It’s no secret that flavors hailing from Thailand, Indonesia, and China have been shaking up the U.S. cocktail game. Using everything from pandan leaves to Thai chili, a new generation of Asian-American bartenders is determined to infuse their drinks with ingredients they grew up with.

In the Bay Area, with its burgeoning Asian-inspired bar scene, Asian-owned establishments like Cold Drinks in San Francisco and Viridian in Oakland became instant hits when they opened in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Now, two alumni of Moongate Lounge — the cocktail parlor upstairs from Mr. Jiu’s, the Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown — are exercising their passion for trans-Atlantic mixology in a pandemic-appropriate format: the pop-up cocktail bar.

Boba cocktails
Credit: Gamsaan

Dubbed Gamsaan Cocktail Co. (the name means “golden mountain” in Cantonese and is a nickname for San Francisco), the bar has been popping up at The Showdown in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood since the end of September. On the menu, a rum and boba cocktail shines brightly, alongside drinks made with bitter melon, Chinese five spice, and homemade sweet-and-sour sauce.

Behind the pop-up are William Cao and Danny Louie, both born and raised in San Francisco. Cao is Vietnamese and Chinese; Louie is Chinese. The duo, who met while working together at Mr. Jiu’s, had been toying with the idea of opening a bar for years. “When Covid-19 happened, we both stopped working and wanted to do something in the meantime,” Cao says.

Boba cocktails
Credit: Gamsaan

The base for Gamsaan’s cocktail menu is a rotation of spirits, including gin, mezcal, rum, tequila, Scotch, and baiju, a type of Chinese distilled liquor. Then, Cao and Louie add a variety of flavors to each spirit to create five unique cocktails. For example, mezcal is offset with chili crisps, baiju with taro, and black tea. “We felt like we had to make cocktails that use Asian flavors like bitter melon,” says Cao, “but without these ingredients tying us down.”

When Gamsaan first launched, the boba cocktail, featuring tapioca pearls floating in a deceivingly innocent milky substance, attracted many excited responses. “We wanted to make something more approachable,” Cao explains, “a gateway cocktail for some.”

In San Francisco, the birthplace of the headline-making but nevertheless popular chain Boba Guys, boba tea is an obsession. Predating the glitz and branding of bubble tea chains, boba drinks are embedded in Asian-American identity. The alcoholic potential of boba, however, has remained undiscovered, with only a handful of boozy examples popping up — like on the cocktail menu at Bubbleology, a U.K.-based chain with franchise locations in the United States.

Boba Cocktails
Credit: Bubbleology

When crafting their original boba cocktail, Cao and Louie felt that boba’s texture and flavor would be perfect in a tropical rum drink with pineapple and Thai basil. Since its debut, however, the cocktail has been through many iterations at Gamsaan’s pop-ups. “When I first started bartending, it was about learning about the classics and riffing on that,” Cao says. “You have to know the theory and the basics before you can write your own music. After we’ve done that, we’re going back to flavors we grew up with.”

For boba-curious cocktail lovers, Cao offers the recipe below. Dry tapioca pearls (boba) can be purchased online, as can winter melon sugar from Red Blossom Tea Company, the brand recommended by Cao and Louie.

Rum and Boba Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces rum
  • 2 ounces orange juice
  • 1.5 ounces Nilla wafer-infused milk
  • 1 ounce black tea
  • ¾ ounce winter melon sugar

Directions

  1. To make wafer-infused milk (hello, carbs in drinks!), let one wafer sit in 2 ounces of whole milk for two hours, then strain with a cheesecloth.
  2. To make the boba, boil the tapioca pearls in water with a dash of sugar (see cooking instructions on package).
  3. To prepare the winter melon sugar (it comes in a hard block), measure the weight in grams and add that same weight in boiling hot water. Stir until dissolved and fully incorporated.
  4. Mix all ingredients, aside from the boba, in a shaker. Add ice and shake. Double strain into a glass with boba at the bottom and give the drink a light stir. Add ice to the cocktail, and a boba straw (available online).