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Meet the Willy Wonka of extraordinary cocktails

by Melinda Joe

Contrary to expectation, the Blue Cheese Martini at the Akasaka branch of Code Name Mixology is a subtle concoction. The cocktail is clear, served in a delicate crystal glass, with three olives on the side. The cheese aroma hovers faintly on the nose, but the first sip is mildly sweet and fruity. The character of the drink changes completely after eating one of the olives: The blue-cheese flavor billows across the palate, mingling with the briny spiciness of the olive. As the savory sensation recedes, hints of pear and lemon rise to the surface, followed by an earthy smokiness in the finish.

It’s a moment that reminds me of the scene in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” where eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka unveils his Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum. Code Name Mixology owner and head bartender Shuzo Nagumo has created a salad of contrasting flavors in liquid form — without the unpleasant side effects of Wonka’s invention.

While most Tokyo bartenders are still concentrating on perfecting the classics, Nagumo, a mixologist with 14 years’ experience, is developing new recipes that incorporate unusual ingredients and the cutting-edge techniques used by modernist chefs such as Britain’s Heston Blumenthal. At the original branch of Code Name Mixology, located near Tokyo station, the bar’s backlit shelves glitter with an array of bottles filled with whole spices, original distillations, and homemade syrups and bitters.

One of Nagumo’s signature cocktails consists of red wine, black pepper and “foie-gras vodka” — made by blending foie gras with Grey Goose vodka and distilling the mixture in a rotary evaporator. He uses the same technique to make the gorgonzola-infused Hennessy that forms the base of his Blue Cheese Martini.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from chefs and cookbooks,” he says. “I’m always thinking of flavor pairing and how to use ingredients, because the same ingredient can be made into an infusion, an essence or a syrup.”

Nagumo spent a year in London working in the kitchen of Nobu before opening the Tokyo branch of Code Name Mixology in 2009. With the launch of the bar’s Akasaka branch in 2011, he began making drinks with the high-tech kitchen equipment he had encountered abroad. His cocktails became more intricate after returning to London to study molecular mixology with bartender Tony Conigliaro of renowned watering hole 69 Colebrooke Row.

Nagumo’s next bar, a “speakeasy” scheduled to open this summer in Yaesu, will feature a professional kitchen, where Nagumo plans to collaborate with visiting chefs from abroad. He’s also working on another bar devoted to spirits, which will resemble a whisky cellar and be equipped with stills, an earthen floor, and scent diffusers to fill the room with the aromas of soil and barrels.

“My mission is to create new cocktails and, at the same time, to create a new bar culture in Japan,” he says.

For more information, visit http://r.goope.jp/spirits-sharing/t_57110. Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.