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Book Review: Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails

Japanese Cocktails by Yuri Kato

Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners

Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.

Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.

The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).

From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.

“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”

Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.

The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)

Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).

The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.

Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.

Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.

Japanese Cocktails
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More

by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen

About Marcus
Itinerant photographer and food pornographer.

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