In Japan, it’s not uncommon to find a single strawberry selling for upwards of $10 or a perfectly ripe melon going for $300 or more. As a country utterly devoted to perfectionism and mastering crafts of all disciplines, like growing fruit, the country is home to produce so flavorful that ingredients can taste artificial.
So with an abundance of exquisite fruit with which to mix and muddle, it’s surprising that Japanese bartenders haven’t embraced fruit-first cocktails sooner. While Japan’s older style of mixology leans toward classic pre-Prohibition-era drinks, a new breed of drink professionals is breaking from tradition and using their country’s premium produce to forge the next chapter in Japanese bartending.
Japan’s first cocktail bar dates back to Yokohama during the late 19th century, says Gen Yamamoto, the owner of his namesake bar in Akasaka. “Some Japanese people learned about cocktails at American bases,” says Yamamoto, adding that locals eventually picked Ginza, Tokyo’s then-trendiest neighborhood, in which to open their own bars.
American bartending was put on hold during Prohibition, but the Japanese never experienced such an era, so cocktails continued to flourish. Still today, Tokyo’s tony Ginza is ground zero for high-end Japanese cocktail bars, so much so that the term “Ginza-style” refers to a more classic cocktail-making fashion in which Martinis and Manhattans are served in a quiet, subdued environment by suit-wearing bartenders. Drinking at these bars can feel like a timewarp to the midcentury.
So when husband-and-wife duo Takuo and Sumire Miyanohara hit Ginza in 2007 with Bar Orchard––a 16-seat cocktail den hinged around creative drams made from a mountain of fresh fruit, including the Bath Time (recipe above)––they introduced Tokyo to an entirely new concept.
“Ten years ago, when we started our business, nobody used fresh fruits for cocktails, except for lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit,” says Sumire. The high cost of quality fruit in Japan made it challenging for bars to afford to make such drinks. But over the last decade, bars have changed their operation models to fit fresh fruit into the equation.
Shuzo Nagumo of Tokyo’s Codename bar group agrees, citing the fresh fruit cocktail movements beginning between 2007 and 2009. Nagumo opened his first drinking den, Codename Mixology, shortly after Bar Orchard in 2009. Known as the mad scientist of Tokyo bartenders, Nagumo is lauded for his rogue approach to drinks, incorporating savory flavors as found in his Caprese Martini (house-made basil vodka, tomato, Parmesan, bitters, salt and Genova cream espuma), Tom Yam Cooler (house-made tom yam vodka, tamarind syrup, coriander, lime, white balsamic, ginger beer and Tabasco) and Umami Apple (recipe below).
As to why Japanese fruit is so expensive, Nagumo says farmers reduce the yield of a harvest in order to make the products sweeter. It’s an attempt to gain the maximum flavor from every apple and every plum, says Nagumo. “They may make 10 items to concentrate the nutrition of 100 items” he says. And it’s not only the flavor that’s exceptional but also the color, fragrance and gloss of the fruit.
Presiding over his eight-seat omakase cocktail counter, Yamamoto has become one of Tokyo’s rising stars in the fresh fruit game. Guests can sign up for a four- or six-course set cocktail menu, where Yamamoto builds each drink in front of guests. His menus change daily and rely on carefully sourced fruit from nearby farms.
Signing up for a cocktail tasting menu might sound like a recipe for a hangover, but Yamamoto estimates that his drinks contain only around 10 percent ABV. Coming to his bar isn’t about getting drunk, he says. It’s about imbibing a beautifully blended, seasonal expression of Tokyo.
Daisuke Ito, of four-year-old Land Bar Artisan in Shimbashi, follows a similar ethos. His menu is basically a few pieces of seasonal fruit atop his bar, blended with the guest’s spirit of choice, plus a splash of Fever-Tree tonic. One day, it could be strawberries; the next, tomato. And using just three ingredients––fruit, spirit and tonic––along with crystal clear cubes of ice, he builds stunning flavor-packed drams.
“Originally, Japanese customers preferred traditional cocktails and whisky, but recently I think that they’re seeking new experiences,” says Ito of his decision to open a closet-size, six-seat bar dedicated to fruit.
“The current mainstream of Japanese cocktail making is to combine the spirits with fresh ingredients, rather than using liqueur or flavored syrup” says barman Naofumi Yokoyama of Ginza’s two-and-a-half-year-old Bar Entrust, the Third Place. Here, at his cozy 13-stool counter, beyond a dizzying array of more than 200 Japanese whiskies, Yokoyama offers a concise collection of cocktails built from pristine seasonal fruit, like the Fresh Strawberry (recipe below). Like at Land Bar Artisan, guests can specify their spirit of choice.
“The method of cocktail making in Japan has changed from just introducing the cocktail culture from overseas and adding a twist to a standard cocktail to making cocktails combining fresh ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices with spirits,” says Yokoyama. And while the Japanese may have originally derived their own cocktail inspiration from American bars more than a century ago, today the tables have turned and Americans are looking to the Japanese for bar inspiration, at places like Uchu in New York City and Bar Leather Apron in Honolulu.
In Japan, bartenders also use carefully sourced fresh fruit as “a tool to create an experience,” says Justin Park, the co-owner of Bar Leather Apron. Often, he says, the drink maker will “tie in the story behind the fruit, what prefecture it’s from and why that area does it best.” So the journey begins before the cocktail is even built. “It inspires me to try and recreate that same feeling [of excitement] with the guests that sit in front of me.”