In 2018, Masahiro Urushido and his business partner James Tune opened Katana kitten, a Japanese-American bar on Hudson Street in New York. The name reflected their unique approach to mixologyâKatana being a samurai sword, embodying “an almost mystical level of precision and craftsmanship”, while Kitten was a nod to their “sense of the game”.
Although it might seem like a new concept, if not contradictory at the time, Katana Kitten quickly established itself as one of the best cocktail bars in the world. and just a year later, it won the coveted Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for Best New American Cocktail Bar, as well as a hotly contested spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list.
âOur core concept was a full-blast Japanese-American bar,â writes Urushido, born in Minowa, a small town in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, in his beautiful new book, The Japanese art of cocktails, co-written by Michael Anstendig and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “Not a Japanese bar in New York City, not a Japanese inspired or themed bar, but rather a hybrid of two great consumer cultures, each equally respected and showcased.”
From Japan, he notes, âwe bring accuracy and a relentless pursuit of perfection, and a respect for classic cocktails, combined with selfless hospitality. We infuse it with a decidedly American penchant for diverse creativity, unique homemade ingredients and fresh from the garden, and a touch of playfulnessâ¦. [Because] The respect of Japanese bartenders for tradition and ritualization still leaves room for experimentation, innovation and kaizen, which means “continuous improvement”.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Japanese whiskey and mixology quickly gained prominence in the United States, a trend that has only intensified since then. As Tatler Philippines recently noted, âTwenty years on from the launch of the craft cocktail revolution in New York City, Asia is at the forefront of the next frontier of beverage slinging innovation. Linking tradition with disciplined craftsmanship and a treasure trove of untapped local ingredients, Asian bars create some of the most exciting and outrageous cocktails in the world.
Urushido and Katana Kitten certainly deserve some of the credit. As author and cocktail historian David Wondrich writes in the introduction to Urushido’s book, âJapanese craftsmanship is renowned for its discipline and precision, and the Japanese bartender is no exception. “
However, “As with so many other trades,” he notes, “there is a higher purpose here: the Japanese bartender has a unique way of weaving the various utilitarian processes and procedures that a bartender uses to mix and match. a drink – from opening the bottles to measuring the ingredients to shake, strain, garnish and present the final drink – in a seamless ritual of secular (though not entirely secular) communion.
Of Urushido, Wondrich writes: âWatching him prepare drinks is an education in grace and elegance. Each of his glasses that I have drunk has been beautiful: subtle, balanced, delicious and presented without pretension or vanity.
Urushido himself examines the underlying principles of Japanese mixology in detail in this gripping book. âI am often asked to define the Japanese bartender and his unique style,â he notes. âThe question is one that I am constantly grappling with because there is no simple answer. Obviously, this involves a lot of touchstones, from the use of specialized bar tools to specific techniques and selected ingredients. But it’s much deeper than that.
During his apprenticeship in Japan, he cut his teeth by making whiskey cocktails. âThe archetype of the whiskey cocktail in Japan is by far the Highball Whiskey,â he writes. âThis is the rocket engine that propelled whiskey to mainstream popularity in Japan and continues to fuel its growthâ¦. At Katana Kitten, the highballs are served as they should be: extremely icy, so the last sparkling sip is just as icy and effervescent as the first. This is the foundation upon which Urushido built a cocktail program that is now widely emulated around the world.
In another enticing new book on Japanese mixology, TOkyo cocktails: an elegant collection of over 100 recipes inspired by the eastern capital, published by Cider Mill Press, Nicholas Coldicott also examines the phenomenon. The popular perception that the Japanese bartender is “a time capsule, a snapshot of the 1920s” is wrong, he writes.
âAcross Tokyo, bartenders are trying to tweak famous cocktails, speeding up or slowing down their brews, rethinking the way they move a cocktail shaker and squeeze a fruit, wondering if the ice in their mixing glass should be shiny or coarse, to how hard she is. should be, and even if they should shorten their restlessness in the summer.
In addition to Japanese whiskey and other Japanese spirits such as Roku Gin which have gained popularity in recent times, “brands such as Beefeater, Bacardi, Courvoisier and Dewar’s are the primary colors of a Japanese bar,” notes Coldicott. , “and [there is] the craft is in aeration, dilution, temperature control and other types of chemistry.
The fact is not lost on Dewar. The famous brand recently launched its very first whiskey aged in Japanese barrels, Dewar’s 8YO Japanese Smooth. The fourth in a series of acclaimed experimental versions from the Scottish Distillery, it is a nod to both their iconic status in the Land of the Rising Sun and the fact that Japanese whiskey is currently the fastest growing segment. fastest among all the whiskeys in the world.
Like Katana Kitten’s fusion of Japanese and American bar culture, Dewar’s Japanese Smooth unites the purity and craftsmanship of Scotland and Japan. The barrels are made from Mizunara oak, native to Japan, which takes 200 years to mature and is much rarer and more expensive than European and American oak; single casks cost over $ 6,000 apiece, ten times more than those made from American oak.
Which did not discourage them. âAt Dewar’s, we are obsessed with sweetness,â said the brand’s acclaimed Master Blender, Stephanie Macleod. Maxim. “With the Dewar’s 8YO Smooth series, we wanted to express the sweetness not only as a texture, but also as a flavor.”
With the Japanese Smooth expression, aged twice and finished in Mizunara barrels, âwe wondered what this intriguing oak species would give to the aromatic profile of Dewar’s 8 years old. So we tested a few barrels last summer and were delighted that after a month changes started to appear in the spirit: more color, more flowers and fruit and more spices.
The finished product, which âpreserves the heather and honey notes of Dewar, while discreetly imparting complex floral and woody notes of sandalwood and luscious lychee,â according to Macleod, is ideal in the classic Japanese highball, served on a spear of clear ice cream with iced soda and a fragrant orange zest.
For a more refined cocktail, Macleod suggests an Old Fashioned Green Tea, made with green tea syrup and orange bitters, “which contrasts perfectly with the spicy cinnamon and rich honey notes of Japanese Smooth”, which was created “with cocktails in mind”. It’s easy to see just how sought-after limited-edition innovative whiskey could become here and abroad, especially in places like Katana Kitten and the many establishments Mr. Caldicott interviewed in Tokyo cocktails, where tradition and innovation go hand in hand.
And there is an extremely apt quote attributed to Gustav Mahler that Macleod quotes when asked about his own approach to combining the two: âTradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fireâ¦â.