Five Japanese Cocktails That’ll Make You Feel Like You’re in Ginza

Five Japanese Cocktails That’ll Make You Feel Like You’re in Ginza

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A Japanese bartender prepares a cocktail
Got a hankering for some luxurious Japanese cocktails, but can't get to Ginza? These recipes should do the trick.

Imagine: you’re walking down a darkened alleyway in Tokyo. Illuminated signage on either side of the road reads out the names of mysterious establishments with names like Bar Sherlock, Nishiki, and Part 2. You take a chance on a door and enter a dimly lit, well-appointed, surprisingly small bar space. Behind the barfront stands a smartly-dressed, wizened Japanese bartender shaving a piece of clear ice into a handsome cube shape. You take a seat – one of only perhaps twelve in the whole bar – and ask for something local. With studied, well-practiced movements, your bartender pours just the right amount of spirits and mixers into their shaker. Less than a minute later, you take your first sip of a genuinely Japanese cocktail.

Japan is a country known for many, many things – and, in recent years, a top-shelf bar culture has emerged as just one more reason to want to make the trip to the archipelago. Many of the world’s most decorated bartenders hail from the country, and the culture of precision, presentation, and hospitality has seen cocktail aficionados placing more and more focus on Japan. And while you can get world-class versions of staple classics like martinis, sidecars, manhattans, and more in bars across the country, there’s also a host of locally-born Japanese cocktails to look out for.

Sadly, this sort of Tokyo nightlife experience is currently off the table for those stuck outside of the country. (Indeed, with curtailment on drinking establishment operating hours and alcohol sales during the pandemic, it’s less available even for those currently in Japan). So, whether you’re in Osaka or Australia, your best bet might be to try out these classics with your own home cocktail set. Let’s take a look at five of Japan’s favorite cocktails.

Our author's version of these five Japanese cocktails.
Our author’s version of these five Japanese cocktails.

Japanese Cocktail #1: Million Dollar (ミリオン・ダラー)

A go-to for Japanese cocktails, the Million Dollar. The drink is usually served in a cocktail glass.
A go-to for Japanese cocktails, the Million Dollar. The drink is usually served in a cocktail glass.

A great name to a sumptuously sweet, frothy cocktail. While the exact origins of the Million Dollar are up for debate, the drink remains one of the oldest cocktails recipes associated with Japan. Legend has it that the cocktail was created by Louis Eppinger, the German-American general manager of Yohokama’s Grand Hotel. Eppinger helped found Japanese cocktail culture from his arrival in Japan in 1889, even introducing another of the classics on this list. Eppinger disciple and “Japan’s first home-grown bar star” Hamada Shogo claimed the emigree thought up the drink while dreaming of a pile of cash. [1] While there are those who say that the drink originated in Singapore rather than Japan, it’s become a staple of the Japanese capital; in the 1920s, the drink was perhaps the go-to for stylish Tokyoites looking for something deliciously opulent. (The use of egg whites was regarded as especially luxurious.)

The Million Dollar’s popularity took off at Ginza’s Cafe Lion, one of the first four cocktail bars in Japan’s capital city. There, playwrights, authors, and the chic youth of 1920s and 1930s Japan drank it by the gallon. One magazine tagline has served to immortalize it amongst fellow Japanese cocktails:

「酒ならばコクテール(カクテル)、コクテールならばミリオンダラー・コクテール、雑誌ならばわが文藝春秋。」
“If it’s alcohol, make it a cocktail; if it’s a cocktail, make it a Million Dollar. And if it’s a magazine, make it the Bungei Shunjū.”

Recipe:

  • 1oz/30ml Gin. (Beefeeter is often recommended.)
  • 1 egg white
  • 1/2oz/15ml sweet vermouth. (Some versions call for dry vermouth.)
  • 2 bar spoons pineapple juice
  • 1 bar spon grenadine

First, whip the egg white in your cocktail. Then, fill shaker with ice and add all other ingredients. Next, shake vigorously, pouring the resulting frothy liquid into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a wedge of pineapple if desired.

Cocktail #2: King’s Valley (キングス・バレイ)

The Japanese cocktail known as the King's Valley - perhaps more teal in this version than the green Ueda manages to produce.
The King’s Valley – perhaps more teal in this version than the green Ueda manages to produce.

The King’s Valley is the creation of the legendary Ueda Kazuo, inventor of the iconic hard shake technique. Perhaps the most emblematic old-guard bartender in Japan, Ueda opened the now-famed Ginza Tender in 1993, and has helped train in a generation of Japan’s great bartenders. In 1986, he entered a Scotch whiskey cocktail competition; this new creation took home first place. Cocktails using Scotch as their base are already rare enough, but this aperitif also takes on an additionally unique green color. (Made all the more unique for not containing any green ingredients.) When naming the cocktail, Ueda thought upon the green valleys of his base liquor’s homeland. Hence, King’s Valley. [2]

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Ueda Kazuo performs a hard shake on the cover of a Japanese cocktail book about said technique
Ueda performs a hard shake on the cover of a book about said technique.

This Japanese cocktail is an intriguing mix of sweet and smokey and is worth trying for yourself.

Recipe:

  • 1 and 1/2oz/40ml Scotch Wiskey. (Non-Scotch whiskey is also used, although not at Bar Tender.)
  • 2 bar spoons Cointreau.
  • 2 bar spoons lime jiuce, preferably fresh.
  • 1 bar spoon Blue Curaçao.

Combine your ingredients in your cocktail shaker, and perform an Ueda-style hard-shake. This style of violent cocktail shaking should produce small chunks of ice in the drink once strained into your cocktail glass. Want to know what a hard shake should look like? Here’s the master performing one himself.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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