So it’s quasi-prohibition time once more in much of the country. Drink all you like, says the government, as long as it’s at home. Well, if ever there was a time to build a home bar, it’s now. Here’s how to get started, with tips from some of Japan’s best bartenders.
You will need a shaker to combine liquids of significantly different densities. They come in two basic styles: two pieces or three. Two-piece shakers, called either Boston or double-tin, are the ones you see people swing in the movies. The three-piece, with a built-in strainer and a little tin cap, is called a Cobbler shaker and is preferred by Japan’s bartenders.
“Cobbler shakers are harder to master, but once you get used to them you can improve the quality of your cocktails,” says Michito Kaneko, a former construction worker who reached the pinnacle of the cocktail world in 2015, when he won Diageo World Class, a contest often described as the drink industry’s toughest. “Boston shakers produce a lot more water from the ice, and since the quality of ice that you can get at home is quite low, it’s best to use a Cobbler shaker for everything. You can chill the drink without too much dilution.”
For liquids of similar densities, such as a spirit and a vermouth, use a mixing glass. Any style will do. You will also need a Hawthorne strainer — the one with the coil attached — a bar spoon and a measuring cup. The Bar Times online store is a great place to start your search.
You don’t have to go big. Beefeater is a classic citrusy gin that weds brilliantly with tonic water — for a classic Gin and Tonic, go for three parts tonic to one part gin. If you want a twist, muddle a myōga ginger bud (tip of the hat to Shibuya’s Bar Rocaille for that idea) or add a few drops of Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal, a potent piece of herbal alchemy from French Carthusian monks.
Bacardi is perfectly good for Daiquiris and Mojitos, and is the only acceptable base for a Bacardi cocktail (add 5 milliliters of grenadine and 15 milliliters of lime juice to 40 milliliters of rum). For vodka-based cocktails, skip the top-shelf bottles and reach for the Stoli or Smirnoff. If you can distinguish the vodka in your Bloody Mary or Moscow Mule, there is a high chance you’ve bungled the recipe.
For tequila, any blanco (clear) spirit that says “100% de agave” on the label will do. And if you’re planning to make Highballs, the customary whiskies in Japan are the Suntory whisky nicknamed “Kakubin” or Dewar’s White Label, both inexpensive blended whiskies.
If you wish to make Martinis, you’ll need a gin with more heft. London Hill, Tanqueray, Gordon’s and Roku are all popular options in Tokyo, but here’s the rub: This simplest of recipes is a devil to master. You’ll use cheap ice and clatter it when you stir, you’ll stir it too long, or perhaps not enough, and you might put too much vermouth in. The solution, says Rogerio Igarashi Vaz of Ebisu’s Bar Trench, is Ki No Bi Sei, the navy-strength gin from The Kyoto Distillery. “It doesn’t matter if you freeze it or not,” he says. “It’s hard not to make a great Martini with it.”
Do keep the bottle in the freezer, though, along with all the other spirits (don’t worry, it won’t freeze). When your liquor is already at minus 20 degrees Celsius, you can abbreviate your stir or shake and produce a less-watery cocktail. Or as Hidetsugu Ueno puts it when asked what he keeps in his freezer at the famous Bar High Five in Ginza: “Most of everything.”
Makoto Ono, who stocks around 500 styles of whisky in his Kyoto bar Cordon Noir, suggests stocking Michter’s Rye, which he says is “rich and well balanced, and adds depth and glamour to a Whisky Sour, Sazerac or a New York.” For a bourbon, used to make a Manhattan or Old-Fashioned, he recommends tracking down a bottle of Wathen’s. Most bourbons are losing their character these days, he says, but Wathen’s still has the taste of the good old days, and has good chemistry with other ingredients. For a Scotch whisky, he says Highland Queen is a great value all-rounder and Port Askaig 100 Proof is best for adding smoky notes.
Tokyo’s leading Cognac authority is Yasutaka Nakamori of Bar Doras in the Asakusa district. He swears by Frapin VSOP as a cocktail spirit because it’s elegant and doesn’t contain the added sugar or caramel that blights cheaper options.
Shōchū has made a surprise breakthrough as a cocktail spirit, driven by boundary-breaking bartenders Shuzo Nagumo and Shingo Gokan. The latter’s The SG Shochu line is designed with cocktails in mind. And Yusuke Takamiya of cafe-bar Tigrato in Tokyo’s Yotsuya says you shouldn’t overlook shōchū’s Okinawan cousin, awamori, which pairs nicely with grapefruit or coffee in a highball.
You can start with just two: Cointreau and Campari. The former, an orangey French number, will allow you to make a Sidecar, Margarita, Cosmopolitan, Daiquiri, White Lady and the massive-in-Japan, miniscule-elsewhere, Scotch-based Silent Third.
The bitter Italian Campari is the key to a Negroni and Boulevardier, as well as the Japanese cafe classic Spumoni. Hiroyuki Hieda, who runs Bar Cielo in Sangenjaya, Tokyo, says it’s easy to tweak the Spumoni’s basic Campari-grapefruit-tonic recipe by adding gin or dark rum, for example.
The aromatized, fortified wine is available in sweet red or dry white. The cheap ones are simple, the pricey ones more complex, but the only way a vermouth will spoil your cocktail is if you keep it too long. After a month in the fridge, feed it to the sink.
Buy cheap sodas, but expensive tonics and ginger beers. Wilkinson’s Tansan, on the market since 1904, is the sensible choice for fizzy water: Its feisty effervescence means you don’t have to be too delicate when you pour. The Fever-Tree brand is best for everything else. The British firm uses natural ingredients for mixers that are less cloying than the syrupy big brands, but less austere than their nearest challengers.
One caveat: Nakamori of Bar Doras says you should buy Schweppes tonic water if you want to make a Cognac Schweppes, a popular aperitif in France’s Cognac region. And he’s right. The extra sweetness softens what would otherwise be too bitter. Also, Nakamori says, “if you don’t use Schweppes, it’s not a Cognac Schweppes,” and there’s no arguing with that. Nakamori recommends 30 milliliters of Cognac to 80 milliliters of Schweppes tonic water.
They are the seasonings of the cocktail world and easy to overlook, but they will make your cocktails pop. Angostura and orange are the bar staples. For a local twist, try The Japanese Bitters, which come in flavors including yuzu citrus, hinoki (cedar) and shiso (perilla).
Fresh is best. Pro-tip: Peel the zest before you squeeze. If you press citrus fruit with the zest on, you get bitter oils in your juice. And those classic recipes feature lemon or lime juice because their inventors had never heard of yuzu, hebesu, shīkuwāsā, sudachi, hyūganatsu or kabosu, so why not experiment?
Frozen water is the bartender’s most undervalued tool. The stuff you can make in your freezer at home will chip in the shaker and melt quickly in the glass. Bartenders source theirs from factories that take 72 hours to produce perfectly pure blocks, but the rocks sold in Japan’s liquor stores, supermarkets and convenience stores are also of surprisingly high quality.
Nicholas Coldicott is a Tokyo-based writer and drinks aficionado. His latest book is “Tokyo Cocktails: An Elegant Collection of Over 100 Recipes Inspired by the Japanese Capital.” For more information, visit bit.ly/tokyococktails.
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