Food & Drink

Good libations: Examining the evolution of Japan's rich cocktail culture

by Matt Alt

Contributing Writer

The art of the cocktail is indisputably non-Japanese. The word itself is old American slang for a pick-me-up, referring in modern parlance to any mixed drink containing liquor and at least one other ingredient. Even if you aren’t a drinker, chances are you can name quite a few: the martini, the Manhattan, the gin and tonic. They’re more than just libations, they’re part of the Western vocabulary for relaxation.

Yet over the past two decades, bartenders from Japan have emerged as unlikely sages and superstars of the international cocktail scene. Things really started to heat up around 2008, when Bon Appetit magazine declared Tokyo the “cocktail capital of the world.” Two years later, 120 New Yorkers paid $675 each for the privilege of watching Tokyo barman Kazuo Uyeda demonstrate his “hard shake” mixing style on a rare visit to the city.

A row of spirits sits on the bar at Bar Trench in Tokyo
A row of spirits sits on the bar at Bar Trench in Tokyo’s Ebisu district. | DAN SZPARA

Today, meticulously designed Japanese barware sets the global standard.

“The Japanese cut-glass mixing beaker is in almost universal use,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich. “Japanese jiggers, shaker tins, dasher bottles and bar spoons are all widely used.” And mastering Japanese tricks such as carving ice cubes into perfectly transparent spheres or diamonds is a must for any cocktail slinger with aspirations of greatness.

The Japanese way of bartending is like “a time-capsule of 1930s international bartending,” Wondrich says. But given its foreign origins, how on earth did Japanese bartenders gain such outsized influence in worldwide mixology? And are they really keepers of the flame for some long-forgotten school of cocktail arts?

A cartoon in Japan Punch shows a bartender mixing drinks at Yokohama
A cartoon in Japan Punch shows a bartender mixing drinks at Yokohama’s International Hotel circa 1874. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

To answer those questions, let’s first turn back the clock to 1860. This marks the appearance of Japan’s very first Western-style bar, inside the Yokohama Hotel, also known as the Hotel Hufnagel after its Dutch owner. It was a hastily constructed affair surrounded by a tall fence designed to keep locals out. Perhaps this was for the best: The Hufnagel’s guests were a crusty lot of seamen, merchants and adventurers whose drinking games included firing their revolvers at a clock on the bar’s wall.

“There wasn’t much to do, other than drink,” says Kazuo Ishikura, a writer specializing in the history of Japan’s cocktail culture. “Foreign residents were told by the authorities to stay inside at night. If they ventured out, there was a high chance they’d be surrounded by samurai with a grudge against foreigners.”

A recipe for needing a stiff drink, to be sure. But the Hufnagel offered only beers, wines and liquor — straight up.

“The first bar to serve actual cocktails opened in Yokohama’s International Hotel in 1874,” Ishikura says. “The bartender, Mr. Purvis, was so popular that he was caricatured in the English-language humor magazine Japan Punch.”

Behind the International Hotel’s bar, Purvis compounded old-timey favorites such as sherry cobblers and mint juleps for thirsty expats — and likely the occasional local as well.

Ben Fiddich
Ben Fiddich’s The Forest | DAN SZPARA

But it was the arrival of one Louis Eppinger that would change the course of cocktail history in Japan. Eppinger was hired to manage Yokohama’s Grand Hotel in 1890. The city was by this time a very different place. The Hufnagel and its ilk had been more Wild West than Far East. The Grand Hotel was, well, grand, with a gabled roof, gingerbread facade and columned terraces overlooking the bay.

The hotel had already earned a reputation for excellence by the time of Eppinger’s arrival. Rudyard Kipling, an early fan, celebrated it as “an open door through which you may catch the first gust from the Pacific slope.” Over 15 years of Eppinger’s seasoned stewardship, the Grand Hotel flourished into a jewel of the Orient.

Born in Germany and raised in the United States, Eppinger had run saloons across the U.S., most recently in San Francisco. There he had earned a reputation as “a very popular, and a genial, jolly barkeeper, holding your attention while preparing a mixed drink,” according to Joseph L. King’s “History of the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board.” “In his white coat, with his bullet-shaped head, with little hair on the top, and a black mustache, always laughing and telling a joke, he appeared to be just the man to succeed in keeping a bar. Unfortunately, he spent all of his profits gambling in stocks, generally on the wrong side.” Perhaps this explains Eppinger’s acceptance of an offer of employment in the distant land of the rising sun.

One of Bar High Five
One of Bar High Five’s diamond ice cubes. | DAN SZPARA

The Grand Hotel’s customers were foreign. But the help was Japanese, and these young men drank of Eppinger’s knowledge literally and figuratively. Proportions and combinations, shaking and stirring, pouring and serving: These local pioneers quietly mastered the twin arts of luxury hospitality and foreign mixology, keys to Japan’s upscale bartending style.

Eppinger was a true master of the craft, introducing locals to popular cocktails such as the Bamboo and the Million Dollar. When he passed away in 1907, his disciples fanned out across Japan. Many of them ended up in what was then Tokyo’s trendiest neighborhood: Ginza.

Hiroyasu Kayama makes a wormwood gimlet from scratch at Ben Fiddich.
Hiroyasu Kayama makes a wormwood gimlet from scratch at Ben Fiddich. | DAN SZPARA

The timing was fortuitous, for Ginza was experiencing the first throes of a fad for European-style cafes. Maison Konosu (“Stork’s Nest”) was the first to serve locals foreign libations, in 1910. Its trademark five-layered Goshiki-sake (see sidebar) became the cosmopolitan of the Taisho Era, a multicolored “aphrodisiac for the city’s ‘modern boys’ and ‘modern girls,'” as one guidebook enthused.

Maison Konosu’s success paved the way for many rivals. Two of the most famous were the European-inflected Cafe Printemps and the Cafe Lion, headed by a former Grand Hotel bartender named Shogo Hamada. Fusions of bistros, bars and hostess clubs, these cafes introduced exotic Western drinks to trendsetters such as Ogai Mori, Kafu Nagai and Junichiro Tanizaki. Mythologized in their writings, the Ginza party scene would roar on for another two decades.

Yonekichi Maeda published Japan
Yonekichi Maeda published Japan’s first modern cocktail book, ‘Kokuteeru,’ in 1924. | COURTESY OF THE MAEDA FAMILY, KAGOSHIMA

Less than a year after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan’s first modern cocktail book, “Kokuteeru,” appeared. It was the brainchild of Yonekichi Maeda, a 27-year-old employee of a Yotsuya-based bar called Cafe Line. The breathless introduction, penned by Cafe Line’s proprietress, Yoshi Amakusa, portrayed the contents as nothing less than progress in a glass.

“Cocktails afford vast pleasure amidst a day’s labors and a chance to re-invigorate oneself for the day to come,” Amakusa wrote, “making them instrumental not only in self-improvement but that of society and our nation at large.”

Hyperbole aside, there’s no question the book represented a truly pioneering effort. It wasn’t Japan’s first cocktail guide, but it was the first to describe them Western-style, with precise proportions and mixing instructions.

“I honestly think that Japanese bartending would have been set back 10 or 15 years without it,” says Eiji Arakawa, a cocktail historian who runs Bar UK in Osaka. Maeda, it seems, served as the civilian cook aboard an Imperial Japanese Navy training run to England, and the information he collected gave Japanese an early preview of many soon-to-be-classic foreign recipes — six years ahead of the bastion of Western mixology, the 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book.”

In fact many cocktail bars of this era were run by Japanese who had learned their chops abroad, either on naval excursions or bartending on civilian ocean liners. These veterans ran equally tight ships in Ginza, adopting the Japanese culinary world’s tradition of brutal apprenticeship for the barroom.

Ben Fiddich
Ben Fiddich’s wormwood gimlet | DAN SZPARA

“I’d spend the night washing glasses while the master screamed I wouldn’t be allowed to touch the shakers or the liquor for another two or three years,” recalls bartender and writer Tatsuzo Maniwa in a ’60s-era memoir. “I was often told a would-be barman needed ‘three years training before getting to touch a shaker, 10 years training before getting to use bitters.'”

The libations served up during this period in Japanese cocktail history weren’t quite like those drinkers know and love today. For one thing, they were a lot smaller; the recipes in “Kokuteeru” average an ounce or so, only half the size of most modern “short” cocktails. Even simple staples like the mizuwari (whiskey and water) and the highball (whiskey and soda) had yet to evolve into their modern forms. Today, the fanciest bars mix them with a meticulousness inviting comparisons to a tea ceremony. Back then?

Coffee Whiskey at Ben Fiddich
Coffee Whiskey at Ben Fiddich | DAN SZPARA

“The bartender would place a bottle of whiskey and an empty glass in front of the customer, and the customer would pour their desired amount themselves,” recalled the late Seiroku Akita in a 1980s interview about his career, which began in 1910. “Only then would the bartender top off with soda or water. And we never added ice. … That didn’t start until after World War II, with the influx of a more American style of drinking.”

In the chaotic years immediately after the war, the closest thing to nightlife could only be found in the stalls of the lawless black markets. Deep in a corner of one, reported John Dower in “Embracing Defeat,” could be found “an ungodly drink made of alcohol used for aircraft lubricants mixed with artificial sweetener.” With manufactured products in short supply and imports only available to the occupiers, average citizens turned to various illegal, garage-brewed and often dangerous alcoholic concoctions called kasutori — “the dregs.”

But big change was afoot, led by the distiller Suntory, which was based in Osaka at the time. Not least of all for public health reasons, Suntory wanted Japan drinking legitimately distilled liquors. There was just one problem: After years of wartime isolation and deprivation, few citizens knew anything about foreign booze. Enter the Tory’s Bar.

The ice cubes at Hidetsugu Ueno
The ice cubes at Hidetsugu Ueno’s Bar High Five glean like diamonds. | DAN SZPARA

The first Tory’s Bar opened in Ikebukuro in 1950. Within a decade they were in every corner of Japan, serving up Suntory-made whiskey, gin, rum and fortified wine. Long gone today, they were once such a part of the fabric of daily life that director Yasujiro Ozu set much of his 1962 film “An Autumn Afternoon” inside one.

“Tory’s Bars were aimed at average folks, cheaply priced and easy to pop into,” explains Brian Ashcraft, author of “Japanese Whisky: the Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit.” “For a younger generation, it was their introduction to a whole new world.”

To help them sort things out, Suntory enthusiastically engaged in a great deal of alco-educational outreach, distributing free pamphlets and sponsoring advertorial content in magazines such as Heibon Punch, the local answer to America’s Playboy. In concert with foreign films, this corporate push gave aspiring Japanese hipsters a Hugh-Hefner-ized vocabulary for relaxation from the West: “straight up,” “on the rocks,” “with soda,” “shaken, not stirred.”

Bar High Five
Bar High Five’s Million Dollar | DAN SZPARA

Up until this point, the story of Japan’s cocktail culture was largely one of catch-up and imitation. In the ’70s, however, Japan grew wealthier and its drinkers more discerning. Here were the first stirrings of innovation that would eventually make Japanese bartending famed around the globe.

“With the rise of the Tory’s Bars in the ’60s, the demand for fancy mixed drinks and the fancy bartenders who could make them, dropped off dramatically,” Ishikura says. “So those bartenders started developing new techniques to differentiate themselves. The ice balls, for example.”

Credit for them goes to Masaaki Wada, who came up with the idea at a bar in the city of Niigata called Hamayu in the early ’70s.

“The purpose was purely to carve off the edges and make the ice take longer to melt,” recalls Masayoshi Sakai on the Drink Planet website, who apprenticed under Wada for many years. “That’s why Mr. Wada didn’t carve them smooth; he left the surface dimpled. They were more like meteors.”

Word of Wada’s technique spread among other bartenders, who adopted and literally polished it for their own establishments. By the turn of the millennium, transparent spheres were commonplace in upscale bars, and it was time for something new.

Bar High Five founder Hidetsugu Ueno creates ice cubes carved to gleam like diamonds.
Bar High Five founder Hidetsugu Ueno creates ice cubes carved to gleam like diamonds. | DAN SZPARA

Enter Hidetsugu Ueno, founder of Ginza’s Bar High Five and the creator of ice cubes carved to gleam like diamonds.

“I was working at Star Bar Ginza at the time (in 2001),” he recalls. “(Owner Hisashi Kishi) came up with the idea and I made it happen. The idea was to add some ‘eye candy,’ adding instead of reducing edges, using the reflections of the ice and glass to make the drink glimmer.”

The story of the ice is actually the story of Japanese bartending in miniature. Japanese mixology isn’t really a time capsule. It’s constantly changing — but in a way that’s optimized for the local environment.

“It’s like Galapagos,” Ueno says with a laugh. “We’re all tortoises here. That makes us different and Western bartenders are always on the lookout for ways to differentiate themselves. But I’m not sure whether that foreign interest counts as respect for Japanese cocktail culture per se. Many focus on the superficial craftsmanship without really understanding the true essence. That’s why I see bartenders spending time carving ice that’s cloudy, or hyper-focusing on our shakers or glassware.”

What is that essence?

Bar Trench
Bar Trench’s Rogerio Igarashi Vaz | DAN SZPARA

“It took me many years to understand,” says Rogerio Igarashi Vaz, who runs Bar Trench in Tokyo’s Ebisu district. “I think many foreigners equate Japanese bartending with Ginza bars, not understanding that those are formal places, small places, intended for a serious conversation among businessmen, not neighborhood bars. They aren’t stopped in time. They fill a need in Japanese society. There’s a communication without words that fascinates me. But we took a different approach with Trench, louder and faster, more of a fusion with Japanese and foreign style. No foreign customer is going to wait 30 minutes for a cocktail.”

Ben Fiddich
Ben Fiddich’s Hiroyasu Kayama | DAN SZPARA

Hiroyasu Kayama takes it one step further. The 34-year-old has been bartending for 14 years, first in hotels, then opening his own bar in Shinjuku: Ben Fiddich. Both Ishikura and Igarashi recommended it as one of the city’s most forward-looking cocktail experiences. Kayama certainly doesn’t seem beholden to tradition, making wide use of vintage liquors and infusions with herbs he grows himself.

“What people call ‘Japanese bartending technique’ is really about posture and stance,” Kayama says. “It’s about connecting movements in a way that looks nice. Picking up a bottle is one point; pouring it into a jigger is another. What’s important connecting these various points in a motion that looks nice. Martial arts are based on stances and postures, centers and axes. Japanese bartending isn’t simply about using local ingredients such as green tea or yuzu citrus. Those are just points. It’s about connecting the points smoothly, and that’s actually very difficult. Only a tiny percentage of top Japanese bartenders can do it.”

It’s a lot to think about. Sitting in Tokyo, sipping Kayama’s expertly made wormwood gimlet mixed with an artisanal gin from Vermont and topped with a bitter sprig of European artemisia absinthium herb plucked from his backyard garden, I think, “Maybe the old distinctions about East and West, old and new, don’t really matter so much anymore,” and relax. And isn’t that the purpose of a cocktail in the first place, no matter when and where you happen to be in the world?

Line cocktail
Line cocktail | MATT ALT

Bamboo (1890s)

Usually credited to Louis Eppinger, this cocktail seems to have actually originated in the United States. Bracingly dry and astringent, it rose to world stardom at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama.

1½ oz sherry
1½ oz dry vermouth
Two dashes bitters (one orange, one Angostura)

Stir over cracked ice, strain and serve up with a lemon twist to a mustachioed, moneyed vagabond on an Oriental adventure.

Goshiki-sake (Five-Colored Liqueur) (1911)

Better known abroad as a pousse-cafe, this French cocktail came to symbolize the early Ginza nightlife scene. A fussy, labor-intensive drink. Variations abound.

½ oz grenadine
½ oz Maraschino liqueur
½ oz Creme de Menthe
½ oz Creme de Violette
½ oz yellow Chartreuse

Carefully (carefully!) pour each into a pousse-cafe glass so as to remain in layers without mixing. Serve up with a straw to an insouciant Taisho Era “modern girl.”

Million Dollar (1920s)

Popularized by legendary Ginza barman Shogo Hamada. Writer Kan Kikuchi loved it so much he used it to advertise his then-new literary magazine — Bungei Shunju “cost only 25 sen, but has more flavor than a Million Dollar Cocktail!”

1½ oz dry gin
½ oz Italian vermouth
½ oz fresh pineapple juice
1 teaspoon grenadine
Egg white

Shake over ice, strain and serve up to a gloriously debauched wordsmith.

Line Cocktail (1924)

All but forgotten today, this represents one of the very earliest cocktails known to have been created locally, by a Japanese bartender named Yonekichi Maeda.

⅓ oz dry gin
⅓ oz Benedictine
⅓ oz Italian vermouth
Two dashes of bitters

Shake over ice, strain and serve. And here’s the trick: Garnish with a small portion of pickled rakkyo onion, slightly crushed. It’s a — how to put this kindly — uniquely local touch.

Highball (1960s, 2010s)

First popularized via Tory’s Bars in the ’60s, it went out of style for decades until a recent and highly successful Suntory campaign. Quaffed everywhere from high-end bars (who have their own unique takes on the process) to back-alley izakaya (who splash and serve), this easy-to-mix classic might be the single most popular mixed drink in Japan at the moment.

Cheap Japanese whiskey (preferably Tory’s or Suntory White)
Soda water
Lemon wedge

Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour in desired amount of whiskey (usually around 1½ oz). Top off with soda water, stir and garnish with lemon. Serve to an initially quiet group of salarymen. Repeat until neckties are on heads or closing time — whichever comes first.

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