Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Rediscovering Japan's Distilled Roots
Japan has a rich but often overlooked history when it comes to distilled spirits. Many associate the country primarily with sake, but the story of Japanese liquor goes much deeper. In recent years, bartenders and mixologists have been rediscovering Japan's distilled roots and using them to create innovative new cocktails.
One of the most iconic Japanese spirits is shochu. Made from ingredients like rice, barley, sweet potatoes, and brown sugar, shochu has been produced in Japan for centuries. During the Edo period between 1603 and 1868, it became a staple beverage and was often enjoyed neat. Shochu fell out of favor after World War II, but is now experiencing a renaissance as younger generations reconnect with tradition. Bottles like iichiko, made in Oita Prefecture, offer floral notes and a smooth finish.
Whisky has also been integral to Japan's distilling identity. The first Japanese whisky distillery opened in the 1920s, inspired by Scottish production methods. But over time, distillers like those at Nikka and Suntory developed their own distinct styles. Japanese whisky tends to be light-bodied with subtle smoky undertones. As demand increases globally, Japanese whisky is being recognized in its own right, not just as an imitation of Scotch.
Beyond shochu and whisky, awamori and umeshu are two other spirits that bartenders are now revisiting. Awamori comes from Okinawa and is distilled from long grain rice. It brings a rich depth to cocktails. Umeshu showcases the flavor of ume fruits, a type of Japanese apricot. With its tart plum taste, umeshu adds nice acidity as a liqueur.
By tapping into these traditional spirits and combining them with modern techniques, bars across New York are allowing locals and tourists alike to better appreciate the nuances of Japanese distilling. Production methods that have been honed over centuries are being highlighted through creative drink recipes. Customer interest has enabled many establishments to expand their Japanese selections beyond the standard Toki whisky or Ozeki sake.
What else is in this post?
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Rediscovering Japan's Distilled Roots
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Shaking Up Sakura Season
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Finding Balance in Umami Bitters
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Channeling Tokyo's Whisky Obsession
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Savoring the Nuances of Sake
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Toasting with Shochu Spirit
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Bringing Izakayas to the East Village
- Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Raising Glasses to Quieter Contemplation
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Shaking Up Sakura Season
Each spring, the blooming of the cherry blossoms marks the start of sakura season in Japan. The fleeting beauty of the pink flowers is celebrated with hanami parties full of food, drink and connection. While the trees may be across the ocean, New York bars are finding ways to capture the festive spirit right here in the city.
When the temperatures start rising and snow melts away, locals begin pining for those cherry blossom views. At bars like the new Niche Niche in SoHo, specialty cocktails provide a taste of spring. Their Sakura Spritz mixes gin with elderflower liqueur, sparking wine, apricot eau de vie, and lemon. It's served in a coupe glass rimmed with matcha powder to evoke the green of the leaves and grass.
"I wanted to design a drink that encapsulates that feeling of an impromptu hanami picnic," explains head bartender Mei Uehara. "The eau de vie adds a subtle stone fruit flavor reminiscent of ume blossoms, while the matcha symbolizes the earthiness of the season."
Up in East Harlem, Yuki Latte has also been shaking up their menu to feature Japanese flavors that pair well with cherry blossom season. Their Sakura Martini combines vodka infused with sakura leaf, dry vermouth, and orange blossom water. It's garnished with a pickled sakura bud. The saltiness of the pickle contrasts nicely with the sweet aromatics.
"I pickle the sakura buds myself using plum vinegar," says co-owner Ayaka Yamaguchi. "It's my way of bottling that spring feeling so New Yorkers can enjoy it even after the actual blossoms are gone."
Over at the Lower East Side's Botanica Bar, they lean into Japanese ingredients to set a hanami mood. Their Sakura Gimlet mixes gin with housemade ume shrub and lime juice. It's served in a glass filled with cherry blossom branches.
"The ume shrub adds a burst of flavor that reminds people of Asian plum wines," head bartender Kenta Sato explains. "Finding cherry tree branches in the city can be tough, but they instantly transport drinkers to the park for hanami."
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Finding Balance in Umami Bitters
Umami has become a buzzword in recent years, but bartenders are looking beyond fad to explore how umami flavors can add balance and depth to cocktails. Bitters have emerged as one of the best vehicles for harnessing umami’s savory, mouthwatering appeal. While chocolate, coffee, and smoke are common amari flavors, Japanese bartenders are also expanding the botanical repertoire to spotlight uniquely Asian tastes.
Yuzu is one citrus gaining traction in umami bitters. The small yellow fruit grows in Japan and Korea and has a flavor profile reminiscent of grapefruit with subtle floral aromatics. Yuzu bitters add acidity to a cocktail while introducing an exotic nuance. Fans laud the way just a few dashes can provide a "flavor bomb" that lifts the drink without overwhelming it.
At his new East Village bar, mixologist Kenji Ito uses housemade yuzu bitters to provide balance in recipes like the Smoky Oolong Old Fashioned. "I add a touch of the bitters to complement the roasted tea notes from the oolong-infused bourbon," he explains. "Together they create an umami richness."
Dashi is another traditional Japanese ingredient being experimented with. The stock made from kelp and dried bonito flakes is central to many Japanese dishes. When turned into bitters, dashi provides savory seaweed and smoky fish flavors with a subtle saline character.
Niche Niche bar director Naomi Hoshi uses dashi bitters to add complexity and prevent drinks from becoming one-dimensionally sweet. Her Sakura Negroni eschews vermouth for gin, Campari, and house dashi bitters. "The bitters bridge together the herbaceous aspects from the gin with the bitter orange from Campari to make a balanced, food-friendly cocktail."
Finally, shiitake mushrooms are offering an earthy umami element to bitters. Popular in Japanese cuisine, shiitakes have a meaty texture and rich taste. Capturing those flavors in bitters can provide an almost beefy mouthfeel.
At his Lower East Side izakaya, bartender Nobu Sakai debuts a Shiitake Penicillin made with Scotch and ginger honey syrup flavored with shiitake bitters. "I got the inspiration for the bitters during a foraging expedition in the Catskills where I found wild shiitakes. They pack so much flavor that just using a few dashes in the cocktail adds this incredible savoriness."
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Channeling Tokyo's Whisky Obsession
Tokyo has become obsessed with whisky over the last decade, and New York mixologists are looking to channel that enthusiasm in inventive new cocktails. Exploring how bartenders are incorporating Japanese styles provides insight into shifting global spirits trends while showcasing NYC's cosmopolitan energy.
As Japan’s own whisky industry has boomed, production has struggled to keep pace with surging local demand. Age statements have been dropped as stocks run low, with blenders having to stretch remaining reserves. Yet Tokyo drinkers remain enamored. Their fascination highlights the multifaceted draws of Japanse whisky, from delicate floral notes to the painstaking care of veteran distillers.
New York bars are striving to let locals savor whiskies that have become scarce commodities in Japan itself. At her newly opened speakeasy in Greenwich Village, proprietor Rei Sato offers 40 different Japanese whiskies including rare single malts from acclaimed Akashi and Chichibu distilleries. She shapes craft cocktails that allow their nuanced flavors to shine.
The Kurayoshi Mizuwari combines Akashi 5 Year and Chichibu Floor Malted with mizuwari, whisky cut with mineral water. In Tokyo, the highball lets patrons enjoy younger or more common drams. But Sato elevates the simple concept to highlight refined single malts. “I want to recreate that feeling of discovery,” she explains, “when New Yorkers taste wonderful Japanese whiskies for the first time.”
Other mixologists curate flights and classes focused on Japanese styles. Matt Veraska’s Lower East Side bar hosts monthly workshops on topics like comparing Yamazaki and Hakushu. “As interest has grown, regulars keep asking to dig deeper,” says Veraska. Through structured tastings, novices gain insight into how unique casks and distillation processes shape each brand’s character.
Some bars explore synergies between Japanese spirits beyond whisky. At his new Prospect Heights izakaya, Ryoichi Adachi pairs sakes with flights of Mars shinshu, a distinctive Japanese single malt. Beyond understated pear flavors, the Iwai Tradition Tokubetsu provides minerality that elevates the whisky’s spicy black pepper finish.
“Too often, pairings feel random or gimmicky,” explains Adachi. “But the right sake actually enhances the experience of tasting Japanese whisky.” Educating patrons on these connections lets them better understand each spirit.
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Savoring the Nuances of Sake
While sake is Japan’s most famous fermented beverage, its nuances are often overlooked. Many simply see it as rice wine served hot or cold. But dedicated izakayas in New York are striving to showcase sake’s complexities through tailored cocktails highlighting how production methods influence flavor.
Common perceptions of sake being harsh or hangover-inducing stem from mass market versions often served too warm. This masks the category’s diversity. Brian MacDuckston, sake expert and owner of new Flatiron lounge Kissako, laments that “just like people wrongly dismiss all whiskies as too smoky, mediocre sakes have warped many drinkers’ perceptions.”
Through his expansive list, MacDuckston aims to demonstrate refined elegance sake can offer. He guides customers through pairings emphasizing how Nigori’s creamy texture balances citrusy gin botanicals in a Sakura Martini. Or how tart yuzu brightens herbaceous Hendrick’s to cut through the Minamo Tokubetsu’s minerality in a Japanese Mule.
By introducing patrons to small-production brewers beyond big brands like Gekkeikan, mixologists expand horizons. At East Village tavern Ichi, manager Megumi Watanabe designs a monthly sake flight highlighting one rural prefecture. November’s focused on Hiroshima, contrasting light tanrei styles with richer koshu. Her inventive recipes included a Jinsei Nigori Old Fashioned, blending bourbon with the unfiltered sake’s stone fruit sweetness.
Watanabe says these tastings attract sake skeptics while deepening devotees’ appreciation: “By focusing on a region, I can connect customers to sake’s foundations - the terroir, the toji brewmasters. People discover so much diversity even within one prefecture.”
Some mixologists find sake best complements Japanese spirits beyond whisky. At his Prospect Heights restaurant Roku, chef Izumi Matsumoto crafts modern kaiseki menus integrating sake-based cocktails. His Kagayaku Pairs Well brings typically dismissed daiginjo upscale by mixing Daishichi Kimoto with absinthe and honey. “The anise notes to bring forward the sake’s layered pear and melon,” explains Matsumoto. “It makes people reassess their notions about daiginjo complexity.”
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Toasting with Shochu Spirit
Shochu has undergone a spirited revival as New York mixologists showcase its flexibility in creative cocktails. While the distilled spirit has long been integral to Japan’s drinking culture, it remains overlooked abroad. Bartenders are striving to bring shochu out of obscurity by highlighting its nuanced expressions. Their enthusiasm has helped spark a newfound appreciation for tradition paired with innovation.
Megumi Watanabe professes her love for the spectrum of flavors shochu offers. At her Upper East Side lounge, she stocks over 80 bottles from across Kyushu. “Shochu rewards experimentation,” she explains. “Depending on the ingredients used, it can bring something delicate like yuzu or robust like brown sugar. There are so many possibilities.” Watanabe's inventive recipes include combining sesame-infused Kuro shochu with ginger syrup and lemon in a Japanese Whisky Sour. She also makes a sweet potato shochu Old Fashioned intensifying the earthiness with chestnut bitters.
Naoko Ishi bubbles with excitement when describing her shochu epiphany. As manager of West Village tavern Shu HanJu, she became determined to resurrect shochu's reputation after sampling smooth artisanal varieties at a distillery on Kyushu. “I was amazed by the complex flavors achieved just through simple ingredients and passion," she recalls. Ishi's list emphasizes small producers and highlights unusual bottlings like her pineapple shochu Martinez. She also offers flights comparing barley, rice and mugi shochus.
Watching patrons discover quality shochu has been immensely gratifying for Rina Sato. At her Midtown restaurant Roku, she stocks unusual Okinawan styles like Kuma shochu made from purple sweet potatoes. “These are very special spirits with long cultural legacies,” Sato explains, “but even in Japan, shochu struggled with a perception of being casual peasant liquor.” She aims to capture New Yorkers’ imaginations through recipes like her Kuma Shochu Mojito sweetened with roasted purple potato syrup. Guests are surprised and delighted by shochu’s approachability.
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Bringing Izakayas to the East Village
The East Village has long been a hub of progressive dining in New York City. While the neighborhood boasts every type of cuisine, it has remained surprisingly devoid of quality izakayas bringing Japanese gastro pub culture to locals and tourists alike. Two new establishments on opposite ends of the area are striving to fill that void by crafting authentic izakaya experiences that transport patrons halfway across the globe with each delicious bite and sip.
On Avenue B, Roku Bar has just opened its doors and is already generating buzz among those craving a modern take on tradition. The team behind Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Roku has turned their talents towards crafting an izakaya menu combining classic fare with innovative new drinks. “We want to immerse New Yorkers in the atmosphere of Japan’s quintessential gastropubs,” explains chef Takeo Ueda. That means everything from chargrilled chicken skewers with sweet miso glaze to potato croquettes paired with whisky highballs.
The kitchen showcases premium ingredients ranging from A5 Miyazaki wagyu to sustainably harvested Hokkaido sea urchin. While dishes riff on izakaya classics, precise technique and subtle tweaks demonstrate refinement without pretension. Meticulous marinades and scratch-made sauces ensure flavors pop with each perfect umami bite. An extensive whisky list highlights sought-after Japanese single malts and signature cocktails add twists like yuzu eau de vie and sake-infused syrups.
Those craving a more traditional izakaya vibe will appreciate Ippudo West on 9th Street. The famed ramen chain has opened a nightlife-driven annex focusing on yakitori skewers and shochu cocktails.Rows of thick cedar tables with sunken seats by the bar immerse patrons in the postwar Showa era when izakayas defined Japanese social culture. “We want to recreate the quintessential neighborhood joint,” says manager Megumi Ueda.
The menu celebrates humble comfort foods from chicken meatballs simmered in broth to pork belly with sweet soy glaze. But fresh specialties keep local regulars coming back night after night. New seafood arrivals from Tsukiji Market inspire daily specials like scallop and monkfish skewers. The shochu list highlights small distilleries and pairs well with selections of pickles. Those seeking a cheap buzz can get the authentic chuhai experience with strong highballs. Late nights bring a lively atmosphere with groups of friends toasting over snacks. “We strive to capture that welcoming, community feeling that defines the izakaya spirit,” says Ueda.
Sip on Tradition: 5 New York Bars Breathing New Life into Japanese Cocktails - Raising Glasses to Quieter Contemplation
While many venture to bars seeking lively ambience, a quieter intimacy can also have its appeal. For those looking to sip and savor in a more relaxed, contemplative setting, New York has options that let patrons focus on the glass in front of them. These hideaways provide a respite from the usual raucousness, giving drinkers space for introspection.
Jiro Tanaka opened his minimalist Midtown lounge after tiring of the constant noise that plagued most Manhattan nightlife spots. “I wanted somewhere customers could appreciate the subtleties of finely crafted drinks without straining to hear each other,” he explains. Tanaka designed the narrow space to absorb sound and mute music to a faint background hum.
With only ten leather seats at the U-shaped bar, reservations are essential for those seeking to secure a coveted spot. The muted palette of walnut and gray accents the hushed atmosphere. Tanaka and his head bartender meticulously prepare each painstakingly garnished cocktail tableside with an almost religious reverence.
“We want the experience to feel like stepping into a private study where you can focus on the artistry in your glass,” says Tanaka. Customers quietly comment on the drinks’ balance and complexity, reading off notes like an oenophile analyzing a glass of burgundy. Even couples on dates sit immersed in their beverages, savoring every subtle flavor unfurling on the palate.
For many, the concept sounded destined to fail in success-driven Manhattan. But patrons seeking more meaningful connections have flocked to Tanaka's urban oasis. Software engineer Samir Shah appreciates the opportunity the lounge offers to truly bond with friends or colleagues without superficial distractions. “It's the perfect spot for a thoughtful tête-à-tête since you can engage in genuine conversation," he remarks. "The drinks encourage a sort of contemplative mindfulness."
Some argue the concept goes against the inherent conviviality of bars. Yet devotees contend the lounge simply caters to another crowd. Freelance writer Alicia Cho enjoys the reprieve from her overstimulating open office. “As an introvert, I find bars usually drain rather than energize me. But here I can recharge my mental energies over a well-crafted Martinez.” She adds, "They've created a true sanctuary for serene pondering."