together on Tuesday but probably won’t.
The Hawaii Bar Scene
Nankai: Speaking of which, what do you think is the big difference in the bar or bartending culture between Hawaii and San Francisco?
Jen Ackrill: People drink all the time in San Francisco because it’s a walking culture. Everything is close so you pop to this bar and pop to that bar. In Hawaii, you have tourists and the time change is a legit thing. Like, if you come from LA, around 10pm you’ll be like, “I’m really tired.” Because it’s 1AM back home. And people from New York don’t even have a chance because they’re shattered for like 2-3 days. But the main difference in the drinking culture is that here we fight with nature. There’s the ocean and hikes and all the outdoorsy stuff so people don’t drink the way they do back in the Bay. It’s not better or anything; it’s just different.
Nankai: I say do both, ‘cause there’s a crazy good cocktail scene out here.
Jen Ackrill: For cocktails, most people are surprised when they come out here. They think it’s just gonna be crappy Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiians. And then they find places like Pint & Jigger or Bar Leather Apron that have legit, solid cocktail programs.
Jen Ackrill’s Origin Story
Nankai: How did you personally get into cocktails and bartending?
Jen Ackrill: If you wanna go way, way back, I was 7 and my German grandparents taught me how to make a perfect gin and tonic and a perfect whiskey highball. When I visited them during summers in Pittsburgh, around 5 o’clock I’d make Grandma her gin and tonic and I’d make Pap his whiskey soda. We’d just sit out on the porch.
Nankai: Our daughter, too. She loves making “potions” for mommy and daddy. What about your pro career?
Jen Ackrill: Fast forward to 1997, and I got a job at Blowfish [Sushi] and I lied and said I knew how to bartend. I didn’t. It wasn’t a big deal because it was a beer and wine bar. And then a month later, the general manager said, “You’re gonna be so excited because we got our full liquor license and in 30 days we’re gonna have a full bar.” And I was like “Omigod…” So I created a sake cocktail list, and back then, that wasn’t really happening at the time. And that was mostly so I could pour stuff and look like I knew what I was doing. Meanwhile, I’d be shuffling through books, and there weren’t many at the time. Like it was Mr. Boston and a Cinzano cocktail book. Brands would put out tiny books, too, like how to make a Cosmo, or whatever, and I’d read as many of those as I could.
Jen Ackrill: And I remember I was terrified of someone ordering a classic cocktail like a Godfather or a Godmother and I would screw it up. My entire career, from 1997 to now, four people have ordered a Godfather and zero have ordered a Godmother. And anytime someone asked me, “Can you, um, make a Godfather?” I’d be like “Fuck yeah I can.”
Nankai: You know… maybe I’ll try making a Godfather with Nankai Gold…
Jen Ackrill: Oooh yeah! You can even try splitting the base with a blended Scotch like Johnny Black, a little Amaretto, lemon zest and some Angostura if you’re feeling fancy.
Nankai: I’m excited to try that and there’s a great story to go with it now.
Jen Ackrill: Yeah, “I Don’t Know How to Bartend” by Jen Ackrill.
We both laugh.
Nankai: Of the bartenders I’ve become close to over the last three years, I’d say half confessed to faking it until could make it.
Jen Ackrill: It was easier to do back then. If you didn’t know how to make a cocktail, your trainer would be like, “Just find out what color that cocktail is and make it.” So it was “color bartending.” Oh, it’s blue? I can make you a blue drink. Nobody knew how to make [cocktails] back then and nobody cared. People just drank to get drunk.
Nankai: People are definitely more knowledgeable about cocktails now.
Jen Ackrill: I see 21-year-olds turning 21 and trying to decide what kind of Old Fashioned they want. For us back then, it was like some Jagermeister shot like Liquid Cocaine. Malibu was big, too.
Nankai: For me, it was Goldschlager. [I shudder at the old memories.] Yes, moving on… what kept you in the cocktail game?
Jen Ackrill: It was when it turned to craft cocktails. In San Francisco, there were a few people doing craft cocktails and most were still doing what-color-is-it-bartending, like the same guys that say, “I don’t make mojitos.” I never understood those people because mojitos are pretty easy to make. They’d rather make Long Island Ice Teas which take way more time ‘cause it has way more bottles.
Nankai: Where was your first craft gig?
Jen Ackrill: I was in LA for awhile and came home to San Francisco around 2006 and Rye had just opened. I was having a hard time getting a job, because being a general manager at Blowfish was weighing my resume down. And I just wanted to bartend; believe me. But John and Greg at Rye were like, “Come on down.” I never looked back. Being crafty in that California way of craft, which was more farmers market-style, like what fruits and veggies and herbs can I put in there. It was so much fun, and it was something that I was just naturally good at.
Nankai: I can totally see that. Seriously, I’ve never had a less-than-awesome cocktail from you.
On Making Cocktails
Jen Ackrill: My weakness, my Achilles’ heel, is classic cocktails. Because we focused on our own bar program and recipes, we never really studied the classics. If you ask me for a Bijou, I…[scrunches face]. BUT, if you ask me for something from the backbar, like with Scotch and Yellow Chartreuse, I can do that; grab a couple of bottles and come up with a really good drink right out of the gate. And I’ll try to add something local in it so I’m not like accidentally making like a classic. [laughs]
Nankai: Based on your experience, it’s about time management, too, right? You would need to spend hours practicing and learning a lot of classics that you might sell once in your life.
Jen Ackrill: For that one time some dude goes, “Can you make a “Remember the Maine?”
Nankai: What’s your ideation process when you’re putting together a cocktail program?
Jen Ackrill: The first thing you have to know is who you’re making drinks for. People that are new to this process, and I can throw myself into this— when I first started at Top of Waikiki, it was my ego driving the cocktail program. It wasn’t me listening to what customers wanted. I have this inside joke where I have an invisible tattoo on my arm that says “Give ‘em what they want,” because that was a hard lesson for me. It was in tourist-heavy Waikiki at a historic bar. You have to be able to give people what they want and make it the best version of what they want. Like the Gummy Bear Martini sold like hotcakes there because it’s what people wanted.
Nankai: I need the Gummy Bear Martini version of a Nankai cocktail to sell like hotcakes. But anyway, what if you had your own place?
Jen Ackrill: Sometimes when I do like a pop-up, I’ll come up with a theme, like… I don’t know… Tour de France. Then I’ll do Amari from like Italy and France and the Swiss Alps, having all those influences in there, and then you start running with it. A lot of the times, you’re woken up in the middle of the night with a cocktail idea. And then you can’t wait to get to work, or the kitchen, I guess, during this pandemic.
Speaking of pandemic, many of us work at home for now, and if you have kids, you know they’re bound to walk into your Zoom meetings. And that is how this interview came to an end, with my daughter tugging at my sleeve, saying that I had promised to virtually take her to Disneyland via Youtube and a laundry basket.
When things return to normal, which is hopefully sooner than later, I highly recommend visiting Jen in Honolulu, Hawaii if you have the chance. But for now, you can try her recipes below, which have been placed in order of technical difficulty.
- 1.5 oz Nankai Gold
- 1.5 oz Johnny Walker Black
- 1.5 oz Amaretto
- 1 Lemon Peel
- 1-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Combine Nankai Gold, Johnny Walker Black, and Amaretto in a rocks glass.
- Add Angostura Bitters to taste.
- Add large ice cube and stir to chill.
- Express lemon peel and serve.
The Ackrill Spritz
- 1.5 oz Nankai Shochu
- 1.5 oz Cocchi Americano
- 1.5 oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
- 1.5 oz Soda Water La Croix Passionfruit preferred
- 1 wedge Lime
- Combine all ingredients except soda and lime in glass over ice.
- Gently add soda water and squeeze lime wedge.
- Stir gently and serve.
- Cocktail Shaker
- 1.5 oz Nankai Shochu
- 1 oz Lychee Juice
- 0.5 oz Giffard's Banane Du Brasil Liqueur
- 0.5 oz Cocktail Artists Triple Sec Syrup (Available nationwide at Walmart)
- 0.75 oz Lime Juice
- 0.5 oz Egg White
- 1 Grapefruit Peel
- 1 leaf Shiso
- 1 pinch Edible Gold Flakes (optional)
- Combine all ingredients except shiso, gold flakes, and grapefruit peel in a cocktail shaker.
- Add ice and shake well to chill and dilute.
- Remove ice and shake again to aerate.
- Pour into rocks glass with big sexy cube.
- Express grapefruit peel and garnish with shiso and gold.