Cocktail Culture, Japan Edition

For the past two weeks, I vacationed throughout Japan in Tokyo, Kobe and Kyoto. One of my goals was to sample the Japanese cocktail culture; here’s what I found.

Where To Go

There are many different types of bars in Japan. You’ve got your high-end joints, like hotel bars and places run by prominent bartenders. Then you’ve got your tiny hole in the wall dive bars in places like Golden Gai or Sannomiya. And, of course, you’ve got your seedy joints, like snack bars, hostess clubs and the like. If you throw izakayas (pubs) into the mix, it gets even more complicated. This post primarily deals with the first two categories.

For transparency’s sake, here are the places I hit up: Star Bar Ginza (Tokyo), Bar High Five (Tokyo), New York Bar (Tokyo), Albatross (Tokyo), These (Tokyo), Bar Azabu (Kobe), Chey’s (Kobe), Hello Dolly (Kyoto), Haven (Kyoto).

Technique as Ritual

In Japanese culture, many activities are considered a “way of” art form, as indicated by the “do” (道) suffix: judo, kendo, kado (aka ikebana), sado (tea ceremony), shodo (calligraphy), and hundreds more. Kazuo Uyeda–of Tender Bar and hard shake fame–has called the Japanese method of making cocktails “cocktail-do” and this spirit is alive and well, even in lower tier places.

Take stirring for example. The places I went to tended to fill a mixing glass with hard, clear ice and then stir for twenty seconds or so to pre-chill the glass. Then they drained the melted ice water out, built the drink and stirred. At a few places, the stir was completely, eerily silent.

Other tidbits included: giving out a hot towel to new patrons (as is the case for much of Japan); careful, meticulous shaking in three-piece shakers; use of yarai bitters bottles (which allow for more careful measurement); giving optional garnishes (citrus, cherries) alongside classic cocktails; use of silver/gold plated garnish toothpicks; expressing twist oils in the air above a drink rather than into it; special ice knives for shaping and breaking ice.

It was truly impressive and lent a lot of credence to the idea that a drink will taste as good as you expect it to based on presentation, technique and service. That said, this technique comes at the cost of a quickly made drink. I never waited an obscene amount of time for a cocktail, but neither were any of the places I went into as packed as NYC’s top spots, where you can spot bartenders making two drinks at once (one in each hand) or where they make up to 2000 drinks a night (like Ward III).

On Innovation

Perhaps the real price of “cocktail-do” is lack of innovation, or perhaps Americans are just relentlessly (and sometimes nauseatingly) breaking rules and trying new things. Most mid/lower tier places had near identical menus of classic cocktails (including some that are better left forgotten) categorized by base liquor with a few house originals that were little more than spirit/citrus substitutions. The one big (high-end) exception to this was the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, which had an entire menu of house cocktails–however, even their list was a little tame compared to those of the growing number of NYC pioneer bars.

At most high-end places, like Star Bar and Bar High Five, there wasn’t even a menu. At both these bars I asked for custom drinks, describing what I wanted and, in both cases, I was initially steered towards pre-existing drinks before pushing past to the more unique offerings. Even these tended to be relatively simple affairs, which revolved around special fruit or simple spirit/accent match-ups.

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of drinks I had were delicious and quite smooth, even if there was little challenge or journey. In a way this is fitting for a country ruled by identically laid-out convenience stores, ubiquitous host personalities, an endless parade of mascots and the notion that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. There’s comfort in the familiar.

Flavor Train

I found that Japanese cocktails fell into two camps of flavor: no-nonsense-strong or so smooth I couldn’t taste the alcohol.

The latter might be due to how often Cinzano* (a vermouth with a lot of spice/bite) is used, but I believe the ratios Kazuo Uyeda laid out in his “Cocktail Techniques” book have something to do with it too. He calls for upwards of 7:1 ratios for his Martinis and up to 5:1 for his Manhattans, which is a far cry from the 2:1 or 3:1 ratios usually found in the US. On top of that, I often saw two dashes of bitters from yarai bottles, which is about a quarter of what typical dasher bottles will dispense.

(*I will say that at Star Bar and High Five, they did use spirits like Carpano and did extensive tasting, including adjusting of the balance.)

I’m not sure how I feel about the former. On the one hand, a rum cocktail with pureed, uber-ripe strawberries is a wonderful treat, but I usually want the liquor used to have more bearing on the drink’s overall flavor profile. I suspect such hiding of the booze might have something to do with the mixer spirits of choice, which were all as bottom shelf as you can get without getting into sketchy territory (and in some cases, such as when my Manhattan at Haven was made with Canadian Club, I cringed).

Surprisingly, I didn’t see much from the wide world of Japanese whisky being used much in cocktails, save for highballs, which is a shame. J-whisky is really differentiating itself from the other whisk(e)y of the world and it would’ve been great to see Japanese bartenders put it in the cocktail spotlight.

Oh and one last thing (and word of warning): smoking is allowed in many, many bars, including the high-end ones. Secondhand smoking concerns aside (despite their validity), the smoke can really futz with the taste of a drink. Unless you’re a smoker or someone dying to return to the golden age of smoking in bars, this really sucks.

It’s Just Business

If you’re planning on touring Japanese/Tokyo cocktail bars, you should know right now that it is goddamn expensive. Really fucking expensive. Six drinks at Bar High Five ran us 13,000 yen (~$145USD) and seven (with a small plate of ham) at Star Bar cost 16,000 yen (~$180USD). Did you just say “Holy Shit”? You sure as hell should have because that’s $22-24USD a drink.

But this is simply a function of how tiny, 10-20 seat (no standing) high-end places survive despite their size and emphasis on technique. There are seating charges (expect 1,000 yen/head), ridiculously professional service, no menus, no itemized bill. It is an amazing experience overall, but not one many people will be able to afford to do too often I imagine.

Of course, the story is different at mid/low tier places, where prices settle closer to the 700-1200 yen/drink range (you may still have to deal with seating charges). And if you go beer or straight whisky, it’s often much cheaper no matter where you go. C’est la vie.

Takeaways

There is a lot to love about the Japanese cocktail experience. The emphasis on customer service despite the absence of tips is a revelation and the bar atmosphere–private, warm, peaceful, intimate–makes going out for a drink feel like an escape from jackassery rather than a headlong dive into it. You truly feel special while the drink mixing ritual is carried out in front of your eyes; it’s something everyone should get to experience at least once.

But it’s hard not to feel like some of Japan’s cocktail scene is stuck in the Stone Age, especially compared to places like New York. When the cocktail list never changes and house originals are rare, it makes you wonder if the technique displayed is route memorization rather than understanding of cocktail fundamentals. There are so many fascinating flavors in Japanese cuisine–goma (sesame), wasabi, ume (plum), yuzu, sake, shochu, mirin, barley, miso–that would be amazing to see in cocktails and Japanese bartenders just so happen to have the focus to pull it off.

If only they’d try more often.

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2 thoughts on “Cocktail Culture, Japan Edition

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks for sharing. Insightful stuff. I am currently peicing together a cocktail menu for a Japanese fusion restaruant. They want me to emulate as best I can the Japanese cocktail culture. The irony is of course, the ‘cocktail’ is an American invention. So to put it more plainly; I am supposed to copy the cocktail trends of Japan which themselves are mostly copied American trends themselves.

    I am not discouraged however. Your notes are appreciated and will certainly help me with my challenge.

    • admin says:

      You’re right Matt, the cocktail is very much an American (made famous by Jerry Thomas) creation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something very specific to learn from Japanese cocktail craft for use in a fusion restaurant. The first thing to ask yourself would be exactly in which way you’re hoping to represent Japanese culture. Do you want the flavors? In that case, you might be tapping Japanese ingredients such as yuzu, or shiso, or ume. Do you want the palate? I’ve found that cocktails go one of two ways in Japan–very focused/dry (e.g. the 5:1 martini), or very mild, where the flavors are pleasant, somewhat sweet, but not particularly showcasing the liquor used (neither of these categories necessary fits the cocktail clientele many bars/restaurants are trying to court these days). Or do you want the technique? In this case it would very much be about the attention to detail and fastidious preparation that goes into every drink; marvelous, for sure, but hard to replicate and, unfortunately, not very good for an American bar/restaurant’s bottomline (by comparison, “craft” cocktails in Japan run closer to 2000 yen/$20 and there is often a seating charge of several hundred or even a thousand yen). Hell, maybe it’s none of these and is simply more about creating the aesthetic to “trick” the imbiber into thinking they’re in the land of the rising sun (all while they drink cocktails more commonly found here).

      My point, I guess, is to zero in on how you want your customers to perceive the restaurant’s invocation of Japanese culture. Once you’ve got that down, you’ll know better where you can leave well enough alone and where you want to twist the original formula up a bit.

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