Measure & Stir

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


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The Stella – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #9

On the last night of “Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)” we found ourselves visiting three bars in a single night. Stella was the last stop on our journey, and I and mine were feeling quite fatigued. As a result, my memory of this bar is a little bit hazy, like a dream. I regret that our visit was not longer.

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When we entered the Stella, I admit, the decor did not give us the best first impression. It was a little cheesy. First impressions can be deceiving, however, our bartender, Takashi-san, was very skilled, and the drinks that he made were both delicious and creative. Like Codename:Mixology, the Stella is a molecular bar, and they serve drinks that are smoked, frozen, barrel-aged, and otherwise scienced.

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What a menu! For our first round, my friend Tom started with a Truffled Salty Dog, which was made with grapefruit, vodka, truffle essence, and truffle salt. It was exactly as advertised, and I certainly enjoyed it.

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Dave and I both ordered the “LN2 Lemond -196C”, a drink made with red wine, orgeat syrup, lemon juice, and panna cotta foam, but the twist is that both the drink and the foam were frozen using liquid nitrogen, such that it game out more like a granita. You can see it here, NO2 vapor rising lightly from the glass.

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After that we went with Bartender’s choice or “omaksase” as they say in Japan, and he served us a smoked bloody mary “dolce” with cocoa powder. Notice how the glass has a narrow mouth with a little lid to hold in the smoke.

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Also as part of the omakase service, I received an earl gray orange blossom, above, dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with whole spices. Takashi-san let us try a house-made amaro and a barrel-aged house blend of Islay scotches. Delightful.


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Tokyo Craft Bar Trench – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #8

As “Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)” drew to a close, we found ourself in a cozy neighborhood joint known as Bar Trench…

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Gen Yamamoto told us to go to Benfiddich. Benfiddich told us to go to Codename:Mixology. Codename:Mixology told us to go to Bar Trench, and after a chain of suggestions like that, we simply could not say no. Bar Trench turned out to be in Ebisu, only a few minutes from where we were staying, so it was an easy choice. Trench is owned by the same people as a bar two blocks away called Tram, and both describe themselves as “Elixir and Absinthe”. Of all the bars we visited in Tokyo, Trench was the most similar to an American style craft cocktail bar. In fact, if you found Trench in Seattle, you wouldn’t think twice.

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We did not have a lot of time, and honestly, because it was so familiar, the menu had less to offer than a place like Codename:Mixology, but I want to commend them for creating a great atmosphere and for serving us a rock-solid drink, which they called “Gin and Jam”. Every week, they make a new gourmet jam, and then premix it in jam jars with a spirit as a sour. We were lucky enough to get Gin with homemade Apple-cinnamon jam, and everyone at the table drank it in record time. That’s how you know you did something right.

This was a two-man operation when we were there, and right as we were about to leave, the lead bartender came over to our table and hung out with us for a minute, even though the bar was fairly crowded, and he poured us all a shot of Zacapa 23 and took a shot with us. Little things like that can help take a bar from good to great.

Alas, we were a little short on time at this point, and we only had time for one drink. Still, it was a good time, and if you are in Ebisu, and looking for an American-style craft bar, Trench is the place.


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Tokyo Mixology Bar Benfiddich – Tokyo Craft Cocktail Series #6

BONUS EDIT: It appears that the bartender at Benfiddich has a blog!

As most of you are probably aware, I’m in the middle of a series of articles reviewing some of the best bars in Tokyo, a venture which I have unfortunately named “Measure and Stir’s Magical Mixological Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun(tm)”

So alright, that’s enough hotel bars. Let’s get to the good stuff. I would never have found Bar Benfiddich, in Nishi-Shinjuku, without a recommendation from our esteemed bartender at Gen Yamamoto, and I have to say, this was my favorite bar of the trip. Everything about this bar was great. When we sat down at the bar, we were the first customers of the night, and we had the place to ourselves for a good hour. When the bartender asked us what we want, we replied, bartender’s choice, of course. He then asked if we wanted something standard or interesting, and to long-time readers of Measure and Stir, you will know that I could only say “interesting”.

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Immediately, his eyes lit up and he went to work. I have been to bars where the wall is lined with jars full of spices, but usually it strikes me as empty posturing. In the case of Benfiddich, those whole spices are the cornerstone of their drink philosophy. Our bartender produced an enormous stone mortar and pestle, and made a fresh maceration of at least ten different whole spices, which he stirred with vodka and topped with ginger beer, ice, and mint. In such a preparation, the flavors of the spices are robust and very complete, because an infusion of fresh spices can capture very volatile aromas that do not persist for very long after grinding.

He then asked “Do you like Chartreuse?” Academic. He then produced a slender bottle of house-made green chartreuse, and served it to us neat, and in a highball with house-made tonic water. It was love at first sip. I definitely have a new favorite entry in the “& tonic” category of drinks.

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Other highlights of the trip included yet a second maceration of fresh ground spices, this time in the flavor profile of Campari, which he used to make a “no campari” Spumoni. The Spumoni, along with the White Lady, the Salty Dog, and the Nikolaschka (or whatever that drink is called) are classic era cocktails that seem to have found a particular popularity in Japan. Here is a recipe:

3/4 Campari
1 part Grapefruit juice
1 part Tonic water
Shake Campari and Grapefruit juice over ice, then double strain over fresh ice. Top with tonic and garnish with an orange wedge.

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At one point he made us a Manhattan with Carpano Antica and Luxardo cherry. The cherry liqueur really elevated this beyond the level of an ordinary Manhattan.

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My favorite drink of the night was a drink made with copious amounts of muddled shiso and kumquats, but then, I am a fiend for fresh shiso.

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Benfiddich also served us a bloody Mary that was much in line with the one from Gen Yamamoto, but a bit more savory. It was grand.

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I didn’t catch what was in this drink, but it was similar to the cream and kabocha from Gen Yamamoto. It was served in a bamboo vessel that the bartender himself had made. Small touches like this really give Benfiddich a lot of character.

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This drink contained freshly shredded ginger and gin. The ginger flavor was strong, but it did not have much of the heat tha toften comes with fresh ginger.

I almost feel like Benfiddich was Gen Yamamoto’s sister bar, though I do not believe they are affiliated. Like Gen Yamamoto, the bar counter itself is made from a single piece of wood, cut vertically from a tree, and apparently provided by the same company. The decor is rustic, and I felt like I was sitting inside a feudal Japanese apothecary, complete with old wooden lanterns.

The enthusiasm and ingenuity of the bartender really impressed me, and for this reason, Benfiddich was my favorite bar of the trip.


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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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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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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.