The Rise of Japanese Cocktail Culture
July 26, 2022 by Helena Lombard
The Japanese cocktail culture has always been an object of fascination, but because of linguistics, it didn’t really spread much further than the East Asian island. In the 2000s (thanks to a new generation of bartenders and some handy polyglots) the Japanese cocktail culture was introduced to the world. Today we get to appreciate their bar tools and techniques, which they have refined over several centuries. Japanese cocktail making is an art form, and we think it’s a thing of beauty.
A quick look at the Japanese cocktail culture
The United States experienced its golden age of cocktails in 1880. At the same time, and on the other side of the Pacific, Japan was in its Meiji era. This was a period when the country was transformed from an isolated feudal society to a more modern nation. This was also a time when Japanese cocktail culture arrived on the island. By the 1920s, prohibition brought the American cocktail scene to a screeching halt, while Japan continued to thrive.
What is a Japanese cocktail?
While Japanese cocktail making isn’t set in stone, there are certain traits that define it. Flavor-wise, they are masters of balance. How you serve it is just as important as the taste and service is elevated into an artful ceremony for patrons to enjoy. At the same time, bartenders are careful to take care of their customers, without annoying them.
Bar tools in Japanese cocktail making
As strange as they are fascinating, the tools that we associate with the Japanese bar scene today are almost all of Western influence.
When Japan opened up to the world during the Meiji era, ambassadors were instructed to bring back as many products and tools as possible representing Western culture. The cocktail did not escape this.
The Japanese appropriated them by developing Japanese cocktail bar tools that are more precise and ergonomic:
The Japanese jigger
More elongated than the classic version, this jigger allows you to be more precise in terms of measurement. Easy to handle so great for novice cocktail makers who want to look the part and make cocktails like pros.
The Yarai mixing glass
This mixing glass takes its name from Japanese diamond pattern engraved on the outside. Made with thermal-resistant glass, the Yarai mixing glass is easy to use. The heavy base allows for easier mixing, while the curved pour spout ensures precision pouring.
The cobbler shaker
While the west has mainly opted for the 2-piece shaker for its simplicity and ease of use, Japan still prefers to use the cobbler shaker. This traditional 3-piece shaker allows for more precise control and better aeration of the cocktail. Because these are not for big batch cocktail making, the cobbler shaker is perfect for at-home use.
The Japanese strainer
The Japanese strainer is made of stainless steel, and is basically a fine sieve that’s used to remove any ice or other solid ingredients like herbs from the cocktail.
Japanese cocktail making techniques
The Japanese style is a real craft that has been perfected over several centuries. Due to their high standards and constant search for perfection, the Japanese cocktail bar scene has developed some super impressive rituals and techniques:
The Highball is a refreshing and low alcoholic drink where you mix a spirit and a non-alcoholic mixer.
Don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity. Even though the Highball only requires two ingredients, its elaboration requires a high level of preparation and expertise.
There are a lot of things to keep top of mind when mixing together a Japanese Highball cocktail. The exact measure of spirits is the first obvious thing. But preserving the bubbles of your mixer (by slowly running it along a bar spoon so it doesn’t touch the ice) is equally important. Even the temperature of the liquids you’re using is monitored so that the ice doesn’t dilute too quickly.
Japanese Whiskey Cocktail
These Japanese whisky cocktails are easy to make at home and are beautifully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
- 1 ¼ oz Japanese whisky
- 4 oz sparkling water
- Lemon or grapefruit peel to garnish
- Fill a highball glass with ice
- Add the whisky and stir with a bar spoon to chill the glass
- Gently pour sparkling water along the side of the glass
- Stir one last time
- Garnish with citrus peel and serve
The hard shake
There are different ways to shake a cocktail, and the hard shake is probably the most popular. This technique was developed in Tokyo and is designed to mix the ingredients effectively—without diluting the drink too much. This method doesn’t simply mean shaking the cocktail as hard as you can, but is essentially a three-point shake that will require practice to master.
The Japanese cocktail scene raised the stakes when it comes to their skill in working with ice. Specific ice is chosen to go with specific cocktails and is carved by hand, with different temperatures also playing a role to achieve the desired result.
The best-known example is “Tokyo Kaikan style” which is the practice of serving an up-drink on a cube of ice. Another popular method is the diamond cut, which is both technical and functional (and impressive to boot). This impressive technique consists of creating a block of ice in the shape of a 24-facet diamond and placing it in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned, for example.
Japan’s contribution to the cocktail scene
Japan’s influence on the cocktail scene might be discreet, but it’s definitely present. From their bar techniques, precision tools, and consumer-orientated service, we love their contribution to our favorite pastime.