Tuesday 14 May 2013

The Art of the Japanese Cocktail

The moga style starts to appear alongside traditional dress

The 1920s saw a rush of modernization in Japan, bringing an interest in Western culture and fashion. Photos, movies and illustrations from the time show a casual coexistence of traditional costume and the new flapper look of the modan gaaru (“modern girl”), or moga for short.

Part of this Western culture was the cocktail, and there are some great posters, matchbooks and other ephemera from the time featuring iconic cocktail glasses worked into very Japanese design. According to modern bartending legend Kazuo Uyeda, the cocktail really took off after the Second World War, at which time “you could find a cocktail shaker in every home and a Martini glass in every hand”. But the Japanese art of bartending developed along its own lines, with the culture’s typical respect for procedure and interest in the subtle stimulation of all the senses. 

This kimono has the cover of a piece of
modern sheet music printed on it
When we decided to have a Japanese-themed event at the Candlelight Club I read Uyeda’s book Cocktail Techniques, originally published in 2000 and finally published in English in 2010 by Mud Puddle Books in New York. I was interested to see how much emphasis he places, in his own creations, on the visual side, often using liqueurs primarily, it seems, for the contribution of their colours. He includes a chart listing hues that can be achieved by combining other colours. For example, the Fantastic Léman, created for a cocktail competition held in Geneva, is named after the French word for Lake Geneva and uses blue curacao to achieve the colour of the lake. (Blue curaçao crops up quite a lot by modern mixological standards, for precisely this reason.) The cocktail M-30 Rain aims for a light greyish-blue shade that Uyeda sees as the colour of this rain.

Uyeda also invented a series of “Coral” cocktails, starting with the “City Coral” and continuing with others the names of which all begin with C. For these he devised a kind of salt rim where he dips the rim of a Champagne flute first into a liqueur—chosen for its colour—then into a deep tray of salt. This creates a line of colourful salt crust part way down the glass that does indeed resemble coral.

In the end we served the Tokio cocktail, invented as the Japanese entry for an international competition, because its gentle pink colour is reminiscent of the April cherry blossom that prompted us to have the party in the first place. Vodka based, it uses rosé vermouth and pink grapefruit liqueur to achieve a subtle flavour that is fruity and floral with a bit of wormwood bitterness at the finish. We also served a cocktail he calls Καλος Κυμα (yes, in Greek characters), which he invented for actress Kyoko Enami, and which combines apricot liqueur with Midori, a bright green Japanese liqueur with a—frankly rather synthetic—melon flavour. Again using vodka as a base that is neutral both in flavour and colour, it has an amber-green hue.

Uyeda is probably most famous as the inventor of the “hard shake”. He feels that all cocktails using fruit juice need to be shaken hard to blend the juice properly and to get air bubbles into the mix. His hard shake combines rapid back-and-forth shaking with rolling and twisting motions—in nautical terms, roll, pitch and yaw, all at the same time. I think the idea is to get as much chilling as quickly as possible to reduce unnecessary dilution; he also prints a chart of his experiments with different sizes, shapes and numbers of pieces of ice, both with shaking and stirring, to see what produces the best chill with least dilution. (For the record he believes a combination of small and large pieces works best.) He also believes in “washing” the ice with a plain water pre-shake, to wear off the corners of the ice pieces, which would otherwise be the parts most prone to melting and diluting the drink.

Καλος Κυμα
Given all this, it is odd that, instead of pouring the finished drink through a fine strainer as some bartenders do, he inverts the shaker completely, holds it low in the glass and gives it a good rattle to make sure all the little shards of ice end up spread across the surface of the drink and are not caught in the shoulder of the shaker. In some videos of him making a Gimlet you will also see him open the shaker, remove a choice piece of ice with a bar spoon and place this in the cocktail. (I have read online that the point of this is to show how spherical the ice piece is, but in his book Uyeda explains that it is simply to keep the drink cool, as the Japanese tradition is to serve Gimlets in a Champagne coupe glass and there is a fear that the width of the glass would otherwise cause the drink to warm up too quickly.) 

Whereas most bartenders use tin-and-glass Boston shakers, Uyeda prefers the Manhattan style shaker with built-in strainer. In a bizarrely unforthcoming interview for Imbibe, when asked why he prefers this kind of shaker, he replies only that, “If you realize how important shaking and mixing are, you will naturally notice that only the three-piece shaker could work out.” Uyeda also doesn’t use speed-pourers, and offers advice in his book on the best way to remove the cap from a bottle.

Despite the visually unusual cocktails he has invented, Uyeda, when asked by Imbibe, says that the cocktails he considers himself most associated with are the Martini and the Gimlet. The latter is a classic combination of gin and Rose’s lime cordial, but Uyeda instead uses lime juice and sugar syrup. His reasoning is: why use preserved lime juice when you can use fresh? But you could argue that this misses the point of the cocktail, in which the distinctive taste of the cordial plays a role.

It’s refreshing to encounter someone like Uyeda who develops all his ideas from first principles, rather than just carrying on tradition and conventional wisdom. (He says he doesn’t go to other people’s bars; he also announces that no one but him can do the hard shake properly, though this must presumably be a logical assumption rather than the result of watching other people try.) I quickly gave up trying to master the hard shake, but I have found myself pouring cocktails in the same way to shake out the ice shards. I’ve always rather liked using Manhattan shakers anyway, and I personally feel that a bit of dilution can be a good thing in a cocktail.