Measure & Stir

A Craft Cocktail Blog for the Home Bartender that Focuses on Original Creations Drawn from Culinary Inspiration.


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Mixology Bar Gen Yamamoto – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #1

Our first stop in what I’ve just now decided to call Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm) was Gen Yamamoto in Azabu-Juban. For those of you who followed the link to the serious eats article, it was the only one they visited that is worth your time. Gen opens his bar at three pm, and we were the first to be seated. Immediately as I walked in, I was struck by the simple elegance and minimalism of the place. The walls are bare, and the only decoration is the beautiful wooden bar counter, which is made of only two pieces of wood cut vertically from a single tree. There are exactly eight seats, all at the bar.

Side note: Huge thanks to ulteriorepicure for letting me use some of his beautiful pictures for this post. You can see the full set of his pics on Flickr, it’s definitely worth a look. It is easy to tell which pictures are his because they are the ones that are well-lit and composed.

The menu at Gen lists only six drinks, which can be ordered a la carte, or as a four or six drink tasting menu. We opted to taste all six, of course. Gen’s drink-making philosophy really exemplifies my understanding of the Japanese approach to cuisine, which is to create flavors that are light, subtle, and thoughtful.

In Gen’s own words:

The tasting course reflects “shiki”, Japanese seasonality, using fresh ingredients while building on a progression of flavors and harmony.

Each drink contained a beautiful expression of a single spirit with a seasonal piece of produce. It is clear from Gen’s drinks and his service that he is very passionate about his work. He exemplifies the Measure and Stir Maxim: “Your drink is only as good as the worst thing you put in it.”

The order of the courses was also smartly chosen, which each drink flowing nicely into the next.

We started with a highball of gin, club soda, spices, and a house-made syrup of Kochi golden ginger. This was the most complicated drink in terms of flavor, because the spice syrup contained ginger, coriander, lemon grass, and clove, among other flavors.

I apologize, but I cannot remember the exact nature of the second drink. I think it used sake, yuzu from Chiba, and a green herb.

kumquats and shochu

The third drink was made with shochu, and a mix of cooked and raw kumquats from Kagawa. It was garnished with tiny pieces of daikon, cut into cubes. They had very little flavor, but provided an intriguing crunch

The fourth was made with vodka and muddled kiwi from Shizuoka Koryoku. In the past I have never cared for vodka, but it’s light and clean flavor is well-suited to Gen’s style, and this trip really helped me to discover its uses.

bloody mary

The fifth was a bloody Mary using an heirloom tomato grown by the Shizuoka Ishiyama family. Apparently it grows in winter. It was unusually sweet and fruity. The flavor of the fresh tomato was beautifully paired with a “rye vodka” (or an unaged rye??) and shiso leaf. This drink was truly spectacular.

We ended with a drink made of white kabocha (japanese pumpkin) from Chiba and a touch of cream. I shamelessly appropriated the above photo of it from DrTomostyle‘s twitter.

After touring through so many bars in Tokyo, I can say with confidence that this is one of the best. If you are anywhere near Azabu-Juban, it is not to be missed. Be warned, though, that it is a patient, contemplative experience. If you’re just looking for a quick drink, it’s probably not the place to go. If you are looking for an elevated experience of Japanese mixology, however, you can’t afford to miss it.


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Tokyo Craft and Mixology Bars

Hello. Normally in this situation a blogger would write something like “I’m not dead, I swear!” but for me, I haven’t posted in three months, and I am clearly dead. Fortunately, I have been post-humously bar-crawling in Tokyo, a journey whose story I shall now recount for your imbibing pleasure. So mix yourself a zombie, ladies and gents, and let’s get reanimated.

As I was gearing up to go to Tokyo, I happened upon this Serious Eats article on the Tokyo cocktail scene. I was intrigued by several of the drinks therein, and I decided to add their recommendations to my list. In the course of my research, I quickly discovered that there is a paucity of resources for the intrepid international drinker looking to make his way through Tokyo. In this series of articles, I aim to (help to) fix that.

Japanese Cocktail Philosophy

I do not know exactly when Japanese bartending branched away from American bartending, but it is clear that when they picked up the art and the practice, it was a much earlier era. This is not to imply that there has been no cross-talk in the interim, but the average Japanese cocktail bar hearkens back to a forgotten era. The Japanese are dedicated students of the classics; their Martinis and Manhattans never lost their vermouth as they did in the states, and their old fashioned never sprouted wings and soda water and muddled pineapple.

All this is not to say that I never saw a bottle of Rose’s, but one certainly suspects that their gimlet was always made with fresh lime. I am aware that there is some debate within the cocktail community as to the truest nature of the gimlet: is a true gimlet a gin lime sour, or is it gin with lime cordial? But regardless, there was never a need for a cocktail revival in Japan, for the patient never died as he did in the USA.

But even though the drinks are classic, the Japanese have made the practice of bartending their own; their culture places a lot more weight on customer service than we do in the states. In a Japanese bar, every aspect of the experience is treated with gravity and precision. Nowhere is this better-illustrated than in Bar Tender, the bar of Kazuo Uyeda, who considers and perfects every motion that the bartender makes, so that doing his work is as much a dance as it is a drink service. There are prescribed ways to hold the jigger and the spoon, prescriptions about how to open the bottle, and where to place it upon the bar. But more on that later.

Another key difference is that the Japanese have lower alcohol tolerance, on average, than most of us Westerners. As such, the pours tend to be smaller, and the drinks tend to be lighter in both alcohol content and flavor. In my efforts to recreate some of the drinks I had on this trip, I have found that I use about one ounce of hard liquor per drink. Chasing a buzz in a Japanese bar can be a tricky proposition.

Subtle Flavors

Although the lightness of drinks is partly practical, it is also a deliberate aesthetic choice, which reflects a distinctly Japanese sensibility. On the internet I found this list of travel tips for a Japanese person visiting the US, and this line struck me:

American food is flat to the taste, indifferent in the subtle difference of taste. There is no such thing there as a little “secret ingredient.” Sugar, salt, pepper, oils, and routine spices are used for family meals.

The Japanese author of the post felt that US food is lacking in subtlety. As silly as it sounds, I carried and developed this awareness as I sat and drank in many Japanese bars. Their flavors lack the visceral punch of popular American cuisine, but they draw attention instead to what is delicate and nuanced. It almost becomes a game: to search in the soft and continuous space of the drink for the borders that delimit its character.

“Mixology” vs. “Cocktail Bar”

As I noted above, Japanese bars mostly stick to the classics, with some small variations. Most of the bars that break out into more modern and original styles, such as what you might find in the US, are called “mixology” bars. Molecular mixology techniques are common in such places. Indeed, the line between “mixology” and “molecular mixology” seemed to be quite blurry, as it is elsewhere.Regardless, “mixology” is the magic incantation that can coerce Japan to yield up its bartending treasures. “Craft Cocktail” did not get me very far.

Tune in tomorrow, where we will talk about some bars.