The word “cocktail” used to be far from the first thing I thought of when it came to Japanese nightlife. When I first encountered the dimly-lit world of Tokyo drinking culture, I was but a twenty-year-old exchange student studying at Sophia University. In other words, I was something akin to dead broke. That didn’t stop me from imbibing, of course; I was a college student on study abroad, in a country that offered the unthought-of danger and delight of the nomihodai – the all-you-can-drink. Nights were spent chugging Asahi and Sapporo to the tune of “nonde! Nonde! Nonde!” (Drink, drink, drink! – a call to perform a down-in-one.)
We took shots of horrid, cheap shochu from the convenience store before heading out for debauched nights in Kabukicho or Shibuya, moving from izakaya to izakaya, ending up at ramen joints at 2 in the morning. The night was long, and we were young. So, our money had to stretch as far it could. Needless to say, the Tokyo nightlife culture I knew then was as far from the high-class cocktail bars of Ginza and the hotels of Shiodome as could be. Our vocabulary was “nama – draft beer,” not “negroni.”
When it comes to those nights out in Tokyo, I have few regrets. However, having just completed reading Nicholas Coldicott‘s book Tokyo Cocktails: An Elegant Collection of Over 100 Recipes Inspired by the Eastern Capital (affiliate link; UJ earns a commission if you make a purchase), I do have new aspirations. Coldicott’s book is a wonderful introduction to the history, personages, and beverages that populate the high-class bars of Tokyo’s upscale neighborhoods. Japanese-style bartending is now all the rage internationally; this book does a fantastic job of explaining just why that is. Best of all, you’ll learn to make hundreds of delicious cocktails along the way.
A Tale of Cocktails
Coldicott is an accomplished journalist with twenty years of Japan and drink-oriented publications to his name. This experience shows; he knows how to write about a beverage and really entice you into experiencing drinking it. Better yet, his knowledge of the cocktail scene in Tokyo is voluminous. He appears to be on speaking terms with all the greats of the Japan bar scene. English-speaking Japanese cocktail evangelist Ueno Hidetsugu of Bar High Five (he of the hand-carved diamond-shaped ice cubes); famed traditionalists like Uyeda Kazuo and martini grandmaster Mori Takao; Kayama Hirayasu of the global-ranking Ben Fiddich. Each cocktail recipe features a name attached, as well as the place where you can drink said cocktail.
The effect is more than a list of mixed beverages. Instead, Coldicott invites us to travel with him from bar to bar, from decade to decade, from drink to drink. You come to know names like Ueno and Uyeda as the rockstars of a profession that features showmanship, ingenuity, and practiced precision. The cocktail recipes you follow along with at home aren’t merely standards; they’re the versions as made by these maestros of the shaker and jigger.
First, though, Coldicott takes the time to establish how Japanese cocktail culture arose, and why it’s now admired by mixed drink enthusiasts worldwide. Though the book is broken down primarily by drink type, this history links directly to the establishments and bartender pedigrees that continue to propagate a specifically Japanese culture of mixology to this day.
A Century of Boozy History
As Coldicott recounts in the opening pages of Tokyo Cocktails, mixology first arrived in Japan in the early years following the fall of the shogunate at the end of 250 years of near-isolation. In 1873, a former captain in the British Royal Navy named George T.M. Purvis took over ownership of Yokohama’s first grand hotel, the International. Here he established the country’s very first cocktail bar, serving officers and merchantmen looking for something fancy in the booming port. A decade later, the International’s major rival, the Grand Hotel, brought experienced hotelier Louis Eppinger across the Pacific; the German-born general manager made the Grand Hotel into a hotspot and is said to have created two of Japan’s most enduring cocktails: the Million Dollar and the Bamboo. Eppinger also trained a generation of bartenders who would go on to spread cocktails across the country.
Hamada Shogo was one such Eppinger protege; in Coldicott’s words, he was “Japan’s first home-grown bar star.” Hamada tended bar at Lion, founded in 1911 as one of Tokyo proper’s first four cocktail bars. Its home was amongst the western-style brick buildings of Ginza; by 1930, the upscale district would host over 600 cafes and bars. WWII brought an end to such frivolities, however. Cocktail bars were just one among the many western cultural artifacts and customs banned during the war. At war’s end, 60% of Japan’s urban spaces lay in ruin, and its economy with it. Food and ingredients were scarce. Fancy mixed drinks would have been out of the question, even if the American occupation hadn’t banned the consumption of alcohol. (A thirsty Japanese populace turned to dangerous bootleg shochu instead.)
Return of the Cocktail
The occupation government legalized alcohol sales in 1949; soon, the cocktails once enjoyed only by American GIs were starting to re-enter civilian space. The 1950s were the era of the Whiskey Highball and Gin Fizz. The occupation ended in 1952, and high-class hotels experienced a boom in the early 1960s to provide housing for international spectators for the era-defining 1964 Tokyo Olympics. With the emergence of such chains as the New Otani, Prince, Okura, and even Hilton came high-class bars for hotel patrons. These spaces would field their own legions of trained bartenders, some still working today.
1968 saw the liberalization of trade laws in Japan, paving the way to more foreign liquors entering the country. The 1980s, meanwhile, marked the beginning of the bubble era. With the Japanese economy going stratospheric, Japanese workers were flush with cash. Imported fruit like limes, once prohibitively expensive, became bar standards – opening up a whole new world of cocktails. So did a host of new foreign booze, the more expensive, the better. The popping of the bubble in 1991 encouraged more thrift – but also more precision in drink ingredient measurements. The 2000s brought modern mixology to Japan, and now Japan is rife with bars that offer complex drinks using locally foraged flora, as well old-guard bars that focus on the classics.
What Sets Japanese Bartending Apart?
Of all places, I first encountered Coldicott’s Tokyo Cocktails at Skaalvenn Distillery, whose well-appointed, wonderful cocktail lounge is tucked away mysteriously in an office lot in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. I was chatting with owner/founder Tyson Schnitker, who patterned the lounge’s style and service after superlative experiences he’d had in Tokyo. (Meanwhile, his distillery’s branding strikes a Norse styling based on Schnitker’s own heritage, while a Cambodian flag hangs in the lounge space – tribute to his wife and fellow co-owner’s heritage.) He spoke effusively about what makes Japanese bartending so amazing, excitedly showing me his copy of Tokyo Cocktails to see if we had any favorite haunts in common.
(Alas, we didn’t. These bars, with their $20-$30-per-drink price tags, were far beyond my college-aged purchase range; even when I returned to Tokyo on regular visits while working in Fukushima, I remained mostly unaware of the storied cocktail bars and prize-winning bartenders throughout the city. When I return to Tokyo, I plan on rectifying that – in large part thanks to this book.)
I later asked Schnitker just what it was about Japanese bartending that so impressed him. He explained it this way.
“It’s the sheer attention to detail. I remember leaving a bar and thinking, ‘that was the pinicle of hospitality in my entire f*cking life.’ Then I went to the next place, and it was even better.”
A Seperate World
High-class Japanese bars are often small, intimate affairs. Some have less than ten seats. Bartenders often have decades of experience; their training often resembles the infamously difficult years-long path taken by sushi disciples. Bartending techniques are sometimes guarded as jealously as a ramen master’s secret recipe. Bartending spaces are kept immaculate; just as immaculate is the hospitality. Bartenders will often walk their guests to the door; sometimes, they will even run downstairs ahead of an elevator to bade departing guests goodbye.
Dedication, an obsession with chasing perfection, presentation, hospitality; these are only part of what has made Japanese cocktail-making so well-regarded in the outside world. Tokyo Cocktails establishes all these facts within its pages, creating a sense of space and history in between its recipes. It’s what helps make the book both a great guide to cocktails, and to the realm of premier Japanese nightlife.
It does so through ten recipe sections. The first is one of the most interesting, focusing on classic cocktails as made by the acclaimed masters of each drink. This grants us a look at some of the most famed bartenders in Japan, their personal histories, and some well-known drinks to start off with – from martinis to sidecars to gin and tonics. Further chapters include drinks invented in Japan (I personally love Eppinger’s smooth, pinneappley Million Dollar); contemporary cocktails; aperitifs; fresh fruit cocktails; daytime drinking; tea cocktails; and even shochu and sake cocktails. It’s a wide range of over 100 recipes, interspersed with interludes on the history of Japanese ice (surprisingly important), the recent gin boom, the rise of Japanese whiskey, and more.
The Perfect Inspiration – and Holdover- Until You Can Get to Tokyo
At the time of this writing, the Japanese border has been essentially closed to foreign visitors for nearly two years. The Japanese bar scene has taken a major hit during the pandemic. Bars have been closed for months on end; the government limited alcohol sales after 8 PM. The text of Tokyo Cocktails, published this year, is aware of what the pandemic is doing to bar culture in the country. Some bars whose recipes are included have since closed; some master bartenders, now in their 80s, have chosen this as the moment to finally retire. For those of us currently outside of Japan, the glitzy high-life of Ginza has rarely felt further away.
Yet all this is part of what makes this book such a welcome escape. If you can’t get to Bar High Five to sample Ueno Hidetsugu’s famous White Lady, you might as well try your hand at your own. Sure, it might not reach his standards of perfection, but it’ll probably still be pretty good. (I know mine was.) Tokyo Cocktails allows you to dive into a world of faraway, dimly lit rooms, imagining being served something near perfection by a master who’s concentrated on little else for longer than you’ve been alive. It’s a great trip through history, and excellent personal inspiration to learn and improve your own bar game, diversifying what you yourself can create. And all the while, it can also provide you with a new ambition – to make the pilgrimage to these hallowed halls of upscale inebriation.
So, Tokyo Cocktails has expanded my perception of a city I already knew quite well. And now, armed with that knowledge, I’m even more excited to finally return. With any luck, it won’t be too long before I’m sitting at Bar Mori, sipping a world-class martini.