Behind the Highlands and Tani

We sat down with Caer Maiko Ferguson of Austin’s The Roosevelt Room and The Eleanor and the pop-up bar Daijoubu to chat about her work, her favorite Scotches, and her drink for September’s Scotchtember Box, the Highlands and Tani!

S&S: What is Daijoubu, and how did the idea for it come about?

CMF: Daijoubu is a super-Asian cocktail pop-up, founded by myself and Sharon Yeung! “Daijoubu” means “it’s fine” in Japanese. It’s very possibly the most common phrase in the whole language. We created the pop-up because there are elements of cocktail culture that weren’t fine, and we are trying to change them. The goal of Daijoubu is to push culinary boundaries in cocktails by incorporating wilder and more authentic Asian flavors. It’s to create a space for Asian Americans in front of and behind the bar. It’s a kawaii expression of Asian-American culture with booze.

S&S: If you had to pick a song that captures the energy and vibe of Daijoubu, what would it be?

CMF: We have a whole Daijoubu playlist!

S&S: Where has Daijoubu popped up so far?

CMF: Only in Austin so far, as The Roosevelt Room and Nickel City. We were able to make a few of our cocktails at Pouring Ribbons during Bar Convent Brooklyn, but it wasn’t a full bar takeover. We have a tour around Texas planned for later this year.

[Note: check out Daijoubu on Instagram to follow along as they convert a school bus into their tour bus, the Daijoubus!]

drinks and snacks from Daijoubu’s Nickel City pop-up

S&S: When did you first get a sense of the rising popularity and potential of an Asian-inspired cocktail program? How have your travels in Asia informed your ideas?

CMF: There have been a couple “Asian” cocktail bars in the US in the last few years. It’s not the newest concept. The ones that pull it off are pretty much only in New York (and a couple other major cities) so we don’t see them enough. The difference between those and Daijoubu is the culinary inspiration. I’ve seen cocktails with Asian ingredients before, but we made the first cocktail based off the flavors of orange chicken that I’ve ever seen.

I loved the bars in Tokyo, and trying to recapture some of those vibes is part of Daijoubu. But I will say that what we’re doing is maybe more Asian American than just Asian. It’s informed by my and Sharon’s childhoods.

S&S: What’s one specialty Asian ingredient that you’ve either worked with or is traditionally found behind the bar in Asia that you think every bar worldwide should stock and use?

CMF: I don’t think the bars in Asia are that different from the bars in the US. There’s probably a lot more baiju in China and there’s more shochu in Japan, but everyone is working with the basics of classic cocktails. I would love western bars to play with eastern spirits as much as eastern bars use western spirits, but that’ll take a while.

S&S: What makes a cocktail “super-Asian” to you, aside from the specialty ingredients? What other cultural elements should it be drawing on?

CMF: I think we are trying to reference elements of culture that are specific to Asian and Asian-American culture. For our first pop-up, one of the shots was served in a Yakult cup. Yakult is an Asian probiotic yogurt drink. If you grew up Asian, your mom probably made you drink these and taking a shot out of the container gives a sense of home and belonging. As I mentioned, one of the goals of this project is to create a space for Asian Americans behind and in front of the bar.

S&S: What inspired you to create the Highlands and Tani?

CMF: My two favorite places I have ever visited were Southern Japan and Islay in Scotland. This drink combines the two. Highlands are classically Scotland. Tani are the name of valleys in Japanese.

S&S: The technique behind your build for this highball might be unfamiliar to some of our users. What is the purpose and benefit of this preparation?

CMF: To make a fully integrated and carbonated cocktail.

S&S: What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy the Highlands and Tani at home?

CMF: There’s a pop song from the 60s in Japan that was renamed the Sukiyaki song, which was the only Japanese song to hit the top of the American charts. It’s a fully perfect cheers-ing song.

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

CMF: There’s a Japanese restaurant in Austin called Kome that makes a camembert cheese tempura with a honey dipping sauce. The creaminess and sweetness would pair with the mild smoky and spicy notes of this cocktail.

S&S: With all of the proliferating riffs on the original highball, what do you feel are its essential elements that should remain in any variation on the theme?

CMF: That the majority of the cocktail come from the spirit and the effervescent element. 

S&S: Do you have a personal go-to Scotch?

CMF: So many. I really love Scotch and other single malt styles. Clynellish, Caol Ila, anything from Bruddladich. Sherry and rum cask finishes are always amazing on Scotch. We always have a couple heavily peated bottles at home as well.

S&S: How about a desert-island bottle of Scotch? 

CMF: Bruddladich Black Art. Clynellish has a distiller’s select with a sherry cask finish that was beautiful, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. 

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