At the Sea Guardian II bar in Yokohama’s historic Hotel New Grand, a laminated addendum to the menu offers thoughts on selected drinks. Of the Bamboo cocktail, the writer asks, “Is this the foreigners’ image of Japan?”
Clearly no, it’s not.
The Bamboo’s blend of dry sherry, French vermouth and orange bitters evokes balmy continental evenings and southern Europeans enjoying their six-month summer vacations. The drink’s creator was German. His customers were European and U.S. dignitaries. There would be nothing remotely Japanese about the Bamboo but for its name and the fact that it happened to be conceived in Yokohama.
The German was Louis Eppinger, manager of the Grand Hotel and one of the fathers of bartending in Japan. In the latter half of the 19th century, when a newly open Japan was lapping up international ideas, Eppinger was the right man in the right place at the right time. After a spell tending bar in San Francisco, he arrived in Yokohama in 1889 and within a year or two had invented a cocktail that became a classic.
History tends to record wars and revolutions in more detail than cocktail stories, so nobody knows for certain what inspired Eppinger, but the best guess is that the Bamboo was based on the Adonis, a popular cocktail of the era. Both drinks contain sherry, vermouth and orange bitters. The Adonis employs sweet Italian vermouth, while the Bamboo uses the dry French kind. In the late 19th century, French vermouths became widely available for the first time and bartenders quickly took to the drink, creating dry versions of mixes that hitherto called for sweet vermouth. It is easy to imagine Eppinger’s international clientele relaying the latest fashions from the cocktail homeland, inspiring him to adapt the Adonis.
An alternate theory suggests that the Martini begat the Bamboo. Evidence for this view comes from William Boothby’s 1908 book “The World’s Drinks,” which introduced Eppinger’s creation to the United States. It gave the recipe as equal parts sherry and dry vermouth, with two dashes of orange bitters, a twist of lemon and an olive. Boothby’s recipe for a Dry Martini was identical but with gin in place of sherry.
The problem is, Boothby either tinkered with the recipe or just plain got it wrong. According to Keisuke Oda, current heir to Eppinger’s place behind the bar of the Grand (re-christened the New Grand in 1913), the true recipe calls for three times as much sherry as vermouth. Boothby’s bastard version has prevailed in America, but in Japan, bartenders and recipe books follow Eppinger’s formula. The Sea Guardian II uses 45 ml of Tio Pepe fino, 15 ml of Noilly Prat and a dash of orange bitters. As does almost everyone else.
Sherry might be one of the most diverse drinks, from bone dry finos to rich, sweet olorosos, but Japanese bartenders seem to have settled on the world’s most popular brand of fino for their Bamboos. In dozens of bars across Tokyo and Yokohama, all but two of the Bamboos I tried were perfect taste-alikes. The two variations both used an oloroso sherry from the historic Valdespino bodega.
Bar Maruume in western Tokyo’s Futako Tamagawa district used one part oloroso, three parts vermouth, served in a champagne flute. It was an interesting twist on the classic recipe. And by interesting, I mean bad. Bamboos are elegant, bracing drinks, great as aperitifs or paired with light food. Maruume’s creation was so rich that it overwhelmed the figs that came with it.
Ginza’s Bar High Five used just a dash of oloroso with a base of fino. If Eppinger had thought of this, he would surely have written the recipe this way. It’s richer and rounder but no less refreshing. High Five’s head bartender Hidetsugu Ueno says he adjusts the recipe according to the customer and the hour. If it’s the first cocktail of the evening, he suggests a light, dry recipe.
“If it’s the second, or last, I know what they’ve been drinking,” he says. “If they’ve been having Martinis or Manhattans, the Bamboo needs to have a stronger flavor, so I might mix amontillado and fino. If it’s the last drink, I might use 30 ml of amontillado, 15 ml of fino and a dash of oloroso.
“And if they’re snobs, I don’t care how much they’ve been drinking, I won’t twist the recipe.”
For those of you, perhaps most of you, who couldn’t care less what’s in your drink as long as it tastes nice, thanks for staying with me. Here’s where things pick up.
Ueno’s protege, Daiki Kanetaka, is a certified venenciador — meaning he is skilled in the art of pouring sherry from a tiny cup at the end of a long, wobbly stick. The venencia is the tool used to hook sherry samples from a barrel’s bunghole. The venenciador then pours the liquid from above his head into a sherry glass. The technique serves two functions: It mesmerizes potential buyers and aerates the drink to open up the flavors. This is also why Kanetaka mixes his Bamboos in venenciador fashion, sending the drink cascading between glasses. Customers are captivated, the sherry gets its air, and the resulting Bamboo is the best I’ve found.
The Bamboo wasn’t Louis Eppinger’s only contribution to cocktail history. In 1894 he created the Million Dollar, a drink still found in most modern cocktail manuals. The name was inspired by one of the ingredients, egg, a luxury item at the time.
The Million Dollar
30 ml Plymouth gin
15 ml Italian vermouth
2 tsp pineapple juice
1 tsp grenadine
1 egg white
Shake ingredients vigorously with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a pineapple slice.
Sea Guardian II is in the Hotel New Grand, Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama. For more information, call (045) 681-1841 or visit www.hotel-newgrand.co.jp Bar High Five is on the fourth floor of No.26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. For more information, call (03) 3571-5815 or visit www.starbar.jp