Measure & Stir

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


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Best Tokyo Craft Cocktail Bars – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #12

Hey guys, I’ve owed you this one for a while, but somehow I just never got around to it. This is a roundup post where I’m going to give a quick recap of my cocktail adventures in Tokyo. Mostly I just want a central landing page for this topic. These are all of the bars I visited, along with photographic evidence and some words on my experiences at each one.

I started the series with some thoughts on Japanese Cocktail Philosophy, a kind of recap of my impressions and learnings.

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Craft Cocktail Bars In Tokyo

  • Gen Yamamoto – Gen serves original cocktails that reflect “shiki”, Japanese seasonality, using fresh ingredients while
    building on a progression of flavors and harmony.
  • Bar High Five – Hidetsugu Ueno’s world-famous bar focuses on classic drinks and perfecting customer service.
  • Kazuo Uyeda’s Bar Tender – The one and only, Kazuo Uyeda serves flawless classics along with his award-winning originals.
  • Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bar – Luxurious ambience and some old tiki favorites.
  • Conrad Hotel Bar – Stunning views, but their ambitious mixology needs a little refinement.
  • Bar Benfiddich – The perfect bar in every way. Homey, comfortable, with a true artisan behind the bar. Ben makes his own versions of classic liqueurs such as Chartreuse and Campari.
  • The Stella – A modernist mixology lounge in Ebisu with barrel-aged cocktails, foams, liquid nitrogen, and smoke guns.
  • CodeName: Mixology Akasaka – Molecular mixology at its finest. Don’t miss the rotovap-distilled spirits in drinks such as the blue cheese cognac martini.
  • Bar Trench – A small, intimate venue more in the style of a US or European craft bar.
  • Bar Aliviar – A neighborhood bar mostly catering to locals. A great place to experience the less flashy side of Japanese bartending.
  • Soukichi Glassware Company – A supplier of high quality glassware to many of the bars listed above.

And for those of us who are ready, here is a summary of my thoughts on Japanese Mixology.

Bars that I really wanted to visit but we didn’t quite make it

If you happen to visit one of them, why not write me a guest post?

Kanpai!


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Codename: Mixology, Akasaka – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #7

We still have a few stops left on “Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)”, so let’s make them count!

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Codename:Mixology has a location in Akasaka, and a location next to Tokyo central station. The one by Tokyo station has standards, apparently, and they wouldn’t let us in. Fortunately, the one in Akasaka was willing to entertain riffraff like us. Before we get into the meat of this article, I would like to note that it is located right next to liquor store that carries Lemonhart of both the regular and the 151 variety, and that sells green chartreuse for 30$/bottle.

C:M’s interior was probably my favorite of all the bars on the trip, though it was baroque in its style. As you walk in the door, you are greeted by a rotovape distiller, a freezing centrifuge, and a vaporizer gun, announcing the modernist aspirations of the bar. The inside is lavishly decorated with bottles, bitters, ornate barware and leather-bound books. I did not smell any rich mahogany, but then again, I was getting over a cold.

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C:M had the only bottle of Pappy we saw all trip, and for that matter, their house barrel-aged Manhattan, dubbed “the Manhattan experience” is made with 15-year old Van Winkle rye, Pedro Ximénez sherry, Abbott’s bitters, and a raspberry shrub. I have never had a Manhattan as good as theirs. The particular genius of this drink was to barrel-age a shrub. It sounds obvious once you say it, but I had never realized, prior to this drink, that it is possible to barrel-age a maceration of fruit. Since the vinegar in the shrub acts as a preservative, it is possible to make a drink of this nature.

The menu at C:M explains that their mixology comes in four flavors:
1. Barrel-aging
2. Roto-vape distilling
3. Classic cocktails
4. Other Molecular drinks

And indeed, they have a whole page of barrel-aged drinks, including a mai-tai made with barrel-aged house made mai-tai mix, and a barrel-aged “woodland negroni”, in which a Negroni made with Campari, Amer Picon, and Gin is aged with a house tincture of woodland herbs and spices.

They also had a page of drinks made with rotovape-distilled spirits, including an Asparagus tonic, a Parmesean Vodka martini, and a Blue Cheese Hennessey Martini. They also let us taste a small glass of vodka distilled with foie gras. Let’s just take a moment to talk about rotovapor distillation. Here is an excerpt from Tony Conigliaro’s book The Cocktail Lab, in which he describes the machine:

The Rotovapor is an instrument used to distill a solvent. The purpose of distillation is to separate a given mixture into its components based on their respective volatilities, through the process of evaporation and condensation. What makes the Rotovapor so fantastic is that it has a vacuum. This allows you to evaporate things at lower boiling points because you are evaporating through pressure rather than heat. This is incredibly useful because the less heat you use, the less likely you are to damage or pull apart the more delicate volatiles of an ingredient. Alcohol is a fantastic medium for carrying flavor and volatile aromas. You can extract the purest and freshest flavors from ingredients by removing the water and replacing it with a solvent such as alcohol, gently and at low temperatures. This means your final product has a full spectrum of aroma and flavor notes.

The rotation of the evaporating flask, immersed in a heated water bath, increases the surface area of the product, greatly speeding up distillation and also, through forced convection, keeping the mixture evenly mixed and heated, to promote stable, even evaporation. For example, when distilling rose petals, you have very delicate, small molecules, which too muc hheat would simply burn. With less heat, the delicate molecules are preserved and come through along with the bigger molecules. In this way you have the big picture of what a rose is. What I love about the Rotovapor is that it is one of the most complicated pieces of equipment used in the lab but the products made from it are incredibly poetic.

By the way, if you haven’t read Mr. Conigliaro’s book yet, you really ought to check it out. I will have a book review coming shortly.

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After we each drank a 15 year Van Winkle Manhattan, Dave ordered a “hot bourbon moscow mule” (isn’t that a Kentucky Mule?), Tom ordered a drink made with roughly equal parts of clarified tomato juice and champagne, and I ordered, in fact, the Blue Cheese martini. The rotovape makes it possible to create distillates at room temperature, so it is possible to distill ingredients such as cheese into a spirit, which would otherwise melt and clog up the still.

I am not sure if it sounds appetizing to you, but in fact the flavor of the blue cheese, or at least, the portion of if that was distillable, really did come out in the drink in a unique and delicious way. This was the most interesting martini of my life to date.

mixology5 “Hot Moscow Mule” on the right, and I apologize but I can’t remember the drink on the left.

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Finally, because Dave is a lover of all things tiki, he ordered their mashup of a Piña Colada and a Mai Tai, called “Mai Piña”. To be honest, we both would have preferred if this had been a little more rum-forward, but in true Japanese style, the spirit was soft and light upon the palate. Regardless, that tiki glass is amazing.

Codename:Mixology was astonishingly good. Go there.


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Conrad Hotel Lobby Bar – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #5

Blah blah blah Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)….

Rounding up our trio of bar suggestions from Serious Eats, my companions and I visited the lobby bar of the Conrad Hotel, located in Higashi-Shinbashi, right next to the Park Hyatt, where they filmed Lost In Translation. But Joseph, didn’t you want to visit the famous bar from the movie? Answer: No, I don’t give a dash of a bitters about that. If their biggest achievement is a Manhattan with Carpano Antica, (a fine thing!) then it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The Conrad, on the other hand, is boasting a “mixology” program featuring barrel-aged Negronis and Manhattans, and four “molecular” cocktails, of which we ordered two.

  • Strawberry Cheesecake Topper – Gin, white chocolate liqueur, strawberry puree, and flamed parmagiano reggiano.
  • Edible Campari – Vodka and grapefruit juice, shaken and served over ice, and topped with campari jelly.

They also had a drink with a roasted apple and calvados, and a drink with strawberry and basil. Unfortunately, the Conrad hotel really fell down for us. The service was the most negligent that I have had at any establishment in Japan, and the drinks, though cool in concept, were poorly executed.

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The Strawberry cheesecake topper was overwhelmed by the white chocolate liqueur, to the point that I could scarcely notice the other ingredients in the drink. The flamed parmagiano reggiano on top was tasty, but it was arranged in a little ball in the center of the drink, such that it clumped together and made it difficult to imbibe. It was also fatiguingly rich by the end of the drink.

The edible Campari was similarly problematic. The Campari jelly seems to have been made using xanthan gum, but whatever the hydrocolloid, it stayed completely solid and did not flavor or mix into the drink in any way. We were left simply drinking grapefruit juice and vodka, while the Campari sat in gigantic gelatinous pieces on top of the drink, with no easy way to consume it.

Combine that with the frankly poor service, and I cannot suggest this bar to anyone. The one redeeming feature, and I must grant, it is significant, is that the Conrad bar commands a breathtaking view of the Tokyo harbor. It might be worth a visit just for the view, however you’ll probably want to order wine. =[


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Mandarin Oriental Hotel – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #4

Next up in Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm), we will take a quick detour to visit a couple of hotel bars.

Located on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, the Mandarin Lobby bar commands a beautiful view of the city, and the lounge decor and ambience are truly beautiful. That goes for the entire hotel, in fact. The lobby bar is richly adorned with waterfalls and ceiling-to-floor glass windows. It also has the virtue that it opens at 11 AM, so it can be a great respite from the chaos of the city below, even in the middle of the day.

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This was the second location that I found through the Serious Eats article, but unlike Gen Yamamoto, the drinks were nothing about which to write home (but wait, isn’t that exactly what I’m doing…?) Mandarin offered the full menu of classics that are standard to all Japanese cocktail bars, such as the Manhattan, Gimlet, Daiquiri, and so on, as well as a menu of house cocktails, and a small selection of tiki drinks such as the Mai Tai, Painkiller, and Zombie.

The house cocktails were still painted with that particular seventies palette that contains liberal quantities of blue curacao, midori, and creme de cassis, but their two seasonal cocktails were interesting and unique enough that we ordered both of them.

My drink was a Sakura egg white cocktail, and it contained gin, cherry blossom liqueur, egg white, lemon, and simple syrup. The egg white foam on top of the drink was extremely stable and frothy. It did not mix with the drink, and it did not break down at all. I did not get to see them make it, but I suspect the foam was added using an iSi, which in Japan is called an espuma. The flavor was light and pleasant.

My friend Dave ordered a Champagne cocktail with shiso and light rum. The shiso flavor was very subtle, but the presentation was lovely.

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My friend Tom ordered some kind of grapefruit and vodka drink, colored with the ubiquitous midori and blue curacao. I don’t know if it was delicious, but it was beautiful.

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Dave finished off with a Halekulani, a tiki drink with which I was not familiar, but which used a bourbon base with lime, pineapple juice, and grenadine. This was my favorite drink at the Mandarin. If you find yourself here, my suggestion is to keep it Tiki.

Although the Mandarin lobby bar is everything that you would expect from a world class hotel, I don’t really reccommend it as a serious mixological enterprise. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who are seasoned travelers, but here at Measure and Stir we are committed to giving every cocktail bar a fair shake.


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Bar High Five – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #3

Welcome to episode three of Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm). Today, we are visiting Bar High Five in Ginza.

I did not know what quite what to expect as I came in to Bar High Five. It is located in a bustling restaurant district in Ginza, on the fourth floor of a building full of bars and restaurants. The bar seats about ten, and there are a few small tables to the side. The wall is adorned with awards proclaiming High Five to be one of the fifty best bars in the world. Certainly, their customer service was matched only by Uyeda-san’s Bar Tender. The professionalism and dedication of the staff was truly a thing to behold.

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In terms of the drinks, they were not a “mixology” bar, but more in the classic style. As an adventurous drinker, it is my preference to ask for the bartender’s choice (so long as the bar is not too crowded), and Bar High Five was happy to oblige me. Among the drinks that I and my cohorts enjoyed were:

* A stirred drink made with rye, two types of ginger liqueur, and a black tea liqueur.
* An Alaska with VEP Green Chartreuse
* A Whiskey sour sweetened with grape liqueur
* A “Black Negroni” made with fernet instead of Campari, and garnished with a lemon peel.

They also served the black negroni and the grape whiskey sour to other guests who were in the bar, so I take it those drinks are among their house specialties. Indeed, the senior bartender told us that his grape whiskey sour was a competition winner.

I realized only after the fact that their customer service may have let me down in one minor way. On their website is a menu with some intriguing drinks, but when I and my compatriots entered the bar, they never gave us a menu nor implied that there might be one. It is a small thing, and it does not tarnish the experience, but had I known, I would have ordered differently.

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It is easy to understand why High Five has the reputation that it does. They serve classic drinks with perfect execution, and offer a level of customer service that I have never seen in an American bar. If you are looking for more exotic and adventurous drinks, they might not be the first on your list, but if you are looking for a quintessential experience of a Japanese cocktail bar, this is the place.


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Kazuo Uyeda’s Bar Tender – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #2

Welcome to episode two of Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm). Today, we are visiting Bar Tender in Ginza.

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Ah, Uyeda-san, the grandfather of Japanese bar service. Kazuo Uyeda has made his reputation as the best bartender in Japan and the Magician of Color by winning many cocktail competitions. An enterprising cocktailian would be remiss to have missed his book, which explains his drink philosophies and contains instructions on such details as how to grip a shaker, how to hold a spoon, and how to arrange the bottles on the bar in front of the customer before making his drink. Uyeda-san is also the inventor of the famous “hard shake“, a shaking technique designed to maximize aeration and flavor.

In his own words:

Every Movement Counts

You take the bottle down from the shelf. You twist off the cap. The liquid streams into the glass. Every action is natural and the result of focused concentration. The bartender never shows off and yet nothing is accidental.

Your job as a bartender is to make good cocktails, but it is also important to make them look delicious. To refine your skills, you have to closely study not only the flavor but also the movements that go in to making a cocktail. You have to practice the basics and focus on making your movements flow while presenting a clean, neat image.

The intent isn’t to look cool bur rather to refine the entire cocktail drinking experience for the guest. herein lies the biggest difference between an amateur making cocktails at home and a professional bartender standing in front of the bar doing his job while all eyes are on him.

Tender serves very classic drinks, but the menu is also peppered with Uyeda-san’s original and award-winning drinks. Uyeda’s palette of ingredients is straight out of the seventies, and he uses many ingredients such as blue curaçao, midori, and green tea liqueur to achieve a very specific appearance. His consideration of cocktail colors has earned him the name “the magician of color.” In his book, he explains how he created a drink specifically to match the color of a lake near a cocktail competition that he attended.

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The service at Bar Tender is excellent almost to the point of parody. To be honest, the drinks themselves are a little bit dated, but the honor of being served a drink by such a prestigious and important bartender as Uyeda-san more than makes up for it. He has carefully orchestrated every aspect of the customer experience; as he works his movements are so crisp and consistent that it feels like a ritual. He and his staff all wear white coats, which they somehow manage to keep immaculate even with so many brightly colored spirits flying around.

Because Uyeda-san’s English is not so great, he showed us the entries in his book that pertained to the drinks that he ordered. It greatly enhanced our appreciation to read about the history and thought process that went into each drink.

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This is the Uyeda-san’s original creation, the City Coral. In his own words:

The most noticeable feature of this cocktail is probably the coral frosting on the outside of the glass. Decorating the rim of the glass with colorful liqueurs instead of a fruit juice is a style that has been around for a long time, and this is an extension of that. The first cocktail to popularize this style was the City Coral.

Using this style was a large part of my original intent in creating this cocktail. There is a road spectrum of colors to choose from, depending on the liqueur you use, but blue curaçao and grenadine (which is red) were two colors that did not lose their intensity when combined with salt, so I limited myself to these two ingredients. I combined this style with various cocktails, and found that blue was the best match.

Also, please note that while I say they drinks are slightly dated, that is not to detract from their excellence. They are perfectly made, and there is still much that is of interest to a seeker of novelty such as myself. In fact, it is impressive that Uyeda-san can make midori palatable at all.

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I ordered his original drink “Shungyo,” which is made with sake, vodka, and green tea liqueur, garnished with a salted cherry blossom. I took my time with this drink, and by the end, the flavor of the salted blossom had infused the whole drink, which was very nice. In the words of Uyeda-san:

The Shungyo (which means spring dawn) is a typical Japanese-style cocktail designed to evoke one of Japan’s four seasons. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was through creating these cocktails that I succeeded in establishing my own unique style.

When creating a Japanese-style cocktail, spring is typically represented by a soft hue, summer by primary colors, fall by misty color combinations and winter by warmer colors. Japanese ingredients are used too, such as sake, shochu, umeshu (a plum liqueur) and green tea liqueurs. I decided to use sake in this cocktail.

I started by choosing a name. I wanted to evoke an image of an early spring sunrise, and to do this I planned to incorporate cherry blossoms. I used cherry blossom petals that were salted and then rinsed in warm water to dial back the saltiness. Green was the obvious choice to bring out the beauty of the flour petals. Menthe or midori were too bright for an early spring morning, so I chose a green tea liqueur. I used vodka as a foundation to push the flavor of the Japanese sake to the fore. And, while there is more vodka in the recipe, this is essentially a sake-based cocktail.

It isn’t often that one can recount a cocktail experience in the bartender’s own words! If you are looking for an avant-garde drink, you might want to skip Bar Tender, but if you are a cocktail fanboy like me, then Tender in Ginza should be on your list.


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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.

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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.

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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.