Japan: Part 1 – Ginza, Tokyo
Japan. Land of the drunken salaryman, where public drinking is permitted and you can buy a beer or Chu-hi (a canned shochu hi-ball that can clock in at 9% ABV) as easily as a bottled water or a soda from a vending machine. Tokyo is now the center of a rapidly developing mixology scene – no longer content to perfect the classics, a new generation of bartenders have spread their wings, inventing bold new creations. When we found round trip tickets to Japan for less than $400 on Air China (not that bad BTW) we snatched them up and waited like children for Christmas.
For the last few decades, the Japanese approach to cocktails was analogous to their approach to engineering. They were less concerned with creativity than with the methodical, religiously precise execution of classic cocktails. The perfect ice. The perfectly silent stir. The perfect temperature. Some new renegade mixologists spurn menus entirely, creating individualized cocktails based on each drinker's taste preferences.
Our trek through Tokyo led us to excellent bars – from genius, relatively unknown mixologists, to sake masters, to bars focused on single spirits, and to internationally famous “fathers” of Japanese cocktail culture.
The Society: Park Hotel
We booked our hotel at the Park Hotel in Shiodome due to its proximity to Ginza, with its cornucopia of highly rated bars. Luckily (or unfortunately for our livers), our favorite bar turned out to be the heavily underrated and relatively unknown bar at our own hotel: The Society. We visited three times.
Society started as the first Japanese outpost of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), an international membership group that buys and bottles Scotch whisky, one cask at a time. Each bottle from a cask has a whimsical name, like “Cheerful Childhood Memories” or “Liquid Christmas Cake”, and includes detailed tasting notes. Our initial plan was to head down and sample some scotches prior to heading out for the night. We ended up sampling a Bowmore described as "a perfumed, peat-smoked goodnight kiss" before becoming mesmerized with the creative genius of the cocktail menu and abandoning all hopes of returning just to scotch.
A Select Few of our Favorite Cocktails (drunken over several visits - we had a lot!):
Gastronomy Milk Punch. It had BLUE CHEESE GIN in it. Let me repeat that. Blue. Cheese. Gin. Absolutely one of the most unique and exceptional cocktails we have had in a long time. The full list of ingredients include: blue cheese gin, sauternes, homemade "liquid flower" (he showed us lavender and another flower syrup), honey syrup, fresh milk, and dried apple. The resulting taste is magic. It's hard to describe, but the closest description would be “liquid blue cheese cheesecake”, with the blue cheese present but not overpowering. As for the blue cheese gin itself, it’s still a mystery how the bartender (Koji Nammoku) makes it. He told us it was not infused – and our guess is that he probably performs a distillation round with a basket of blue cheese. It remains a mystery. Also loved the packaging.
Japanese Negroni. The name made me think that it was just a negroni with a Japanese-based gin in it. False. This negroni is a production. First, a homemade soy and stout glaze is carefully painted inside the glass. The glass is then placed over burning tea leaves to add a smoky quality. The cocktail itself (gin, amaro, apple juice) is added last, after a large ice sphere is carefully shaved and placed into the glass. For the diehard negroni fan that craves adventure, this was marvelous.
White Russian Breakfast. This was the nightcap we split after a hard night of bar-hopping. It’s not a strong cocktail (it’s a Ciroc Vodka based cocktail with yogurt and fruit-granola cereal on it), but I’ll be damned if it isn’t delicious and incredibly satisfying to drunken munchies. Bonus: it’s incredibly fun to “eat” a cocktail with a spoon.
Other memorable cocktails include a smokey mezcal drink with yuzu syrup ("yuzu pairs very well with smoke" - lesson taught by Koji-san), the Garden of Eden topped with baguette shavings, an unnamed drink featuring kiwi and gin, and a refreshing pisco-cucumber drink... among many others that may once have been memorable but are now a bit hazy, due to the previous drinks.
As we sat for the first time at Hi-5 and got ready to order, there was a scene I could only imagine happening in Japan. In the United States, and most countries, on ordering a drink at a bar, the bartender tells you the price. If you're paying with a card, they ask you if you want to leave it open or close it. Standard ritual. When the two tourists next to us, a few shopping bags between them, announced they were going to leave, get some dinner, and return, the owner not only thanked them for visiting, but told them not to worry about paying now, to come back and pay later. We were all a little confused, but the owner explained that it wasn't that efficient for them to have to pay twice. He then recommended several restaurants, and offered to store their shopping bags for them while they were out.
Hi-5 is a menu-less bar at which you converse with the bartender about your taste profile and each drink is catered to your specific tastes. The crowd was mostly international. To this end, there are a fair number of American-born bar backs with excellent English skills. They talk to you about what you like, while the actual cocktail development is handled by the Japanese staff. If you’re hungry, there are constant refills of the little complimentary snack dishes placed carefully in front of you, each time with new (savory or sweet) snacks. We had a great time at this bar.
Not only are the bar backs entertaining to talk to, but the cocktails are unique (although we were to find out on a subsequent visit that although technically “menu-less”, there are certainly pre-planned cocktails that the bar backs will typically steer you to). The atmosphere is lively but not loud – and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet some unique characters: one new friend happened to be an American businessman that sells soy sauce to the Japanese – or in his words: “snow to Eskimos”.
Our two favorites of the night were:
Japanese Gin, Saint Germain, Mandarin Napolean, Picon, and Orange Bitters. The cocktail melded strong herbal components with a citrus bite. Easy-to-drink and ridiculously hard not to try to drain in a single gulp.
Mushroom-infused Martini. Instead of olives, they used a mushroom to develop the savory qualities of the martini. It’s umami and salty. Not for everyone, but unique and a “must” for martini lovers.
Bar 保志 (Hoshi)
Bar Hoshi is our second favorite bar (after The Society). It also wins hands down for the best selection of bar snacks. Before we even ordered a cocktail, we were served a small portion of savory taro soup as an “appetizer” for the cocktails. Apparently (although we were unaware at the time) there is a complete food menu as well - featuring horse sashimi from the proprietor's hometown.
The featured menu are fruit-based cocktails made with fresh fruit hailing from various regions of Japan. Unlike the US, fruits are considered luxury products in Japan and there is almost a fetish-ization of fruits, with the gifting of expensive fruits a common practice (more famously: a $5,000+ bunch of Roman grapes given as a wedding gift). Midori, the melon-flavored liqueur is often used instead of the more expensive ~$20/fresh melon in cocktails. Bar Hoshi's featured cocktail menu rotates daily and the fresh fruit cocktails that were featured included: strawberries from Tochigi, kumquats from Miyazaki, mangoes from Peru, passion fruit from Okinawa, and fruit tomatoes from Shizuoka. We went with the strawberries and received a large glass and sidecar of a blended, relatively low-proof champagne and strawberry concoction.
Our main bartender, although not the proprietor, was a slick-haired woman who could have come straight from a casting call for a female yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss named Yuyu Hosoda. She made our drinks, while our barbacks paired snacks to match the flavors. To be honest, we forgot to take notes on the drinks and their components, but the execution was impeccable. And the snacks were glorious.
This was the top of our list but the most disappointing. The head bartender, Kazuo Uyeda, is known to be one of the founding fathers of the Japanese cocktail scene and arguably one of the most famous Japanese bartenders. He is the inventor of the "hard shake". For the unacquainted, the hard shake is ubiquitous in Japan. The dance-like shaking technique imparts air bubbles and creates a surface of fine ice particles that prevent the harsh alcohol from contacting the tongue. It is aimed at giving the optimum taste and coldness.
The menu itself is a mix of classic cocktails (like the Manhattan) and original cocktails by Uyeda-san. The original cocktails typically are color-oriented (Uyeda-san is nicknamed the "Magician of Color" for his love of cocktail asthetics), featuring ingredients such as Blue Curacao and Midori.
Given our expectations, it was regrettable that this was the one bar that we couldn’t finish our drinks at. It was also the most expensive – there’s a cover fee to be in the presence of greatness of 1,800 JPY per person in addition to a 10% surcharge (service charge) per drink.
However, the experience is unique and I'm hesistant to altogether warn against going.
There is a distinctly Japanese clinicality and reverential atmosphere to the establishment that the other, newer bars did not have. The patrons mostly comprise elderly, well-dressed Japanese and very few foreigners. You and the other bar patrons watch in respectful silence as Uyeda-san, in a pristine white tuxedo, performs his signature “hard shake” of cocktails in the dignified, choreographed manner of an orchestra conductor. There are sometimes hushed conversations as patrons quietly inquire in Japanese about each cocktail with the barbacks and Uyeda-san.
…Personally, though, I prefer to get drunk and have alcohol-infused jovial conversations with the bartenders or other patrons. Which would probably explain the lack of fellow asshole foreigners there.
And the reason we headed back to High Five to finish the night.