Behind the Bar Stick People

Tokyo’s Gen Yamamoto on the Importance of Balance and Body in a Cocktail

Elegance and purity of flavor characterize Tokyo barman Gen Yamamoto’s hyperseasonal cocktail style. But it’s this cocktail maverick’s ability to control a beverage’s balance––juggling flavors like full-bodied rye, pungent wasabi and delicate yellow peach––that single him, and his namesake bar in the city’s affluent Azabujuban neighborhood, out as one of the world’s most talented bartenders.

At Bar Gen Yamamoto, with its naturalistic Zen feel and wabi-sabi aesthetic, the fall cocktail menu includes sweet potato shochu paired with grape and a drop of dashi, and sake enriched with ground cherries. Yamamoto, who worked in New York City at EN Japanese Brasserie, then at chef David Bouley’s now-defunct Brushstroke before moving back to Tokyo in 2012, sources Japan’s best produce and pairs it with locally and globally sourced specialty liquors. Patrons are invited to embark on an omakase adventure composed of either four ($45), six ($64) or seven ($73) courses, with roughly two-ounce cocktails served in delicate glassware, chilled with hand-chipped ice.

Cocktail with rye, wasabi and yellow peach.

“Fresh produce, liquors and the environment are all ingredients for me,” says Yamamoto, explaining the factors he considers when scheming a new cocktail. “The first process of creation is always to try to understand the ingredients and think about how to expand the flavors.”

In autumn, Yamamoto uses kabocha squash, chestnuts and grapes in his drinks, typically pairing them with brown spirits that have a deep, earthy flavor. By comparison, in summer, he crafts light, floral cocktails using cantaloupe and watermelon to contrast Tokyo’s heat and humidity.

Entrance to Bar Gen Yamamoto.

Yamamoto says that the reason he mixes flavors, typically no more than three to four ingredients, is to either improve upon a product’s intrinsic taste or create a more interesting flavor. He cites the importance of achieving harmony in a drink, and to do that he looks for complementary flavors that expand and spotlight the ingredient’s personality.

Yamamoto’s best cocktails are often low-ABV. He says he feels as though many full-proof spirits can disturb a drink’s balance. “A big punch of alcohol is too noisy” for the drink, he says. Just as important as the balance, he adds, is a cocktail’s body, explaining that he includes small amounts of kombu seaweed tincture and salt to bring weight and structure to some drinks.

Cocktail made with kirsch, fresh prune and ginger.

In Tokyo, a city littered with world-class bars, it’s easy to overlook Yamamoto’s eight-seat counter, made from a single piece of 500-year-old Mizunara oak. But for the last six years, this cocktail shokunin (craftsman) has been quietly mixing and muddling some of the planet’s most thoughtful drinks.

For years, Bar Gen Yamamoto was frequented by cocktail enthusiasts in the know. Then in 2017, it entered The World’s 50 Best Bars list at No. 88. Last year, it jumped to No. 34 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list. With the accolades came a sharp increase in patronage. Snagging a seat at Bar Gen Yamamoto today requires a bit of forethought, as reservations book out at least one week in advance. But the wait is well worth it.