Five years ago, Hiroyasu Kayama developed a fascination with absinthe. Shortly before opening his bar Ben Fiddich in July 2013, he took a pilgrimage to the famous absinthe-producing town of Pontarlier, which lies on the French border with Switzerland. Now, the 30-year-old mixologist wants to start an absinthe revolution in Japan.
“Absinthe is linked with art and culture,” he says. “I want to get more people into it by showing them how delicious it can be.”
The famously bitter green drink captivated the imaginations of artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, although the spirit has been enjoying a modest revival in countries across Europe and in the United States, the enthusiasm has yet to reach Asia. Located in Nishi-Shinjuku, Ben Fiddich is one of only four absinthe specialists in Tokyo. But in addition to stocking over 30 varieties of the liquor, Kayama also makes original absinthe-like botanical infusions and hopes to start his own distillery in Japan one day.
“It’s possible to cultivate all of the ingredients for absinthe in Japan,” he explains, pulling a bag full of wormwood from behind the counter.
Kayama grows wormwood along with other herbs on the farm owned by his family in Saitama Prefecture. He offers me a sprig of the wormwood he picked that morning to taste. The green leaves resemble tightly curled bunches of Italian parsley and are velvety to the touch. The flavor begins on a minty note with citrusy overtones reminiscent of verbena, before veering into an intense, lingering bitterness.
The experience conjured memories of my first encounter with absinthe, more than a decade ago, at a nightclub of dubious repute in Prague. As a teenager, I’d been intrigued by the drink, which was alleged to have hallucinogenic properties (it does not). Thanks to a long-standing ban, it was impossible to find in the U.S. at that time (absinthe imports resumed in 2007), so I jumped at the chance to order it. The scene, however, held none of the romance of Paris circa 1890. Intermittently illuminated by strobe lights, the drink glowed a lurid green. The first sip was a cloying mix of creme de menthe and cough medicine, followed by a castigating bitterness so staggering that years passed before I dared to try absinthe a second time.
Kayama’s infusion is a revelation. The impact is fresh, with hints of mint and lemongrass giving way to earthier flavors of licorice and spice. The mouthfeel is round and smooth, the finish mellow with the right balance of bitterness and sweetness. Kayama learned the art of blending the botanicals — hisop, Melissa, mint, anise, fennel and wormwood — during his 10-day sojourn in the Val-de-Travers region of the Swiss countryside, where he studied with local distillers.
Obtaining a distiller’s license in Japan can take several years, but Kayama’s not in a hurry. He’s still working on perfecting his recipes. Like all things worth waiting for, great absinthe rewards patience.
9F Yamatoya Bldg., 1-13-7 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-6279-4223. 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.
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