The search for Tokyo’s best gimlet leads to Daisuke Ito


Special To The Japan Times

I have a particular fondness for the gimlet, that simple but elegant concoction of gin, fresh lime juice and sweetened lime cordial. For many, the drink conjures images of dames and detectives from noir films, but mine is a more nostalgic affection. The gimlet was my cocktail of choice during my early 20s, when I lived in San Francisco and frequented louche watering holes that played rockabilly and swing tunes. What I have always loved about the drink is its poise — if the martini is the king of cocktails, then the gimlet is the queen.

Daisuke Ito, the congenial master at Land Bar Artisan in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district, shares my affinity for the gimlet — in fact, he says the cocktail changed his life. Bespectacled and baby-faced, Ito dresses in classic speakeasy fashion: a crisp white shirt, bow tie and suspenders. Growing up, he had been attracted to the atmosphere of Hollywood glamour that surrounded bars and drinking culture.

“There was something sexy and James Bond-like about the world of alcohol, but I never really considered a career as a bartender,” Ito recalls.

He was visiting Tokyo from his native Sendai when a colleague took him to Star Bar, where owner Hisashi Kishi served him a gimlet that was “completely different from any other” he had tried. Instantly fascinated, Ito persuaded the master barman to hire him, thus beginning a decade-long stint under Kishi before opening Land Bar Artisan at the end of 2014.

“I became a bartender in order to learn how he made his gimlets,” Ito says with a laugh.

Kishi’s tutelage is evident in the precision and balance of the gimlet Ito serves me. Fine ice crystals shimmer on the surface; the cloudy liquid resembles the mist in a crystal ball. The first sip is pert, relaxing into a smooth-textured mellowness that speaks of maturity approaching wisdom — the fruit of 10,000 hours of practice.

Ito has a gift for all gin-based cocktails: He makes numerous subtle but inventive variations on the gin rickey and the gin and tonic. His love for the spirit has even led him to create original recipes for Indian-style curries that “match the flavors of gin.”

When he offers me a sample of the chicken curry he had made earlier that morning, I’m genuinely impressed. He came up with the idea after pondering the history of the gin and tonic, which was introduced to India by the British Army during the 19th century.

True to his trade, Ito is a repository of cocktail culture knowledge and a formidable spinner of yarns. Our conversation jumps from the origins of cocktail names, such as the Moscow Mule, to the invention of beer in Mesopotamia, before moving to the discovery of distillation in the Middle East and touching on the role of spirits in building empires.

“I want people to know more about the history of alcohol because it makes drinking so much more fun,” he says.

When I finish my cocktail, I’m tempted to order another but then think better of it. Like a perfect gimlet, an experience at Land Bar Artisan is a treat to be savored.