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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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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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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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.