Behind the Tokyo Love Story

We sat down with SeongHa Lee, lead bartender at Las Vegas’s Zuma at The Cosmopolitan, to chat about his work and his cocktail for June’s Sake It To Me Box, the Tokyo Love Story!
Photo c/o Krystal Ramirez.

S&S: You’ve tended bar all around the world—what’s been your favorite scene so far?

SHL: I can say my favorite bar scene so far is London and NYC. Those two cities are kind of similar but totally different. Both scenes are very creative with a great variety of cocktails. Both cities’ recipe game is amazing, but I think London’s garnish game is better.

S&S: Is bartending as a craft different in South Korea or Japan versus in the US or Europe? We’d love to learn some specific examples of differences across the world!

SHL: The Korean and Japanese styles appear similar but are actually totally different styles. Japanese style is more calm and chill and pretty silent while making a cocktail. Korean style is more energetic with a vibe. I can say the energy is similar to US bartenders’ good energy. And Korean and Japanese bartenders make liquor-based cocktails more than US or European, I think. In the US and Europe they use a lot of different house-made stuff for their cocktails. For example, lots of different garnishes, house-blended vermouth and amaros, and other stuff.

S&S: What’s been your favorite bartending competition of the ones you’ve participated in?

SHL: My favorite bartending competition is Bols Around The World (BATW). It’s been a very special competition to me and my bartending life. I was a 2013 BATW global finalist, and after this competition my life was changed in a big way. First thing is I had a great 2013 BATW global finalists’ bar family community with great relationships and I had a lot of guest bartending experiences in Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Moscow, UK) and I got the opportunity to move to the US.

I didn’t win the competition, but my life majorly changed after the 2013 BATW. I can say I’m one of the luckiest guys from the 2013 BATW family.

S&S: How would you describe the craft cocktail scene in Las Vegas?

SHL: Vegas is a totally different market. Most people think Vegas is only the Strip, but that’s not true. The Strip is only a small part of Vegas, and our local craft cocktail bars make great cocktails now with their own programs. We are doing classic, tiki, signature craft cocktails. And of course Vegas bartenders all know how to make great energy-drink cocktails too!!!

I can say Las Vegas’s craft cocktail scene is 500% AWESOME and we can compete with other cities too.

S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?

SHL: I’m playing with the throwing technique right now. And I always love to use fresh and local ingredients.

S&S: What would you say is most unique about the drink you’ve created for us?

SHL: I think the lemon-lychee cordial and basil tincture. These are hard to make at home. You’d need to learn about the ingredients and processes. And you’d need 3–4 weeks just for making a basil tincture. So those two items are most unique about my drink.

S&S: What’s your favorite aspect of the drink?

SHL: Storytelling with a combination of special house-made ingredients is my favorite aspect of the Tokyo Love Story. When I started thinking about my drink, I thought all about my memories of my life in Japan and imagined, what if I had met someone in Tokyo? This is what I would’ve wanted to do with that someone: Walk along the streets, watch the flower festival, and fall in love.

S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with your cocktail?

SHL: I recommend trying my cocktail with Japanese tempuras and skewers. Because my cocktail is very refreshing, it will help to cleanse your palette.

S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?

SHL: I love watching movies, hiking, hanging out with friends, reading books, AND playing video games. When I was young, I got an offer from a pro gamer team in Korea, but I turned it down because I don’t want to play video games all day. But video games are still one of my hobbies.

S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new bar?

SHL: I always start with the spirit-forward cocktails and then move toward the refreshing cocktails at a new bar. The funny thing is that most bartenders don’t drink cocktails every day. After work, drinking whisky or other spirits neat-with-a-beer-back is my jam. But if I visit a new bar or if another bar has launched their new menu, I’m always trying all the new drinks because it’s good to learn from each other.

S&S: Can you tell us more about the Helen David Relief Fund, to which you’re donating your proceeds from this box?

SHL: The Helen David Relief Fund to benefit bartenders affected by breast cancer was established on Tony Abou-Ganim’s fiftieth birthday, April 14, 2010, in memory of his cousin Helen David. Helen opened the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan, on June 15, 1937, and owned and operated it for nearly seventy years until her death in 2006 at the age of ninety-one. Helen was a two-time survivor and very committed to the cause. She was very philanthropic and believed in the importance of giving back. So in her honor, Tony started the HDRF in association with the USBG. Today the HDRF is a registered 501(c)3 and our goal, short term, is to help bartenders and their families as they recover from this terrible disease with the day-to-day expenses that are not covered by health insurance. The HDRF also plans to help those in need of pre-screening. One day the HDRF’s goal would be to also assist with medical expenses.

So I want to support my brother Tony’s HDRF and our industry family. I love to do charity events all the time. I did the Bar Fighter charity bartenders speed challenge event in Korea last year as a fundraiser for Korea’s children’s cancer association with sixteen bartenders from around the world.

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